Knights on Shining Armor

photo by Nick White

by Nick White

Their armor isn’t made of steel, their swords are plastic mallets, and their horses are bikes, but the guys who organize Indy Bike Polo have become heroes for Arsenal Park and its surrounding Midtown neighborhood.

These knights show up in the 1400 block of East 46th Street every Sunday at noon for a different type of battle. Yes, there’s jousting at the start of each game, but that’s just a race for the ball in the middle of the court. Instead of playing on horses in open fields, bike polo is more like street hockey on two wheels.

“We’re going into our fifth year here at Arsenal Park,” bike polo player Evan Cromer tells me as we walk up to the court. “Before this, we bounced around and even played under a bridge for awhile.”

The group played all around Indy before striking a deal with Indianapolis Parks and Recreation to set up shop on the old tennis courts in Arsenal Park. Committed recyclers, they lined the court with wooden pallets as backboards to prevent the ball from escaping. They also decorated the exterior with repurposed welcome banners from Super Bowl XLVI, which Indianapolis hosted in 2012.

photo by Nick White

When the group found Arsenal Park, it wasn’t as popular as it had been in the past because of criminal activity in the area. But once the bike polo players established their home court, they weren’t going to back down from problems in the neighborhood. “We just kept showing up,” says Indy Bike Polo organizer Neal Bennett. “We were an ‘eyes on the street’ type of thing. Eventually, it slowly evolved.”

The transformation is evident not only to the group but also to Indy Parks. “They have completely enhanced Arsenal Park and the surrounding area, ” says director Linda Broadfoot. “The club transformed the park’s tennis court into a bike polo oasis.” She added that some team members even relocated closer to the park and now ride their bikes to practice sessions and games.

Improvements in the park brought improvements to the surrounding area. “We attribute the current crime reduction success of North District to its community organizations such as Indianapolis Bicycle Polo and their efforts to help us reduce crime collaboratively,” says Sergeant Michael Wolley, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s North District executive officer.

Sergeant Wolley says the renovation of the park is an example of the broken windows theory. “In short, taking pride in one’s neighborhood by fixing small issues such as broken windows, covering graffiti, fixing vandalism, et cetera, can impact crime. The theory affirms that preventing small crimes helps create an atmosphere of order, which helps to prevent larger crimes.”

The theory is being put into effective practice today. According to Wolley, violent crime is down in the North District, which encompasses the entire northeast quadrant of the city. Specifically, shooting violence has dramatically decreased. In IMPD Beat 16, which includes Arsenal Park, there has been one homicide this year and zero nonfatal shootings. In the case of the homicide, an arrest was made.

Now, on an average weekend around Arsenal Park, you’ll find kids happily riding bikes and playing games, neighbors outside smiling and waving, and bike polo players welcoming friends and spectators. It’s certainly not the atmosphere from years past. “It’s a family atmosphere,” says Bennett as he points to a player’s daughter laughing along the boards.

The bike polo players are invested in continuing to help the area as they evolve and grow themselves. They have adopted an IndyGo bus stop on 46th Street and have opened up their courts to other users, like street hockey players and skateboarders.

The group also welcomes anyone who would like to play or just try out bike polo. There are loaner bikes and equipment available. There is no charge to participate, but players must bring their own helmets.

“We are really open to anyone playing,” says Jose Travez, who has played with the group for three years. “A lot of people will continue to play after trying it. It’s addictive once you score that first goal.”

“We initially built it to be temporary, but now that we’ve been here for a few years we are looking to upgrade and make it more permanent,” says Bennett. To secure the facility, the group is preparing to sign a three-year lease with the city. That lease should help the bike polo group keep the courts busy.

Indianapolis Bike Polo has been bringing in big events since their first year in the park. In fact, they have hosted at least seven tournaments since 2012, including the Indiana State Championships (2012–2016), Slaydy Hawkins (for women) (2014–2016), The Masters (2013–2016), and others like the Heartland Regional Qualifier (2013 and 2015).

“Slaydy Hawkins and the state championships will be here in autumn this year,” says Bennett. “We’ll also be doing a demo at the Indy Criterium bike race in July.”

With so many events the group is riding high at Arsenal Park. And with that recognition they can continue to grow the sport of bike polo in Midtown, Indianapolis, and even the state.

Such commitment means neighborhood revitalization has only just begun—something everyone can agree is good for Indy Bike Polo, Arsenal Park, and the surrounding neighborhood.

Nick White is a freelance writer and photographer living in Meridian-Kessler. A version of this article appeared in the June/July 2017 print edition of the magazine.