Reconnecting to Our Waterways

Big Car has been a partner in Reconnecting to Our Waterways (ROW), a collective impact initiative designed to reclaim the benefits of Indianapolis’ waterways, since its inception –  so early on, in fact, that we even designed the logo (with some assistance from with Javier Barrera, founder of Latino Youth Collective).

What is ROW?

Fun fact: if you travel anywhere at all in Indianapolis, you likely traverse one or more of our six major waterways on a regular basis.

“Six waterways? What are you talking about?” you may be asking. “I have seen the White River from my car window. That’s one. What about the Canal? Does the canal count?”

Yes! The Canal counts!  There’s also Pogue’s Run, Pleasant Run, Fall Creek, and Little Eagle Creek.  That’s quite a six-fingered handful. And just like a six-fingered hand, they fan out across our fair city, touching so many of our diverse and vibrant neighborhoods.

Our waterways have historically been neglected and are sometimes hard to spot as we drive through the city and they are often choked by the overgrown invasive plants that chokes out their banks. That’s where ROW comes in.  Reconnecting to Our Waterways is a grassroots collective impact organization taking an holistic approach to our waterways for the transformation of our communities. Through generous funding from Kresge Foundation and a partnership with Central Indiana Community Foundation, ROW is making a serious impact.

ROW started in 2011 when Eli Lilly & Co. began looking for a better framework for its Global Day of Service, in order to maximize its overall long-term impact. At the same time, Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) hosted CEOs for Cities National Livability Challenge in October 2010 that proposed 10 big quality of life concepts every American city should consider. “Reconnecting to your waterways” was one of the 10 big concepts.

CICF and Lilly connected in late December of 2011 and by March of 2012, a full-blown community collaboration was born. Since then, a collective impact framework has been established, backbone organizations have been chosen, committees have been formed and neighborhood organizations and associations have been brought in as key partners. ROW, its framework, plans and metrics are a natural extension of the neighborhoods’ fully developed quality of life plans that have been facilitated over the past few years by Indianapolis’ chapter of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC).

ROW is focused in seven specific neighborhoods within a 10-minute walk (half-mile) or 20-minute bike ride (three miles) surrounding the six major waterways: White River/Eagle Creek, Fall Creek, Eagle Creek, Central Canal, Pogues Run, and Pleasant Run. Other areas and neighborhoods will connect in the future.

Our Involvement

Big Car Collaborative has been a long-term partner in this effort to make our waterways cultural destinations with art, nature and beauty everyday for everyone. Since the beginning, Big Car executive director Jim Walker has served on ROW’s steering committee and as chair of the aesthetics committee. Also since ROW’s founding, Big Car’s Design For Good program has developed ROW’s visual branding and produced critical marketing collateral like brochures, flyers, signage, t-shirts, ads, and even viewfinders. Big Car has also helped ROW design, envision and manage large public events, like the annual ROW-port meetings, a bus tour of key waterway destination points, and Launch, a creative placemaking conference in 2014. We were also involved in helping ROW secure a $1.35 million grant from the Kresge foundation, all of which is earmarked for creative placemaking projects along Indianapolis’ waterways.

In 2015, Big Car welcomed Alan Goffinski to the team to  head up waterway efforts as the Creative Placemaker for ROW. The focus is bringing people-centric placemaking experiences to our waterways by facilitating art and culture, and promoting creative engagement of public space along our waterways. By bringing new vibrancy to these spaces, we are building stronger communities.

One huge aspect of this Creative Placemaking endeavor is the coalescence of the creative energy in our communities around our waterways.  This means identifying lead artists for our waterways and strategizing creative placemaking interventions that are relevant to communities. This means promoting a grassroots groundswell of artists who view their local waterway as a canvas or venue for their own brand of community-focused art.  


(Click links for pictures and video)

The Ret-ROW-spective was an exhibition that highlighted the creative work of ROW partners in 2015 and 2016. The interactive portion of the show was held in Car Beauty Center, complete with 3D artifacts from the majority of ROW projects throughout the time period. The photography component of the exhibition was in the Listen Hear gallery, and featured photos of many of the site-specific sculptures and documentation of people enjoying ROW creative placemaking events. 

With support from ROW and Big Car, Canal waterway artist Keith “Wildstyle” Paschell and Jamahl Crouch created a mural to be painted by art classes at IPS School 42. The mural, designed by Crouch, depicts a flying fish jumping out of water and into the sky, representing the message that we can all do the unexpected if we dream big enough.

You never know what kind of treasure you can find when you strap on your gloves for a waterway cleanup! With the help of Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and community volunteers, it was a cinch to clear out some of the miscellaneous items and trash from the banks of the creek between 30th and 34th streets. The coolest of the found objects were taken home by Christopher M. Dance, Little Eagle Creek waterway artist, to become elements of a large new franken-monster sculpture entitled Capacitance, Resistance and Induction.

The Dia de los Muertos celebration (both 2015 and 2016) highlighted the vibrant Mexican culture of residents on the southeast side of Indianapolis. It strengthened ties between cultural groups and celebrated the grand opening of the new Barth St. pedestrian bridge. This celebration highlighted the creative and communal potential of this new community asset. With cultural displays, face painting, games, art, music, and food, this event was a fun-filled collaboration between us and Reconnecting to Our Waterways, Sense Charter School, local artists, Streamlines, the Bates Hendricks Neighborhood Association, and IPS School 31.

This whimsical event was lead by Big Car creative placemakers and enlisted the assistance of friendly cardboard aficionados Know No Stranger to lead participants in transforming bicycles into unicorns for a majestic ride along the Canal Towpath. The ride wrapped up with a visit to Broad Ripple Ice Cream (BRICs) — the perfect end to a unicorn themed bike ride!

This free series explored creative approaches to revitalizing communities and improving public places. It helped attendees learn about placemaking strategies and meet leading thinkers in the fields of environmental art, creative placemaking, and tactical urbanism. In pursuit of a better city, the idea is to get people together to reimagine our public spaces and bring new energy to the city’s waterways.


In his project “Charting Pogue’s Run”, Sean Derry set out to memorialize our native waterway with a long, blue line and iron markers mapping the stream’s 1831 path. Derry will share his perspective and experience of completing such a massive public art project. This event took place in collaboration with the White River Festival.


A 90-minute walk lead by Artist Sean Derry took place along the historical but hidden banks of Pogue’s Run. Participants navigated old-timey maps along our modern city thoroughfares while considering the value of creativity and natural resources in our modern cities. This event took place in collaboration with the White River Festival.


This discussion with renowned Environmental Artist Mary Miss will offered insight into her work and creative process. Additionally, the discussion focused on her StreamLines project underway now in Indianapolis.


During this casual brown-bag lunch, artists involved with Spark discussed placemaking and projects that engage people before.  Artists Stuart Hyatt and Ash Robinson shared their artwork and how they engage in people-focused art.  The conversation included a brief walk around Monument Circle led by Big Car’s Jim Walker.


As Spark: Monument Circle came to a close we gathered to consider the impact of creative placemaking projects. Attendees ate lunch while having a conversation with Australian public space guru David Engwicht.  We discussed the challenges and outcomes of creatively transforming our shared spaces.


 This workshop invited artists to conspire for the good of their communities. Creative placemaking and tactical urbanism experts Anthony Garcia from Miami, and David Engwicht from Australia assisted artists in developing creative interventions for public space along our waterways.


David Engwicht is one of the world’s most inventive thinkers and writers on creating vibrant public spaces. This presentation shared insight from his experiments in Creative Placemaking and explored how they relate to our public spaces in Indianapolis.

This project is a collaboration of many local and national artists.  The Wagon of Wonders (WOW) is a tool for engaging individuals who may not have art or waterway experiences and may not know how to engage either.  The Wagon of Wonders is a large interactive art trailer with one half dedicated as an artistic rendition of a bait shop.  It was visually modeled after the Westside Bait and Tackle Shop, a family business that has been a hub of culture in the Indianapolis fishing community for over 50 years.  When the WOW is stationed near waterways, it is stocked to loan fishing poles to kids and adults and sell bait and tackle provided by Westside.  When the WOW is not near water, a waterway expert provides information, educational games, and fun experiences that bolster system wide awareness and appreciation for our waterways.

No doubt Big Car’s waterway mascot, “Big Carp” has been making a splash at a waterway near you!  Big Carp is excellent at instantly transforming space, welcoming hesitant wallflower types, and partying with fun-loving people of all ages. Also, he’s good friends with Bigfoot. He often accompanies the Wagon of Wonders and is quite fond of a good dance party.  Even when there is no waterway in sight, Big Carp is especially good at sparking conversation and raising awareness about our waterways. Special thanks to the local mascot maniacs at Avant Garb for enthusiastically making Big Carp a possibility.

Volunteer artists and activists engaged trail users in an impromptu finish line celebration for average, everyday canal trail users.  Participants emerged from their hidden positions to surprise runners, bikers, and walkers. Unsuspecting Canal trail users were shifted out of their everyday routine mindset to begin wondering what it would be like to have more public art and trail competition in their public spaces. Everyone also got a big dose of good ol’ fashioned encouragement!

Three public readings were hosted along the bank of the White River in support of author Kevin McKelvey and Silt Loam Press’s publication of the Upper White River Bookmap.  This event included location-inspired collaborative poetry and drawing exercises.  This was a collaboration with White River Festival activities.

In partnership with Garfield Park Baptist Church, near the confluence of Pleasant Run and Bean Creek, the Wagon of Wonders Mobile Bait shop engaged children and adults alike in waterway education games and encouraged attendees to look to their waterways as a source of beauty and recreation

Educational programming and waterway related art games created a spotlight on the nearby Pleasant Run and celebrated the Pleasant Run Trail.  Children and adults learned about the effects of erosion on our landscape and what they can do to help water quality.

Along the White River, this event celebrates local culinary culture and food production.  The mobile bait shop provided a hub for creativity and a highlighted the White River amidst the festivities.

Artists were gathered to assist partygoers in the construction of sculpture pieces composed from trash that was removed from the White River.  Sculptures were displayed at the City Market.

This event was a partnership between ROW, Sense Charter School, the Bates Hendricks Neighborhood Association, and local churches.  The Dia de los Muertos celebration highlighted the vibrant Mexican culture of many of the neighborhood residents and Sense Charter School students at the new Barth St. pedestrian bridge.  This event included invasive plant removal and bulb planting.

Is there any better way to celebrate fall than to jump into an enormous pile of leaves on the creek that shares the season’s name? This event was a partnership with Broadway Methodist church and their artists in residence. After raking the biggest leaf pile you’ve ever seen, we spent hours swan diving into it.  The Wagon of Wonders made an appearance and we made some leafy art projects.  Families brought picnics, lounged in hammocks, and roasted marshmallows to go with their hot cider.

Lead by Pogue’s Run artist Bre Gerard, Local and regional authors Rose Streif, Ryan Felton, and Richard Wehrenberg Jr. provide thoughtful, place-oriented writers’ workshops.   These take place at local coffee shops and book stores and include exploration of Pogue’s Run waterway for inspiration.