Fort Wayne, Indiana
Fort Wayne is a medium sized industrial city in northern Indiana. It is the home of one branch of my family. I spent a lot of time in Fort Wayne, visiting, when I was a child. Those experiences helped shape my thoughts and feelings about the preservation of built environments and of industrial and post-landscapes. Fort Wayne has lost an unfortunate amount of its historic built environment. Many of those losses have been in the central part of the city where many historic buildings have been replaced by parking lots. Fort Wayne initially grew as a port on the Wabash and Eire Canal. Little if any traces remain of that early canal era. Fort Wayne has always had a forward looking and energetic civic culture. The demolitions of historic structures in Fort Wayne's core were often the result of efforts to save or help downtown. Dilapidated old buildings were torn down to make the shopping district more attractive. Cars were accommodated with new surface parking lots to entice businesses and shoppers. Fort Wayne was one of the cities that experimented with a downtown pedestrian mall. As in other cities, the pedestrian mall concept had the opposite of the intended effect. Fort Wayne never launched large scale urban renewal programs and never built an inner city freeway. The lack of a central freeway though was not because it wasn't wanted. Fort Wayne had no freeway service at all until fairly late in the freeway building period. The rush to clean up and adapt has probably served Fort Wayne well in most respects. But it has led to the loss of many priceless historic structures.
Fort Wayne has never suffered the kind of economic calamity that hit nearby cities in the rust belt. It only lost population in one decade, from 1970 to 1980, and that decline was only 3.4%. Fort Wayne has always had a mixed economy. It was less reliant on industry than many of its peers and so has been less affected by de-industrialization. It did have a substantial industrial base though and still has several large manufacturers. I remember the gloom and anxiousness that news of plant closings brought the community in the 70s and 80s. Fort Wayne was once home to a large International Harvester plant, a General Electric Plant, a Fruehauf truck plant, a Magnavox TV plant and others. The air always smelled like burning brakes in the 70s. I never found out which factory caused that smell. My grandmother's second husband worked at a factory that made insulated wire for the Magnavox and GE plants. My great grandfather worked at a knitting mill in town (photo above and below) for his entire working life. The Fruehauf and Harvester plants were bulldozed not long after their closing. The GE plant is still standing (photos below). The knitting mill where my great grandfather worked is still standing having been re-occupied by a casting and machining business in the 1980s. That business, the Ward Corporation, has generally been a good steward of the property leaving most of its historic features intact.
Wayne Knitting Mills was built in 1891 by a German emigrant who recruited fellow Germans to work in the mill. The oldest part of the mill, which is on the right in the photo above, is still standing in its original form. Additions to the mill that were built from 1900 to 1919, to the north of the older part of the mill, were subsequently demolished and replaced by still newer structures. My great grandfather was one of the Germans recruited to work in the mill shortly after it opened. I think it's interesting that in all the visits to Fort Wayne in my youth, I was never once taken to look at the mill my great grandfather worked at. My family, I think, had a fairly typical view of history. There is the intimate personal history- That of personal memories, a house lived in, a school, a church... Then there is public history. What constitutes public history is decided by someone else. It is in the realm of elites and usually tells stories about elites. The places like Wayne Mills, where our ancestors spent their lives, but that we never personally became attached to, are forgotten. Instead we honor the anointed places of public history like the reconstructed Fort Wayne, or a wealthy man's house, even though we have no personal or ancestral attachment to those places. The neighborhood surrounding Wayne Mills, which was the first American neighborhood my German ancestors experienced, is still largely intact. In some small ways, it seems to be rebounding from the neglect of the 80s and 90s.
Fort Wayne has a few inner neighborhoods that show signs of urban dynamism. Many of the lovely old houses in West Central have been renovated. The Wells Street corridor has become a budding Mexican commercial district. Downtown is still quiet but showing signs of life. The massive General Electric motor factory on the southwest side of downtown could play a key role in the revitalization of downtown and the south side in general. The GE plant was built starting in 1911 and added to over the years. It primarily manufactured electric motors and transformers. It was built towards the end of the period when industrial buildings were designed to be attractive. There are plans currently in the works to renovate and reuse at least some of the GE complex's 1.2 million square feet of space. The factory has been sitting empty since 2014 but GE's operations in Fort Wayne had been drastically reduced for years prior to the final closure. If the developer who brought the complex can obtain financing and coax tenants into their development it could be transformative for the southern part of the central city. Hopefully it will work.
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