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.