A Quick Review of a U.S. City’s Transformations

I moved to Indianapolis last fall. To the surprise of no one who has read about urban spaces in the middle west and elsewhere outside the mega coastal ports (New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco), young professionals like myself are moving to less expensive, less competitive but still challenging, populous but not overcrowded areas, transforming cities like Denver, Nashville, Salt Lake City—and of course Indianapolis—in the process. While I never experienced downtown Indy before arriving in October, I know that it’s changed by looking at the new, clean buildings and by listening to lifetime Hoosiers. Enough people have told me, “there was no ‘Mass. Ave.'” (a major pedestrian and vehicular street filled with local shops, restaurants, bars, a trendy cupcake bakery, and a trendier small-chain ice-cream store that turns cream, flavor, and nitrogen into ice cream before customers’ eyes). They’ve said, “it’s all new,” or “it didn’t used to be like that,” or “you wouldn’t have lived there ten years ago.” It’s different, and that’s uneditorialized fact.

The development gives the impression of changing the city for the better, bringing in more people, more talent, more activities and events; for an outsider like me, it’s hard to tell what is being lost in the process. Remember, this is not New York: space, while not abundant, exists; historically or aesthetically significant structures do not necessarily have to be torn down for luxury apartment buildings to sprout up—which they are doing, seemingly on every block. The meager cityscape will soon be slightly less meager; the city’s tallest structure, the Chase tower, probably won’t hold the height record at fifty stories for long. As someone with no attachment to the city as it was and a growing attachment to the city as it is, I look forward to seeing how it will be. But I’ve never been and certainly am not now a proponent of sprouting luxury towers, and I know that there are certain community losses in development. I can’t help but think, what would Jane Jacobs say?

Indy is a “pocketed” city. There are pockets of places to see, neighborhoods to visit: downtown, safe, fun, and clean, yet increasingly inauthentic and ahistorical; Broad Ripple; Fountain Square, the “up-and-coming” neighborhood; the Old Northside, filled with Victorian homes; the Canal with its green grass, clean sidewalks, and paddle boats and four-person peddle bikes for rent in warm weather. But the pockets never meet; they don’t blend or mesh or flow into one another. In Manhattan, Harlem connects to the Upper East Side, the storefronts shift from discount stores to overpriced dog boutiques in just a few blocks; in Indy, Broad Ripple is akin to Midtown East but the Canal is Park Slope and downtown is Soho and Fountain Square is Long Island City and there are no people outside or well-used transit systems in between. Neighborhoods are separated by non-spaces, black holes of residences, construction, parking lots, and an occasional dollar or liquor store. So while downtown gets bigger and busier, what is connecting it to everything else?

People drive everywhere here. Few, it seems, think a mile is worth walking. Biking is a big deal, but only in warm, sunny weather. Hardly anyone walks, so no one’s throwing around cigarette butts and dropping receipts and coffee sleeves. The sidewalks are clean—really clean, sanitized clean—and mostly even, and they travel all over the city, but are more often empty than filled. Hoosiers pack themselves into bars, restaurants, and stores, then vanish into their cars, apparently never stepping foot on the sidewalk at all. There is a public bus system, but few middle-class residents use it, claiming it to be unreliable, inconvenient, and infrequently run. If you want to go from your apartment in downtown to an art gallery in Fountain Square and end the night at a bar in Broad Ripple, you need a car, or you need the Uber app.

I hope in the next twenty years, the pedestrian culture will grow. The entire city is not walkable, but certain areas are, and the lack of people on the streets is much more striking and disappointing to me than the new development. Maybe those new apartment buildings will have ground-level storefronts. Maybe also enough homeowners will hold on to their historic properties so that the city can retain some of its centuries-old character and enliven one’s stroll as faux-brick facades and cookie-cutter townhouses begin to line the streets. Seriously, what would Jane Jacobs say?

It’s been six months, but I’m still wrapping my head around Indianapolis and its particular intricacies and nuances of history and development. It’s not a huge, bustling city, but it is a city, and there’s a lot to unpack. Stay tuned. And share your own thoughts on this and other expanding cities in the comments.

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