Eleven years ago, I’m not sure I could have told you within three square miles where to find “Fountain Square” on a map of Indianapolis. I knew it had a reputation as a rough neighborhood. I had an acquaintance who was fond of juxtaposing his current success in life with his Fountain Square upbringing, as if getting out of Fountain Square alive and unaddicted was a remarkable accomplishment. Emphasis on “getting out”; for decades, not many people had wanted in.
Actually, that’s only partially true. For much of its history, Fountain Square was an important center of commerce, entertainment, worship, and community life. It was “downtown” for Indy’s south side–until suburban development further south started nicking away at the area’s commercial and residential base. When Interstate 65 was build, it cut Fountain Square off from downtown Indianapolis and required the demolition of scores of homes, churches, and businesses. Fountain Square slid into a period of isolation and decline.
But its proximity to downtown and its existing infrastructure made Fountain Square a perennial “next big thing” for a couple of decade. Everyone wanted to see a rebirth here. But that was going to require some leaps of faith and a lot of investment–of cash, of time, of love–to help the neighborhood realize its potential.
That was the state of the neighborhood when we started Tonic Ball at Radio Radio in 2002. There were a few pioneers in the area–Linton and Fern Calvert and their crew at the Fountain Square Theatre Building, Tufty Clough and Roni Donaldson and their crew at Radio Radio, Taki and Jeanette Sawi who’d turned Santorini into the best Greek restaurant in town. There were a few other start-ups–most of whom had just enough money to start a business, but not enough money or experience to actually run one. Lots of well-intentioned entrepreneurs failed.
And there was Southeast Neighborhood Development (SEND), the local community development corporation whose mission was (and is) “to revitalize the near southeast side of Indianapolis and to enhance the quality of life of its diverse spectrum of residents.” SEND had a visionary staff dedicated to fulfilling the promise of Fountain Square. I saw lots of determination in the face of indifference from Paul Baumgarten, who (among a zillion other things) hosted family movie nights in an empty parking lot every Friday night, all summer long; and from Kipp Normand, who knew the difference between gentrification and developing great neighborhoods.
Their zeal was infectious. I fell in love with the neighborhood. I started spending my weekends there. I had to: My Beautiful Wife was usually chairing one event or another.
Still, it was my partner Scott Woolgar who insisted that we move our business to Fountain Square. We were growing and needed new offices. But I’d worked in Broad Ripple for ten years, and I was comfortable there.
Scott knew better. We subleased space from our friend, the very talented designer Paul Wilson, at 1014 Prospect Street behind the Murphy Art Center. We were committed to Fountain Square not just as our client but as the home of our business.
It wasn’t always an easy commitment to keep. Most of our clients had never been to Fountain Square and weren’t exactly sure how to get here. Our lunch options were…limited. There wasn’t a coffee shop.
But we stayed. And we grew. We took over all of 1014 Prospect, then expanded into the carriage house next door.
And while we were busy growing, Fountain Square was changing. New restaurants and bars–Siam Square, Naisa, Pure Eatery, the Red Lion Grog House, the Brass Ring–and retailers–Joe’s Cycles, IndySwank–moved in and started to attract attention. Young musicians looking for a home different from the cover-band land Broad Ripple had become joined the young visual artists who’d lived in Fountain Square for years. All of a sudden, our little corner of town was becoming a destination for a new generation of independent-minded Indianapolitans.
So when our business ran out of room on Prospect Street, the decision to stay in Fountain Square was an easy one; in fact, we didn’t really look anywhere else. We were fortunate, too, that our friends Craig Von Deylen and Larry Jones, owners of the Murphy Art Center, had 6,000 square feet of great storefront space to build out for us.
Today’s our first day at our new offices. We’re still in move-in mode, so I’m not going to share a bunch of pictures yet. But we’re happy. Our new space is a blend of rustic and modern, reclaimed and fabricated, that suits us. We’re looking forward to showing it off.
And we’re happy we work in Fountain Square. It’s not the “next big thing” anymore. It’s an actual thing.