Indy Star: Inspiring urban neighborhoods is a family affair

Joyce Moore is a long-time resident of Mapleton-Fall Creek. She and her son Justin founded Urban Patch in hopes of rebuilding the sense of community that the neighborhood once had. (Photo: Erika D. Smith/The Star )

Joyce Moore is a long-time resident of Mapleton-Fall Creek. She and her son Justin founded Urban Patch in hopes of rebuilding the sense of community that the neighborhood once had.
(Photo: Erika D. Smith/The Star )

Inspiring urban neighborhoods is a family affair

By Erika D. Smith

“It really started with this picture of my grandfather.”

Justin Moore fished around in the pocket of his suit jacket for his smartphone. He tapped the screen a few times, and found a black and white photo of a distinguished-looking, balding black man. The resemblance to Justin is uncanny.

“He died when my father was young,” he said. “So I never knew him.”

Then Justin did some research.

Albert Moore was the agricultural director for Flanner House in the 1940s and 1950s. He helped build black, inner-city neighborhoods by teaching people how to be self-sufficient. His expertise was in teaching people how to grow their own food and survive on it.

Justin builds neighborhoods, too. Officially, as an urban planner for New York City. And less officially, at the helm of Urban Patch, an organization he founded with his mother, father and brother in Indianapolis.

Urban Patch is every bit an experiment inspired by Albert Moore.

His relatives’ goal? To recreate what Flanner House was in its heyday. We’re talking about teaching people how to grow their own food, how to can it, how to cook it. How to sew so that people can make and repair their own clothing. How to renovate their own homes, repair their own appliances and build their own raingardens. And most of all, how to reconnect with their neighbors and rebuild the social cohesion that has been lost over time.

The only difference between what Albert Moore did and what the Moores are doing now is they’re focusing on the long-depressed, but rapidly growing neighborhood of Mapleton-Fall Creek, instead of the Near Westside neighborhoods near Flanner House. Well, that and the fact the Moores are paying for their experiment mostly out of pocket, while Flanner House had institutional donors.

“We decided this is what we should be doing again,” said Joyce Moore, Justin’s mother. “We have just become consumers. We forgot how to do for ourselves. And it’s important that people know that.”

Nodding, Justin added: “We’re putting together a bit of a blueprint.”

To many older people, and perhaps those who grew up or still live in Central Indiana’s rural communities, all of this may sound like a no-brainer. Of course, you have gardens. Of course, you can food for the winter. Of course, you learn how to repair a leak in your roof. Of course, you depend on your neighbors for help.

But until recently, that sort of thinking had gone by the wayside in urban areas.

There are many reasons for that. Some of it has to do with the proliferation of government safety net programs that have changed the way people meet their basic needs. And some of it has to do with the nonprofit sector moving away from self-sufficiency programs and toward administering services. But most of it has to do with generational poverty, which devastates the social cohesion of communities to a degree that few other things can.

But the type of age-old, self-help philosophy practiced and promoted by the Moores is making a comeback in cities. It’s been happening, however, with mostly white urban pioneers — often twenty-somethings who grew up in the suburbs and are moving into urban areas looking to do something “real.” They’re creating urban gardens and renovating long abandoned homes.

Yet these urban pioneers are often seen as an invading force by long-time residents. Their appearance is seen as the first step toward gentrification, the first step toward being pushed out and priced out of their neighborhood.

So if you ask residents of mostly black Mapleton-Fall Creek about starting their own gardens or renovating the long-abandoned house across the street, they might roll their eyes.

“That’s a big, big part of it,” Justin said. “Getting people to not associate these things with a different population moving in.”

In reality, the things that Urban Patch is doing is no different than what countless black Hoosiers did only a few decades ago. For example, the Moores started a garden on an empty lot at Park Avenue and East 30th Street to grow strawberries, raspberries and apricots. They are very involved with Fall Creek Gardens, a local group that promotes urban gardening among other projects. Joyce’s oldest son, John Jr., painted a mural alongside Fall Creek Gardens’ site on Central Avenue. They also bought and renovated an abandoned home, with Joyce and a few others digging a ditch to fix a flooding problem.

“The traditional community development model calls for doing one big project at a time,” Justin said. “With the self-help model, we’re intentionally doing lots of small projects that people can replicate.”

There is a sense of urgency.

Mapleton-Fall Creek is changing fast. With its location along a major waterway, proximity to Downtown and amenities that include several trails and bikeways, this urban neighborhood is ripe for redevelopment. This was apparent from the attention it got during last week’s National Preservation Conference.

The threat of gentrification is there. And without some sort of social cohesion, without a stronger do-it-yourself philosophy, what’s left of the community of Mapleton-Fall Creek could collapse under the weight of new development and outside investment.

“We’re good neighbors and we don’t have to leave in order for this neighborhood to be better,” Joyce said. “When we see people out there doing things for themselves. When we see people with backyard gardens. When we see people engaging with each other by walking through the neighborhood, by playing in the parks, then we (will) feel that we have been successful.”

Contact Star columnist Erika D. Smith at (317) 444-6424,, on Twitter at @erika_d_smith or at

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