A few days ago, Aaron Renn posted a piece on The Urbanophile titled “Why I Don’t Live In Indianapolis” that has prompted a lot of hand-wringing among the design crowd and urbanites here in Indy. Renn, a friend and booster of Indianapolis over the years, essentially slags the city for having no vision when it comes to urban design. It’s tough love, as he sees it, and he makes a lot of good points about boring architecture and the city accepting mediocre design instead of insisting on greatness.
Except that “the city” doesn’t accept anything. “Indianapolis” doesn’t make any decisions. It’s people like you and me who develop and approve the shitty design.
Blaming “Indianapolis” for crappy architecture doesn’t make much sense. Renn calls the situation “a crisis of values” and blames the conservative nature of the state, if not the city, for our mindset. In his view, we’re perfectly capable of being a sports capital because it fits the way we see the world. But high-tech business? Great architecture? That shit’s just not going to fly here.
I’m no designer or urban planner. And maybe these communities in Indianapolis need a good kick in the pants. But blaming the culture of Indianapolis is wrong-headed. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past decade, it’s that Indianapolis offers a great canvas for people who want to make a difference.
Witness the growth of Big Car and the establishment of Service Center and the multicultural community growing on Indy’s northwest side. The establishment of the Indianapolis International Film Festival, which opens this weekend and gets bigger and better every year. The growth of public art (no matter what you think of the art itself).
How about the vibrant local indie music community, or the ongoing success of roller derby? These are both DIY scenes that have grown and flourished precisely because a few people have worked hard to establish them, fought through their challenges, and persevered until the change they wanted took root.
A personal example: ten years ago, some friends and I started Tonic Ball. In a decade, it’s grown from a weird little curiosity to a multi-venue institution that kicks off the holiday season in Indianapolis. Could we have done that in Chicago? Maybe. But the size of Indianapolis makes it easier to turn a good idea into a big deal here.
Which is why I say, stop worrying about “Indianapolis” and start doing things to make it better. Maybe I’m hopelessly naive, but blaming a city for not having better architecture is like blaming it for not having better music. (I know it’s more complicated than that. But still.) It’s not about the city or its “state of mind.” The city is mindless. We have the power to make it whatever we want it to be. I live here because I can make a difference here.
Which, when you get down to it, is Renn’s point. My point is, as long as we blame “the city” or “our mindset,” we’ll never get anything done.
Photo by Jasssmit at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.