PART TWO OF "THE NEIGHBORHOOD PROJECT"
It’s lunchtime at “The Garf”, The Garfield Park Eatery and Coffee. The restaurant sits on a block of Shelby Street that has seen better days.
Neighbors are excited about The Garf opening: now they have a place to get coffee before work, or take their families for brunch.
Dan Sassano and his husband and business partner, David Sanchez, have lived in Garfield Park for 10 years, working jobs in other parts of town. They didn’t really feel part of the neighborhood until after their son, Santi, was born three years ago.
Dan and David had a light bulb moment when they volunteered at the neighborhood’s Better Block event last October – a kind of street fair where neighbors turn an underutilized area into a bustling fun zone, with music and pop-up shops.
Soon after, they decided to open the Garf.
Now, Dan says he and David are looking forward to watching Santi grow up in Garfield Park.
"I think that even just watching our little guy in the restaurant, I want that for other families," Sassano said. "I want this to be a gathering place for the neighborhood.
For neighborhood association president Jim Simmons, the opening of "The Garf” is part of a greater vision – to bring the neighborhood back to the kind of place it was when he was young.
"In 1957, when I graduated from grade school there were 33 businesses in and around the intersection of Raymond and Shelby; 31 of them were locally owned businesses," Simmons said.
Of those 31 local businesses, only a hardware store is left.
So these days Simmons is focused on finding tenants for a dozen empty and for-sale storefronts on Shelby Street. He’s asked each board member at the association to form a relationship with the owner of a vacant commercial property.
"We do that for two reasons. One, to try to repopulate those empty buildings, but also to gain some measure of, if not control, at least knowledge of what's going to happen with those buildings," Simmons said.
The neighborhood association doesn’t want just any development. Earlier this year they fought the opening of a charter school at the site of an old tanning salon on Shelby Street.
"There's a long list of businesses we’d be happy to have there, Simmons said. "It’s just that a charter school wasn’t on that list."
Derrick Graves, the man behind Responsive Education's plan to open ther charter school, said he thinks a school could have been a "true anchor" in the neighborhood. His organization had approval from the Indiana Charter School Board to open the school, which was meant to serve high school dropouts and kids at risk of dropping out. Responsive Ed operates 30 such "premier high schools" in Texas and Arkansas.
His decision to rent the building – in a commercial development just south of where shelby crosses Raymond Street – was strategic: it’s in a densely populated area, and it’s visible from the highway. It was also sentimental. Like Simmons, Graves grew up on the southside.
"We also thought that by being in that area we could keep families in the area, as opposed to saying well, I have a high school student, he's not being serviced effectively in his local school, we need to move to a township. We thought 'hey, we could bring a premier in and give them another option where they could feel more comfortable in a smaller environment," Graves said.
According to Simmons, if a school had opened near the corner of Shelby and Raymond, an already dangerous traffic situation would have become worse.
In a 2010 state report, Raymond and Shelby was rated among the top 5 percent worst intersections for safety in Indiana.
"The dropout recovery school was going to bring in dozens and dozens of cars every day. if students were being dropped off it meant in and out twice a day," Simmons said.
But Graves said Responsive Ed had a plan. There would be no school buses. Only juniors and seniors would be allowed to park, and knowing the population, many wouldn’t even have cars.
"I also offered to start school 30 minutes later than traditional to get past the morning rush hour. We proposed to dismiss earlier if possible or do a staggered dismissal. We would reimburse students who took the bus. And then you have students that walk," Graves said.
So the neighborhood association, and their city counselor, approached the state charter school board with their concerns about traffic. In the end, Responsive Ed withdrew the lease and asked the state for another year to find a new location.
Maybe it was just bad timing. The city has been planning for years to make that intersection safer; and work is scheduled to start next spring.
So if the traffic situation would have been improved in a few months, did the neighborhood miss out on an opportunity to help struggling kids finish high school?
Simmons said there are other locations in the area that could better accommodate a new school.
"Two, there's already a school here for those kinds of students. Less than a mile from where we're sitting is Christel House Academy, and Christel House has a "Dors" program, a dropout recovery program, run by a young lady who’s originally from the neighborhood," Simmons said.
But as Graves is quick to point out, the Christel House program enrolls only adults– the Responsive Ed school would have served teenagers.
"It didn't work out, and that's fine. but I'm not giving up on the southside yet," Graves said.
Graves is now looking for that new southside location, and planning to open a school next year.
Simmons is looking forward to two more new businesses opening soon on Shelby Street: a bicycle shop, and a pizzeria.
"Tom Batista, the owner of Bluebeard, arguably the hottest restaurant in town and best, Tom has bought the old Pasquale's Pizza, and is gonna rehab that building and bring the best pizza in town to our neighborhood. So there are pluses. And we just have to stay at it," Simmons said.
And at The Garf, business is slowly picking up steam.