A pair of recent experiences led me to draw connections between two seemingly disparate Indianapolis locations. The first: a meeting at Indiana Avenue’s historic Madame Walker Theatre. The second: a trip to Chispas, a Westside nightclub known for booking some of the biggest bands in the Latin music scene.
The Walker Theatre is one of the last standing remnants from an era when African-American culture ruled Indiana Avenue. During the Avenue’s golden days, the neighborhood’s clubs hosted some of the greatest names in jazz and R&B music. It wasn’t uncommon to see Aretha Franklin play a week-long gig at a tiny hole-in-the-wall, or Cab Calloway and orchestra headlining a grand ballroom. The Avenue’s vibrant nightlife also gave birth to local stars, including Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard.
Considering this information, you might assume the Avenue was praised and lauded by the city officials and arts community of its day. Sadly, that’s not the case. During its prime years, the neighborhood was looked down upon by the dominant majority culture as a dangerous outpost for poor folks and ne’er-do-wells, while the music featured in the Avenue’s clubs was often discredited as unrefined.
The Avenue came into existence as an outgrowth of Jim Crow segregation practices that marginalized African-Americans, forcing them out of the mainstream to create underground worlds of their own. It’s the same style of economic and racial discrimination that has given birth to the immigrant-dominated Westside neighborhood where Chispas nightclub sits. Chispas is one of many immigrant-friendly clubs, restaurants and shops initiating a cultural renaissance in the once-desolate area often referred to as the Lafayette Square Corridor.