When disaster strikes, we Hoosiers respond. Tsunami, earthquake, Katrina, tornados in Southern Indiana–you name it. When people are in trouble, we’re ready to help, with millions of dollars and thousands of strong backs.
So why when disaster is looming in our own backyard are we so reticent to get involved?
Perhaps “disaster” is too strong a word. But our urban core neighborhoods in Indianapolis are in trouble. And most people who live in the metro area don’t know or care.
Over the last ten years, metro Indianapolis has grown by about 15 percent–nearly double the U.S. growth average. At the same time, Indianapolis’s core Center Township neighborhoods lost more than 24,000 people.
There are lots of reasons for the loss–and many of them were broached last night at a public conversation called “What’s Next For Neighborhoods” held at the spectacularly revitalized Indiana Landmarks Center. The program was hosted by the Indy office of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping revitalize urban neighborhoods.
(In the interest of full disclosure, LISC has been a client for about eight years; also, My Beautiful Wife works for LISC. I am also an unabashed believer in the idea that great cities have great core neighborhoods–period. So I’m not exactly an unbiased observer.)
Indianapolis has had plenty of urban success stories over the last decade–most notably the development of Mass Ave and now Fountain Square as vital retail, dining, and entertainment districts; and Super Bowl Near Eastside Legacy Project that transformed an entire neighborhood. Bill Taft, LISC Indianapolis executive director, said the Legacy Project is a national model of urban revitalization. “The scope of that project stacks up against anything in the country,” he said.
But there are lots of reasons to be worried, too. The flight to the suburbs is real. Most of Indianapolis’s ten thousand-plus abandoned houses are in Center Township. Our mass transit system is decades out of date and, according to Ron Gifford of the Central Indiana Transit Task Force, can’t support the young professionals who want to live in urban neighborhoods.
Perhaps most distressing, our public schools are a mess. David Harris of The Mind Trust says we’ve been calling the problem “a crisis” for decades. “We should be outraged,” he said. “I don’t understand why there’s not more outrage.”
I think I know. And actually, I think there’s plenty of outrage. The people who live in the suburbs see the problems we face in inner city neighborhoods. They just don’t think the problems apply to them.
In many ways, they’re right. Their schools aren’t failing. Their infrastructure isn’t crumbling. They’re not losing jobs and residents. Survival of the fittest, eh?
Except that, without the urban core, you become a suburb of nothing. You become Detroit: our best modern example of what happens when you abandon your urban core.
Last night, Mark Miles, president and CEO of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, was adamant that putting government in charge of improving our neighborhoods was not the answer. Government has to be a partner, he said–but it shouldn’t take the lead.
Which means that us regular ol’ Hoosiers have to get involved. Which means all of us who call Indianapolis home–whether we live in Cottage Home or Meridian Kessler or Carmel or Noblesville or Greenwood.
A vital city center with attractive, livable, walkable neighborhoods is absolutely essential to the continuing growth and development of the Indianapolis region as a whole. Carmel can (and has) built a new city center, but it will never be Indianapolis. Nor does it aspire to be, nor should it: Carmel’s history and cultural heritage add to Indianapolis’s to create a greater, more vibrant whole.
Mark Miles noted that 40 years ago, a bunch of community leaders got together and decided they needed a “downtown strategy.” They came up with one–and it worked well enough that, this year, Indianapolis hosted the world’s biggest party.
“Rebuilding our urban core,” he said, “has to be our new rallying cry.”
I agree. And we need all the help we can get. If you care about Indianapolis, you ought to care about our neighborhoods. For everybody’s own good.
Photo of Detroit Packard plant by Angelique DuLong (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.