I was having lunch with a friend near Fountain Square. It was a bright blue, sun-spangled afternoon and we sat outside — in spite of the sonic gouge of heavy steel machines cranking away on what, someday, will be the Cultural Trail. My friend is an Indianapolis lifer, been here since the day he was born. When I asked him to describe his city, he said, "It's really a small town."
I thought I knew exactly what he meant.
Then, I was driving with another friend at night. We were on Highway 74, approaching 10th Street on the city's Far Westside. On our left was the hulking shadow of a vast landfill, a measure of the city's accumulated waste turned into topography. We veered off the expressway, came upon a detour and found ourselves navigating through a slurry of industrial plants and bungalows on side streets that, apart from the brutal glare of an occasional streetlight, were coal-dark. A sudden wash of light from the open door of a little corner liquor store illuminated a crowd of young men — the only people in evidence for blocks and blocks and blocks.
"A small town," I thought. "Really?"
I've lived in Indianapolis for 25 years. So when my friend observed that this is basically a small town, I could relate to what he was saying because that's been my experience, too. My orientation has been the city's cultural life. I've worked the nonprofit and business sides of the street and, like many people I know, can say that I've found Indianapolis to be a remarkably accessible place. If you want to be involved in things, there seems to always be a meeting you can attend, or a group to join. Before you know it, you're likely to find yourself chatting with a foundation head, a policy maker, even the mayor.
There's no shortage of opportunities to engage in what we like to call "civil" public conversations about the city. Forget about Indiana's tornado season. Indianapolis is all about brainstorming.
Adding to the small town vibe is that, if you start hanging out at some of these get-togethers, you start seeing a lot of the same people. At least they seem to be the same. In any event, what they generally share is a desire to live what they consider a more urban lifestyle.
I count myself among this group, although I've grown a bit old and grouchy. I am not, for example, as optimistic as some of my younger friends about the prospects here for public transit. Not because I have any doubt about its power to positively transform Indianapolis. But because I know that people here have been talking about thisÉwell, for a very long time.
I've come to realize that one strike against public transit here is that it flies in the face of that widely held perception of Indianapolis being a small town. You don't need public transit in a small town. In small towns everybody takes care of themselves and maybe their neighbors. They stick to familiar turf.
A real public transit system would have the power to change all that. Imagine, for example, there was a well-lit sequence of public transit stations located along west 10th Street. Suddenly you might have a reason to go there that you can't even imagine today. Your idea of Indianapolis might get a lot bigger.
But here's a question: Are we willing to pay for this? It's one thing to imagine what Indianapolis could be, another to find the money necessary to make these dreams reality. To date, state legislators are not even willing to let us vote on whether or not we're ready to fork over higher taxes in order to pay for better transit. It seems they like thinking of Indianapolis as a small town, too.
Every city has a favorite obsession. In Manhattan, they fixate on finding the right apartment building. In Chicago, people are always talking about neighborhoods. In Indianapolis, we keep a running conversation going about the very identity of the place. What is it? Who are we?
This has proven to be a durable sort of parlor game. It allows players to display their urban savvy and assess each other's hip quotient — with extra points awarded for such flourishes as chicken coops and hybrid bikes.
Along the way, some good things actually do occur: Walkability is now an accepted part of city planning. The White River is thought of as something other than a sewer. The Cultural Trail really will be finished one day.
Then I think about that dark drive along west 10th Street. And those good things, for all their obvious virtues, begin to seem like so many embellishments. I'm glad to experience them. They make the small town I've come to love that much better.
But small as it may feel at times, Indianapolis is big. So big, in fact, it's hard to take it all in. Sometimes I wonder if we can. Or if we ever will.
Eric Fulford was a man who knew how to dress. Swathed in scarves and heavy tweeds, always with hat - something straw or, in winter, a beret - Eric cut a dashing figure. He looked like he'd been teleported from a fin de siecle Parisian café. He might have been sipping absinthe with the likes of Apollinaire.
Eric, who died on Sept. 12 at the age of 61, grew up on the Northwest Pacific coast. Somehow he wound up making Indianapolis his home. He was one of our most talented and provocative landscape architects, an artist who really paid attention to the physical details of our Midwestern place and sought to help the rest of us see and experience its many-hued gorgeousness.
Eric was one of the first people I met after my wife and I moved to Indianapolis in 1988. The architect Jim Lingenfelter used to have monthly lunches at his office in the old Faris building on the south edge of downtown. Eric and I sat across a table from one another and I was as taken by the mischievous glint in his eye as by the righteous invective he laid upon the city's lack of thoughtful design. This was a fellow whose sense of style didn't end with his outfit. He was the real deal.
Later, after I started working at NUVO, I enlisted Eric's help for the staging of a public mock trial dealing with the arts in Indianapolis. Eric designed a performing arts center for downtown, complete with a 3-D model. His plan would have put this facility in the vicinity of the City Market, and his vision was so compelling it had many people in the audience of several hundred practically convinced that such a project was bound to happen. If only...
Still, it is virtually impossible to walk in Indianapolis without encountering the work and his wife and partner Ann Reed have brought to the city. From the campus at Uindy to Eiteljorg's front lawn fountain, the Medal of Honor memorial, and those scarlet bridges - the Monon over the White River and the foot bridge that crosses the canal by the IMA - as well as the sinuous, cantilevered streetlights illuminating downtown's Wholesale district: these designs are meant to last.
I remember another lunch with Eric. We ate at Yats on Mass Ave; Eric was aglow about having found a series of graffiti bugs, little inky flies, painted discreetly on the walls of buildings up and down the avenue. After we ate, the two of us went on a kind of safari, trying to find each one. Eric was inspired by this kind of unforced street-level art, the attention to detail and, best of all, humor. It was a civilizing thing, the kind of gesture good cities do well.
Without Eric, I might never have found them. No, without Eric, I would never have found them. Bless him.
There were some people, close to the situation, who saw the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra crisis looming. I wasn't one of them.
From my vantage point, up in the peanut gallery, it looked like the ISO was getting most things right. The orchestra had a creative concertmaster in Zach De Pue who, with his fusion trio, Time For Three, was helping to bring new — and younger — audiences to the Circle Theatre.
The symphony notched another score with the hiring of conductor Krzysztof Urbanski a prodigious young talent with the kind of charisma tailored to make the city sit up and take notice.
In short, the ISO appeared ready to take its place among the top 21st century symphony orchestras in the United States.
It was nice while it lasted.
It was also important. Whatever you might think about symphonic music, the ability to support a full-time orchestra remains one of the universal measures of a city's standing as a cultural destination. Symphony orchestras employ people, most of them artists with a lifetime's worth of training. These professionals are paid solid upper middle-class salaries to perform in a variety of situations. Many of them also teach. Their presence in the community is an affirmation that this is a city that takes music seriously.
For decades, whatever else might or might not be happening in the Indianapolis arts scene, the symphony has been here, acting as a cornerstone and building block. It has been the city's cultural pole star.
But it is not my intention to expound on what the ISO means to Indianapolis. Nor am I interested in trying to dissect the he said/she said of the strike (or lockout) that has ripped the veil from the ISO's contrived image of cultural invulnerability.
What strikes me about the ISO debacle is what it says about the precariousness of this city's cultural life.
Seven years ago, in 2005, Indianapolis completed an unprecedented cultural building boom. The Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Eiteljorg both underwent significant expansions, and the Herron School of Fine Art and Design got itself a new home on the IUPUI campus.
The ISO celebrated its 75th anniversary.
This flurry of activity was the high-water mark of Bart Peterson's mayoral administration. Peterson was the first Indianapolis mayor to openly identify the arts and culture as a priority for the city's portfolio — a dimension necessary to build upon if we would compete for creative young professionals. Indianapolis, Peterson boasted, could be "the Paris of the Midwest."
The new buildings were great. But some of us wondered at the time whether the city had the financial capacity to consistently fill them with quality content.
Not to worry, we were told. There's plenty of money in Indianapolis. This has turned out to be true, particularly if you want to host a professional golf tournament, build a football stadium or hold on to the Pacers. But when it comes to the arts, there's a different story.
Look at the donors to our major arts institutions and you see a lot of the same names in the programs and on those bronze plaques they hang in the hallways. The circle of big contributors is remarkably tight. It also tends to be aged. Affluent Baby Boomers, people in their 50s and early 60s, who are today's moguls, are not making the kinds of large-scale financial commitments to culture that their parents and grandparents did. And as for people in their 40s — forget it. With the notable exception of Jeremy Efroymson, these folks are mostly missing in action.
This means that the same pool of donors is being importuned for money by an ever-increasing number of arts organizations. The fact that new creative initiatives are coming on line should be good news for Indianapolis. But the failure of succeeding generations to pass along a mutual sense of cultural ambition is stunting the city's growth.
Officially, of course, the city continues to say positive things about culture. This is because even the dimmest of our movers and shakers have come to see a value in what they call "the arts." They've heard of Richard Florida's book about the Creative Class. If the arts can help attract and retain young professionals, our city planners will encourage a scene. They love the energy. As far as they're concerned, the arts amount to a never-ending party.
Just don't ask them to pay for it. Happily, as long as they can get young artists to work for cheap or, better yet, for the "exposure," a minimal amount of cash is required. So while Indianapolis feels like a great place for young artists today, as far as mid-career professionals are concerned, people, that is, who need real money for what they do so they can pay a mortgage, the pickings are slim.
While this has long been true for local artists across a range of disciplines, I never thought it would apply to the seasoned musicians who have played for the ISO. But the city's lack of capacity to step up and rescue the ISO from becoming a second-rate ensemble should make all manner of creative people here question whether Indianapolis is the right place to be — or no place at all.
Reality is messy.
This was what Democrats conveyed at their 2012 convention. Where, one week before, Republicans came off like petulant teenagers, fretting over what they see as a general lack of appreciation for their perfect selfishness, the Democrats, as usual, were all over the place.
Republicans are the party of straight lines, right angles and, above all, discipline. They don't see the world as it is, but as they would like it to be.
Democrats, on the other hand, are all curves, wiggles and whoopee cushions. They like to say they have a big tent, when, in fact, they have what amounts to a political circus.
This is a crowd that can count the likes of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin among its members. What, apart from force of habit in his neck of the woods, makes Manchin a Democrat defies explanation. He's a friend to strip-mining, stomps on gay rights and has even threatened not to vote for President Barack Obama.
That Manchin hails from the same political party as, say, Ohio's Sherrod Brown, a senator who voted against the resolution to go to war in Iraq, supports the right of gays to serve in the military and opposes paying exploration subsidies to oil and gas companies, can be mystifying.
In their sunnier moments, Democrats claim to be proud of this so-called diversity. They say it looks more like America. There is truth in this, but there is also a fair measure of exasperation.
Obama, like his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, should have been able to enjoy the Democratic majorities that reigned in the Senate and House when he took office. But, Democrats being Democrats, neither president was able to ramrod legislation to the extent that seemed possible at the time.
Clinton, for example, failed to pass comprehensive healthcare legislation.
While Obama succeeded in this, he deemed a single-payer program — a model considered by many to be simpler and superior to other options — politically unrealistic. And so, instead of truly universal healthcare, we have an "affordable" alternative.
This, of course, is much better than the pristine nothingness Republicans would put in its place. It also, being a Democratic initiative, must be understood as a work-in-progress. For Democrats, nothing in life is ever really finished. "The Affordable Care Act is not the end of efforts to improve healthcare for all," they say in their 2012 platform document. It's a start, open to revision, tweaking and, hopefully, improvement based on experience. This may seem messy, but hey, that's life.
Unlike Republicans, whose platform was loathe to so much as use the words "climate change," Democrats have no bones about bringing it up: "We know that global climate change is one of the biggest threats of this generation," according to their platform, "an economic, environmental, and national security catastrophe in the making."
But while Democrats express support for environmentally friendly policies, from mandating more fuel-efficient automobiles, to more robust regulations concerning air and water pollution, their overall approach to this "catastrophe in the making" seems more incremental than urgent because of their polyglot politics.
The same holds for their approach to the country's protracted response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Yes, Democrats are finally bringing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in for a landing. But our extra-legal detention camp at Guantanamo Bay is still in business.
Finally, while Democrats can rightly boast about bringing the country's economy back from the brink of collapse, and running up a string of 30 straight months of slow but steady jobs growth, the stubborn fact remains that few of these jobs provide the kind of pay and benefits many workers enjoyed prior to the crash.
When life hands the Democrats lemons, they try their best to make lemonade — or at least some kind of lemonish beverage. This may lack the panache of ideological purity, but it reflects the party's mosaic makeup. If Republicans believe that, for the country to work, everyone must conform to a single set of cultural values (or else), Democrats think this is impossible. They just want everybody to get along.
A kerfuffle arose at last week's convention when it was discovered that, while the Democratic platform made frequent use of the word, "faith," another word, "God," was nowhere to be found. This oversight was quickly remedied, so that She or He or It received due props and the party would not be tarred as God-less.
This was a perfect Democratic moment. Plenty of Democrats, the president first among them, believe in God. They go to church, quote scripture and find a moral compass in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But if other Democrats find spiritual sustenance elsewhere, that's OK, too. By emphasizing faith, instead of god, the platform's writers merely acknowledged a fact of lived experience: that to make good things happen in this life, you sometimes have to believe in something larger, braver and more generous than yourself. Call that God, if you want. Whatever term you use, Democrats want your help. As someone once said, it takes all kinds.
That may be messy, but, as far as Democrats are concerned, it's real.
And I thought Republicans were realists ...
The Republican party, I thought, was the party of practicality, a group that prided itself on seeing the world not as it would like it to be, but as it really is.
What did I know?
After last week's convention in Tampa, I see Republicans in a new light. These folks aren't realists. Republicans are idealists. They're not interested in politics. What they want is a whole new world. We should be calling them the new romantics.
I've come to this conclusion after reading the Republican National Committee's 55-page platform document. There was a lot of talk during the convention about the platform's unstinting support for extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, its rigidity concerning immigration law and its obsession with the unborn, not to mention its seeming lack of interest in women as anything other than delivery systems for the little urchins that will, presumably, one day become god-fearing Republicans themselves. It was none other than Ann Romney, wife of presidential candidate Mitt, who buttressed the Republican view of women, pridefully telling a cheering arena, "It's the moms who always had to work a little bit harder. ... You know it's true, don't you?"
Pundits speculated about the extent to which the party's nominees, Romney and Ryan, would represent the RNC's platform. It was pointed out that candidates often wink at the positions articulated therein, treating them as suggestions that might be cast aside along the campaign trail.
But this, I think, is a cynical view that, while historically true enough, fails to come to terms with what it is Republicans — or, at any rate, those who still call themselves Republicans — truly want.
They want utopia.
In its preamble, the platform states that the American people — that's us — "are the most generous people on earth, giving sacrificially of their time, talent, and treasure." It goes on to say: "This platform affirms that America has always been a place of grand dreams and even grander realities, and so it will be again ..."
It seems the country has lost its way since 2008, when none other than the American people made the benighted mistake of electing Barack Obama president. Apparently our vaunted generosity can make us a little loopy.
Anyway, the trouble with Obama, or perhaps the 69.3 million people who voted for him, is that they possess a misunderstanding of how America is supposed to work. If, as the platform states, "we return government to its proper role, making it smaller and smarter. If we restructure government's most important domestic programs to avoid their fiscal collapse. If we keep taxation, litigation, and regulation to a minimum.If we celebrate success, entrepreneurship, and innovation.If we lift up the middle class. If we hand over to the next generation a legacy of growth and prosperity, rather than entitlements and indebtedness," everything will be great!
Except insofar as it provides for national defense, Republicans really don't like a federal government. What really counts for them is the family: Dad, Mom and the Kids. That's why they're so keen on defending marriage, an institution, the platform says, "which, for thousands of years in virtually every civilization, has been entrusted with the rearing of children and the transmission of cultural values."
After the family, Republicans value the states. The platform calls the states "laboratories of democracy." It's the states that should be coming up with immigration policies, healthcare reforms and new voter ID laws. If this means that a person who could vote in one state can't vote in another, or get the same kind of healthcare or be more likely to be arrested because of the way he or she looks, that's fine. If you don't like it in one state, move to another — that's called competition. But how this makes you an American, instead of a Hoosier or a Badger or a Buckeye, isn't clear.
According to the Republican platform, "The environment is getting cleaner and healthier." This proves that government regulations regarding such resources as land and water are unnecessary. "Experience has shown that, in caring for land and water, private ownership has been our best guarantee of conscientious stewardship," says the platform, "while the worst instances of environmental degradation have occurred under government control."
The platform states that the proper application of environmental laws and regulations should "always be in support of economic development, job creation, and American prosperity and leadership."
This captures Republican idealism in a nutshell. We the People don't need the federal government. You'd think it was the federal government that created pollution, burned through the ozone layer, and dumped hazardous waste. Or that the federal government forced bosses to employ children, made people work 12-hour days and six-day weeks. To hear Republicans tell it, the federal government must have perpetuated laws creating schools for white kids and another set of schools for black kids, segregated lunch counters and public buses, and made black and poor people pay to vote in some places while their neighbors voted for free.
Republicans are idealists. They ignore history and insist the federal government keeps us from being our true selves. They may be right about this. That's the trouble.
Next week: the Democrats.