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Monday, June 18, 2012

Making the most of a local asset

Posted By on Mon, Jun 18, 2012 at 4:00 AM

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When people talk about Indianapolis, they almost always mention the fact that the city doesn't feature mountains or a seacoast

When people talk about Indianapolis, they almost always mention the fact that the city doesn't feature mountains or a seacoast. I'm doing it now. It's like we can't help ourselves.

This fixation with our lack of monumental views, the sorts of images that postcards and cable TV travelogues are made of, has had the effect of causing too many of us to overlook the very real assets Indianapolis is built around — our waterways, for example.

For generations, Indianapolis, like many other American cities, looked at rivers and streams as a mixed blessing. They were arteries for commerce, bringing people and business, but they were also a menace and blight, due to flooding, and insofar as waterfronts were known as hardscrabble places where raw materials piled up and workers drank too much.

Indianapolis was especially cursed when it came to its river, the White. Like all rivers, the White was subject to the occasional, catastrophic flood. But unlike the Ohio or Mississippi, the White proved to be innavigable. It wasn't deep enough to float the types of boats capable of turning a river city into a boomtown.

Frustrated with their river's lack of profitability, Indianapolis' early movers and shakers hit upon a bold scheme. Rather than be victims of their geography, they would master it by building what nature failed to provide: a system of canals linking Indiana with eastern markets. In Indianapolis, the Central Canal began construction in 1836.

The railroad made this idea obsolete before it could be completed. To make matters worse, the Panic of 1837 all but bankrupted the state treasury. Funding for the canal, shall we say, dried up.

Eight miles of the Central Canal were dug in Indianapolis before the project was abandoned, running from Broad Ripple to Downtown. Local urban legend has it that a canal digger is buried every 20 feet beneath the towpath.

In 1971, this stretch was declared to be an American Water Landmark by the American Waterworks Association. A large portion of the city's water supply flows between its banks.

In 2010, as Citizens Energy Group prepared to take charge of the city's water, Eden Collaborative, a local urban planning and landscape architectural firm, thought the time was right to come forward with a proposal aimed at turning the canal between the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Indianapolis Art Center into a "world class outdoor recreational arts facility unlike any other in the country." They called it Art2Art.

In a city that often seems transfixed by its seeming lack of natural attractions, A2A is a bright flash of good news. The idea was first brought forth at an urban brainstorming conference last year. It has drawn praise from Mayor Ballard's office and a planning grant from the Central Indiana Community Foundation. Its cost has been estimated at about $10 million.

This money would be well spent. As it is, the canal represents one of Indianapolis' most distinctive features, combining historical resonance with environmental beauty. It represents a chance to make the most of a great, if underutilized, local asset.

The A2A proposal might also be thought of as a kind of preemptive reclaiming of the canal before it falls prey to the clueless conniving of dutiful engineers. It wasn't that long ago that we learned managers responsible for city water wanted to chop down trees along the canal and cover its banks with broken stone in an attempt to prevent erosion. This would have turned one of Indianapolis' most attractive urban amenities into the equivalent of an interstate highway ditch. Fortunately, the public got wind of this dimwitted excuse for resource stewardship in time to raise a ruckus and generate some second, better, thoughts about how to manage the situation.

A2A represents a breakthrough in terms of the city's cultural resources. It marks the first truly substantive association involving the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Indianapolis Art Center. Both institutions have invested heavily in showing connections between the arts and nature — the IMA with its 100 Acres and, over at the IAC, ArtsPark, a riverside sculpture garden. Reimagining the Central Canal as a link between these sites will not only build greater access to both, it will also amplify public understanding that the arts and nature have overlapping stories to tell about the ways we humans can relate to where we live.

Linking art with recreation, as A2A would, seems a particularly good fit for Indianapolis. It's a legitimate way for the city to continue the process of establishing a distinctive creative identity of its own, building on the Cultural Trail, as well as the continuing creation of new bike lanes and the establishment of an ambitious Greenways system during the 1990s.

Most of all, A2A is an inspired attempt to find and celebrate the beauty that already exists in Indianapolis. We may not have those postcard views of mountains and seashores, but we have gems like the Central Canal. Places like these speak to where we've been and who we are. It's time we made the most of them.

For more information about A2A, go to: http://reconnectingtoourwaterways.org/neighborhood/midtown

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