The justice of beauty: A look at infrastructure disparities in Fort Wayne and why they exist

As a graduate architect from Detroit, Mich., Réna Bradley is a passionate believer in the power of places.

She knows from experience that a person's surroundings shape how they see themselves and, by extension, their perceptions of the world. Your community communicates a message, and that message is either one of caring, beauty, and justice, or the opposite: Neglect and blight.

That's why, in Bradley's role as Community Development Director at Bridge of Grace Compassionate Ministries Center in Fort Wayne, she's helping people in the city's Mount Vernon Park Neighborhood find a sense of hope and purpose by improving their physical environment.

“People are more impacted by their environment than they often realize,” Bradley says.

Réna Bradley is Community Development Director at Bridge of Grace Compassionate Ministries Center in Southeast Fort Wayne.

Since Many Nations Church founded Bridge of Grace in 2011, the nonprofit has worked closely with its surrounding neighborhood, kickstarting and hosting neighborhood association meetings and collaborating with residents to acquire and restore dilapidated houses. It has cleaned streets and worked with youth in programs like Bradley's Tired-A-Lot, which transforms vacant lots into vibrant community playgrounds using recycled materials. Bradley even launched an effort to design a set of placemaking banners for the neighborhood, featuring quotes and images of residents themselvesBradley

Along with the obvious benefits of pride and beautification, having a clean, well-designed neighborhood can actually reduce crime in an area. In Bradley and her team's work in Mount Vernon Park, they've seen it happen firsthand. Since 2013, crime in the neighborhood has decreased by about 55 percent, and burglaries alone have dropped 74 percent, according to FBI Uniform Crime statistics from the Fort Wayne Police Department.

But while the benefits of beautification and neighborhood improvements are universal, not all parts of Fort Wayne have equal access to these benefits, and without an organization like Bridge of Grace to intervene and provide support for community members to get engaged, residents can be left in the lurch.

It's a disparity that Fort Wayne City Councilman Glynn Hines, At-Large, noticed impacting his former constituency in the city's Southeast quadrant, a formerly redlined district and one of the lowest income areas in all of Indiana. A resident of Southeast himself, Hines recalls the City's Board of Public Works leading street improvement projects on North and South Anthony Boulevard in 2018.

"The difference was that on the North end of the street, they did infrastructure improvements, like marked parking spaces," Hines says. "The South end didn't get those improvements."

Hines's question was: Why does this disparity exist between two parts of the same street?

A street view of North Anthony Boulevard in 2020.

A street view of South Anthony Boulevard in 2020.
A street view of South Anthony Boulevard in 2020.

Shan Gunawardena, Director of the Public Works Division for the City of Fort Wayne, says there are a few reasons. But to understand the context, you have to start with the way that street improvements are made.

“All improvements on existing streets are identified based on need," Gunawardena says. "We have a pavement rating system where we rate all the street segments we have in the city on a two-year dating basis. Our system is called PASER, and it’s a nationally adopted rating system for types of street pavement. The rating system takes away a lot of the biases and looks specifically at different types of distresses on streets and the extent of those distresses to assign the stress a rating.”

The PASER rating system is used on streets only (not sidewalks), and it rates streets on a system of 1 to 10—1 being the worst and 10 the best. The City has posted on its website a list of all streets rated from 1-3 in Fort Wayne by type: Asphalt, Chip Seal, and Concrete. Anytime a segment is rated 1-3, it is rated for improvement or a full replacement, Gunawardena explains.

“That takes away a lot of the complaints about why we are doing certain streets as opposed to others," he says. "It is entirely based on the rating.”

Streets are rated 1-10 according to the PASER rating system. This is a view of South Anthony Boulevard.

In 2018, improvements made to North Anthony Boulevard were part of two projects: A comprehensive street rehab and a street resurfacing project with traffic calming measures. On the other hand, improvements made to South Anthony Boulevard were part of an asphalt street resurfacing contract, a typical contract the City bids every year, one in each of the city's four quadrants, says John Perlich, Director of Public Information for the City of Fort Wayne.

Following Indiana law, Fort Wayne's Board of Public Works uses a bidding process for its infrastructure improvement projects, which awards each project to the lowest and most responsive bidder.

"We’re not picking and choosing who does the work; it’s based on the bid," Perlich says. "We’re also not picking and choosing how one neighborhood gets something over another."

As in many states across the U.S., this process of awarding projects to the lowest and most responsive bidder is part of an effort to preserve taxpayer dollars. But under this system, areas that have historically faced disinvestment may continue to receive the same treatment without intervention. That's because when the City bids street improvement projects, it merely replaces the existing infrastructure and doesn't add anything new or additional to the project, Gunawardena says. That is, unless a neighborhood association or community advocacy group gets involved and makes the case for a change.

"That’s what happened on North Anthony Boulevard," Gunawardena says. "We have a very active neighborhood association in that area, and they worked with our Community Development department.”

Marked parking spaces along North Anthony Boulevard.No marked parking spaces along South Anthony Boulevard.

By the time the City was ready to rehab North Anthony Boulevard in 2018, the Northside Neighborhood Association had already been proposing street upgrades and even had drawn out plans for what they wanted, Gunawardena says. The South Anthony area did not have this level of advocacy for the same improvements in their part of town.

Perlich clarifies that if the City is doing a simple street repair, they might not have the budget for additional enhancements, even if neighborhoods lobby for them. But if the City can accommodate improvements in the budget, they will attempt to do so, he says.

As a result, Gunawardena encourages residents to get involved at the neighborhood association level in their communities. He encourages them to attend quadrant meetings in their parts of town, which members of his department attend to help citizens incorporate their ideas into City projects. They can also write letters or emails to the Board of Public Works.

"Give us feedback, and we’ll do everything we can," he says. "Neighborhoods can apply for changes, and we can try to appropriate them into a future project.”

North Anthony Boulevard received marked parking spaces, whereas South Anthony Boulevard did not.

But as the climate of 2020 calls cities and states across the U.S. to reexamine their inclusivity measures, the question remains: Is the current system as equitable and accessible as it could be? And what is the true cost—beyond dollars—in Indiana when immediate financial impact largely drives infrastructure improvement decisions?

An October 2019 article in Bloomberg CityLab points to an opportunity for Rust Belt cities to reimagine and capitalize on inclusive community growth, not merely based on finances, but also based on human and environmental factors. But doing this will require a deep level reexamining of long-held protocols and laws. As 2020 prods global thought leaders to reexamine the value of the common good, cities of the future may shift in more equitable directions.

Mo Palmer, a Fort Wayne resident who followed procedures to advocate for street improvements in the past, feels that Fort Wayne's current system favors those who have the time, energy, resources, and connections to prod City officials for the changes they want to see. Palmer

In 2004, Palmer worked with the City to make improvements for another project on North Anthony Boulevard from Crescent Avenue to Coliseum Boulevard. As a long time resident, community advocate and volunteer, Palmer says one of the reasons she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Public Affairs and Environmental Policy was to work for and with the City Planning department. However, after owning and operating a successful landscape company, she decided to start her own landscape design company for do-it-yourselfers instead.

Even with this knowledge she feels that the current process of lobbying for changes to infrastructure is time-consuming and tedious.

“It took five years for the requested improvements to be completed," she says, reflecting on her 2004 experience. "The process involved several monthly meetings, and we had to remain very persistent."

Despite the long wait, Palmer says she didn't run into any resistance from the City regarding the changes she proposed, which included reducing six lanes of traffic down to two, adding a median, and sidewalk improvements. Improvements along North Anthony Boulevard include sidewalk safety markings around schools.

"Since the improvements primarily affected the businesses along that corridor, the resistance to the changes mainly came from the business owners," Palmer says. "Their concerns stemmed from customer accessibility during the long construction phase. In fact, the City was very willing to work with us on the project.”

To other residents who want to see changes in their neighborhoods, Palmer says the first step is to see if your area already has an active neighborhood association. If it does, get involved. If it doesn't, find a way to start one.

“I find that more and more when I talk with people from the City, they want to know that the neighborhood association is in support of whatever proposal is being considered," Palmer says.

Those who are unsure of how to get plugged into their neighborhood association can contact the City of Fort Wayne's Community Liaison, Palermo Galindo, at [email protected]. According to the City of Fort Wayne Neighborhoods webpage, association presidents are encouraged to submit their contact information to be notified of upcoming events and meetings.

As a community advocate, Palmer was recognized as Volunteer of the Year in 2011 by Fort Wayne's Downtown Improvement District. To those looking to get more involved in their community, she says persistence and innovative thinking are key.

“The path for the community advocate can be bumpy and not straightforward," Palmer says. "But if someone really wants to make a change—no matter where they are in the city—I really believe they can get the support of the city to do so."
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.