Before a community conversation on Thursday, Lincoln Theatre Executive Director Suzan Bradford discusses front-door and back-door neighbors, inclusion and a modern version of redlining

Suzan Bradford has been on staff at the Lincoln Theatre since the historic Near East Side venue was renovated and reopened in 2009. From her front-row seat on Long Street, she has watched her neighborhood grow and change in the past 10 years.

“The purpose for this theater is to be a catalyst for the economic, artistic and housing growth of this community — to resurrect and revive it. And that has been realized. We see a wealth of renovated homes here,” Bradford said in a recent interview at the Lincoln, where she is the executive director.

But Bradford is also a product of the neighborhood now dubbed the King-Lincoln District (a portion of which is often still referred to by its historic name, Bronzeville). She grew up right on Long Street and remembers taking dance classes at the Lincoln, and that extended history gives her a broader, deeper perspective. “I have seen the community evolve and transform through very young eyes, seasoned eyes and now as a visionary,” she said. 

With increased growth and development come challenges, particularly in the push and pull between preservation and gentrification. Rather than sweep a difficult topic under the rug, Bradford saw a need for a larger discussion in the community, which led to “Community Conversations: Preservation vs. Gentrification,” a free program hosted at the Lincoln on Thursday, Oct. 31, at 6 p.m. (doors open at 5:30 p.m.). Bradford will moderate the discussion with Jack Marchbanks, host of WCBE’s Jazz Sunday and a Lincoln Theatre Association board member. The pair will engage with the audience and a panel of speakers, including local historian Ed Lentz; poet, Streetlight Guild owner and Alive columnist Scott Woods; Lincoln board member Chelsea Barnett; and Creative Control Fest co-founder and King-Lincoln resident Tyiesha Radford Shorts. 

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Though the topic of gentrification in a historically African-American neighborhood can lead to pointed comments and potentially testy interactions, Bradford hopes to keep the discussion free from division while also not shying away from tough questions. “If we can create a space of commonality, then it doesn't have to be a conversation of blame. … Our conversation is really not geared to a definite answer, but to leave with information — to say, ‘How can I be a change agent? How can my residence and the street that I live on be inclusive?’” she said. “These conversations ought to pull your toes back a little bit and say, ‘Hmm.’”

To Bradford, one of the questions underlying the issues of preservation and gentrification is whether people in the community want to be front-door neighbors or back-door neighbors. “Do we just push our garage door, go in that way and exit our home from that space where no one really sees us and we're not forced to be engaged?” she said. 

Interacting as front-door neighbors also means not relying solely on social media and online discussion forums to communicate, Bradford said — a potentially exclusionary phenomenon that some are calling a 21st-century version of redlining. “We can't [be neighborly] if we're just talking to each other through apps,” she said. “It’s twofold. One, this technology … takes away our human interaction. Two, some of the [longtime residents] are not that tech savvy yet.”

Bradford also hopes the conversation touches on resources available to King-Lincoln families on a fixed income who are seeing their property taxes go up as more homes are renovated and purchased by new residents. “There may be city money or neighborhood money or civic association money to help them get a new fence or to paint the fence or to repair the fence,” she said. “What resources are available so that they can stay in their house, and then their value can go up, as well? Because it's kind of lopsided right now. I think when you have that equality of information and resources, then that's going to lead to the equity of the neighborhood.”

When Bradford thinks of the future of King-Lincoln, she draws on her experiences in the neighborhood that span decades. She has seen the community thrive in a way that didn’t displace residents, and she is confident it can happen again. “We lived harmoniously before. We were neighborly before,” she said. “How can we do that now?”