Human InterestPersonal History


That was a common phrase spoken by east side teens in the 1950’s and 1960’s. “Downey” was the name given to the most popular teen hangout in the Indianapolis neighborhood, Irvington. It was a shortened version of Downey Avenue Christian Church, and if you had a life back then, or were at all interested in meeting members of the opposite gender, you went to “Downey.” If you wanted to dance, see your friends, or make new “friends,” it was the place to go. It ranked in popularity right up there with Laughner’s drive-in and Jack ‘n Jill’s. “Downey” was the place!

According to their website, “Downey” has been in Irvington since 1875. It is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ denomination, and was an important and influential member of its east side neighborhood. It has always had a “progressive” focus, and still does, today. As I recall, “Downey” was the only church on the east side of Indianapolis to host sock hops every Friday and Saturday night during the school year. That made “Downey” unique because churches didn’t do that sort of thing back then. Our high school, Howe, had sock hops after some home basketball games, but they weren’t that often. “Downey” was every weekend.

“Downey” was located a couple of blocks south of East Washington Street behind Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and Shirley Brothers mortuary. Howe high school was 6 or 7 blocks west of the church so it was in a residential neighborhood with narrow streets and limited parking. Carpooling was advised because parking spots were hard to find.

The dances occurred in a large room in the basement of the church. I remember going down a short stairway and entering the room stage left. The room was rectangular with a tile floor, walls made of painted concrete blocks, and basement windows at the top of the side walls. The place was loud, to say the least, and was dimly lit. The stage was elevated and ran the width of the room. On the stage, the disc jockey played our favorite records, both fast and slow tempo. Over the microphone he would introduce songs and talk to the crowd. More about the DJ later.

Lining the walls was a single row of chairs which were mostly unoccupied because you went there to dance, not sit around. I don’t remember ever sitting down. Most of the kids were from Howe, but Scecina and other schools were represented, too. Girls outnumbered guys so

there was no shortage of dance partners. Dance fast, dance slow, there was always someone to ask—that is, if you had the nerve! 

The DJ was a Howe student named Bill Rucker (no relation to Darius). No one knew how old Bill was or what year he was in school. I don’t think he knew, either. He was tall, heavy set guy, with a deep voice and a face that was just right for radio. His only ambition in life was to play records at “Downey” on Friday and Saturday nights. He was not a good student. In fact, he bragged about failing freshman English 2 or 3 times. He was in one of my English classes. I passed. He didn’t. I don’t know what happened to Bill, but since he wasn’t on the list of any Howe graduating class I know of, I suspect he dropped out of school or moved away. 

“Downey” was a place where memories were made. I have a lot of them. Here are some.

I was too timid and insecure to ask just any girl to dance so I only asked girls I knew would say “yes.” It was less damaging to my self-esteem that way.

The best guy dancer at “Downey” was my friend Jerry Baden. He had a smooth, rhythmic technique the girls loved so all the girls wanted to dance with him.

Rucker played a slow dance song about every third or fourth song. I liked that. It gave guys a chance get close and talk to girls. 

One night, someone set off a canister of tear gas in the dance room. Smoke filled the room immediately, and was so noxious I had to get out of there as soon as possible. My eyes and nose burned like crazy, my nose was stopped up, and my chest hurt to breathe. The tear gas was so irritating I couldn’t breathe, and I vividly remember how frightening it was. 

The meanest bully and toughest guy on the east side was a fella named Eric Dunbar. I didn’t know him, but I knew his reputation because people talked about him all the time. He was partially responsible for a lot of bad memories of “Downey.” He was always getting into fights, and I would hear it announced that Dunbar was going to fight “so-and-so” outside of “Downey” on Friday night. I never saw one of those fights because I avoided those situations. I didn’t think this was something the church leaders ever intended to occur, but it did. In one of those fights, Dunbar almost lost an eye.

My friend, Mike Miller, was dating a girl from Sacred Heart high school. On the sidewalk on the way into “Downey,” Mike was jumped and beaten up by 3 guys he claimed he didn’t know. His date was watching the whole time and said she didn’t know the guys, either. After the assault, Mike felt better enough to take his date home, but Mike and that girl broke up thereafter. That assault was upsetting and was never explained.   

Jerry Baden, my “dancing friend,” was in the Howe choir. After a performance, he and two female choir members picked me up at my home, and we all went to “Downey.” One of the girls was Sandy Bourne, a girl I only knew of. I was suddenly smitten so at “Downey” I asked her to dance. Fortunately, she said yes and that started a relationship that has lasted 63 years. After meeting Sandy, any further memory of “Downey” is a blur. 

“Downey” was an east side institution, indeed. For many years it provided teens a place to meet, socialize, and have fun. We’ll never know many other long term relationships were spawned at “Downey.” It had its good points, certainly, but it was also a meeting point for some people who were up to no good. Despite the bullies getting in fights, the release of tear gas, and the assault of my friend, it was a fun place to go, and I always felt safe. It became a big part of the lives of Irvington (east side) teens during those years of fun and few responsibilities. After graduation, like many high school activities, it faded from my consciousness. “Downey” was what you made of it, and for me, it turned out to be a good thing. 

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  1. Bill, I enjoy reading your autobiography one post at a time. You have a talent for writing and making everything interesting.
    Hope all is well.

  2. Dr. G,
    You are really bringing back so many memories to me about our East Side Highschool memories. My mother and dad volunteered sometimes at Downey. They were in the back in the kitchen cooking hamburgers. I think the church liked having them there because Dad was a detective on the Indianapolis Police Force. Friday nights after basketball and Saturday after football was something to look forward to. Thanks for your memories.
    Bev Gaston Wallace

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