Not every school built on contaminated ground ends with parent protests. In some communities, school building projects have helped clean up longtime eyesores, creating safe havens for children while helping revitalize inner-city neighborhoods. That’s just what has happened in an Indianapolis neighborhood saddled with the remnants of industry—chemical drums, rail yards and illegal dumps. One building stood out among the rusty wreckage: The National Motor Vehicle Company. From 1900 to 1924, the company made cars on a massive, five-building campus. Today, one of them serves as the home of the Project School, with expansive casement windows, brick streets and a cheery orange facade.
Terrence Banks, the school’s principal, remembers his first visit to the decrepit factory. “When we saw the space, it was scary. It had a leaking roof and was falling apart.” That didn’t deter Banks or his colleagues. “We saw potential because of how solid the structure is. We knew we could make it beautiful.”
Banks hired a firm to conduct three phases of environmental testing at the building. “We said, ‘Take every precaution necessary.’” That meant putting caution ahead of certain niceties. For instance, a courtyard had to be paved instead of planted, just in case any buried pollution lingered in the soil.
Now in its third year, the Project School provides a compelling example of how school buildings can catalyze community redevelopment. In addition to offering a beautiful school setting, the school reclaimed a green space across the street with 12 raised garden beds, a playground and a basketball court. Moreover, the school has spurred the redevelopment of the factory’s other buildings.
“When people come to see the rest of the warehouse, they see possibilities,” Banks says. Most of the office spaces will go to artists and design companies, providing field trip opportunities for students. Banks admits that the project could have failed. “It took trust from the families—and patience,” he says.