Indy-based non-profit breathes new life into old materials.
“One man gathers what another man spills.”
This could certainly be the motto of the Indianapolis program People for Urban Progress, also known as PUP. The non-profit organization scours the city for aging building material it can repurpose that otherwise would be destined for a landfill.
PUP is in its 10th year of operation and for the first time its procurement sourcing has come from outside of the crossroads of America. The PUP team of 12 artisans is working with old, Amtrak Acela Express train seat leather to produce a line of attractive bags and totes.
“People for Urban Progress is a social non-profit enterprise, so what we do is work like repurposing industrial materials and we also focus on urban design,” said Executive Director Andrea Cowley. “We use the money from the sale of our products to do urban design work in the city of Indianapolis.”
The current project PUP is undertaking is repurposing seat leather from the Acela trains, which offer high-speed service between Washington, D.C. and Boston. PUP is painstakingly cleaning, cutting and sewing the seats and creating attractive bags for sale. This was done previously from old Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines seats.
Preparing the leather of the train seats is a major project from start to finish. PUP is going to repurpose a 20-train set of five cars each which will equal 12,160 seats. Before upcycling the leather from worn seats, the train cars go to Delaware to be disassembled and then the seats are sent to Atlanta to be further disassembled. Only then are they are sent to PUP in Indianapolis where all the foam padding is removed, and the leather is left for the PUP team to clean, create and design.
“There is a ton of sewing involved,” said Cowley. “At this point we have five sewers and they are really busy right now because what has to happen is once we get those leather covers, they still need to be cleaned and cut down. We have templates that all the patterns need to be cut out. So, once we get them there still is a lot of work to do for them.
“They are a pretty slate blue and we actually have first class seats that are a bit of a different color. They are slightly thicker leather, and they are a brighter blue. From the first-class seats we’ve made a really cool Weekender bag, which is like an elegant duffle bag.”
PUP is creating four attractive bags right now but expects to increase its inventory to seven unique designs. Currently, the repurposed bags are sold out, but a new batch will be available to the public in the first quarter of 2019.
The initial release of the PUP bags in October of 2018 contained 150 items. Among those were the Passenger tote and a Dopp kit, which is a compact men’s shaving bag. Rounding out the product line is a backpack – referred to as the Agent --- and the Weekender travel bag, which is called the Conductor.
“People are obsessed with trains,” said Cowley.” They really love their train travel. The type of people and the way we’ve been selling them has been very interesting. We had a man come in and he’s a big rail fan and he actually had these laminated sheets of every train he’s ridden on. So, he was super excited to carry the Amtrak bag with him.
“People have a real love for Amtrak and for train travel. This project has really brought us national attention. People that use the Acela are on the East Coast, so it has been kind of cool to have part of the train in Indianapolis. People from all over the country are now buying these bags.”
The People for Urban Progress began in 2009 when co-founder Michael Bricker, a set designer and architect, became curious about the roof of the Hoosier Dome, the then-home to the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. The stadium was slated to be torn down as the Colts were moving into the new Lucas Oil Football Stadium.
Bricker discovered the roof of the Hoosier Dome was made of Teflon-coated fiberglass and had an acoustic soft membrane. Bricker realized that this was an amazing resource that was going into the garbage dump, so he and his partners convinced the city to take down the roof in a more equitable way allowing PUP to begin its recycling existence with 13 acres of the Hoosier Dome fabric.
“We are not only interested in how the city has aged but with what we are doing with the resources that come with revitalization.” Andrea Cowley, PUP Executive Director
It is now 10 years later, and PUP has enough material from the Hoosier Dome roof to continue making products for the next two years. The many designs were created by Bricker’s fraternal twin sister, Jessica, who Cowley says worked her magic creating many prototypes in a two-month time frame with these discarded industrial materials.
“The secret to our PUP success is the design team and how innovative they are because Jessica and her team are just incredible,” said Cowley. “They take these dirty objects and turn them into beautiful bags which is a true testament to their talent.
“The first batch of products – about 1,000 pieces – that we made from the Hoosier Dome roof raised about $70,000 which was reinvested back into the city structure,” said Cowley. “The material from the Hoosier Dome roof was repurposed into a variety of fashion accessories, including purses, tote bags, weekender bags and clutches. The roof material had two layers – a softer two-pickle membrane and the hard dome which is Teflon-coated fiberglass, so it is waterproof and indestructible. That’s what we make most of our bags out of.”
PUP has also taken 5,000 old seats from Bush Stadium, home to the local minor-league baseball team, that was torn down. Many of the seats were converted into bus stop seats throughout Indianapolis. The PUP group has also repurposed redwood boards that have been stripped out of parking garages and made furniture – chairs, benches, picnic tables – for the city’s local campuses.
Butler University is in Indianapolis and PUP was there when the university updated historic Hinkle Fieldhouse. The old seats were repurposed by PUP and sold in short order because of the die-hard nature of Butler basketball fans.
“We are not only interested in how the city has aged but with what we are doing with the resources that come with revitalization,” said Cowley. “We are really interested in connectivity and transportation options because we don’t do a great job of that in the Midwest.”
“All the money raised is used by us to help address the problems in the city of Indianapolis and we really do hope there are other cities that are interested starting their own PUP chapters, so if somebody is really great in Atlanta with sheet metal, they could come up with their own program.
“The more people that are interested in sustainable fashion and American manufacturing, for us, we can scale this business and make it viable and create a demand for our products.
“The interesting thing for us is to be able to grow our workforce and be able to employ more makers from our community and keep this business growing. We have a whole challenge ahead of us to make sure these products continue to go on.
“We really look at it as small batch manufacturing.”