But the Cultural Trail is in fact, a remarkable accomplishment. Celebration is called for. The question is, just what kind of accomplishment is it?
In its early stages, Cultural Trail advocates were faced with a tough assignment: sell a visionary urban design concept to a community that hadn't shown much enthusiasm for such ideas since the days when George Kessler submitted his transformative Parks and Boulevard Plan in the early 1900's. Hence the hyperbole attempting to portray the Cultural Trail as some kind of grand attraction, something tourists might come here to experience, like, say, Chicago's Millennium Park, the Liberty Trail in Boston, or San Antonio's River Walk.
Anyone coming to the Trail with such expectations is bound to be disappointed. The Cultural Trail does something else. In my experience, over the years while it was taking shape, and now that it is done and can be experienced whole, the Cultural Trail presents itself not as another urban attraction, but as a model for what Midwestern city streetscapes can - and should - be.
The Cultural Trail's ultimate attraction is really the city itself. A tour along the Trail provides plenty of views, from a variety of perspectives, of an increasingly dynamic downtown skyline, neighborhoods, and street scenes. Planners have done a good job of mixing large, wide-angle views with up-close, intimate stretches through neighborhoods like Chatham Arch and Ransom Place. You get greatest hits like a jaunt along Washington Street and a chance to enjoy under-appreciated pleasures, like the Canal Walk. The view of downtown from Virginia Avenue is particularly brilliant, especially on a clear night.
And the Trail appears to confirm what many of us have argued for years: that quality design raises the city's game in a variety of ways. Here is proof that the cool factor actually contributes to functionality. The Trail has almost certainly led to a development boom extending the Mass Ave corridor all the way to the East End building, making such new arrivals as Indy Reads Books and the Black Market restaurant possible. For all the complaints about how long it took to build the Trail to Fountain Square, that Virginia Ave stretch is now undergoing a radical transformation with apartment projects (Mozzo and the Hinge), boutiques, and top shelf dining.
Prior to building the Cultural Trail, Indianapolis, like most other American cities, was doing its best to ignore its eroding infrastructure. Many neighborhoods lack such basic amenities as sidewalks, and the overwhelmed sewer system was routinely spewing waste into the White River and connected streams in a way that finally attracted the attention of the federal government.
The Cultural Trail, of course, does not solve these problems. But, that said, it shows Indianapolis ways to address them that have the added benefit of being beautiful. Experienced up close, the Trail evokes a Midwestern sense of place through its use of prairie-like grasses and other plantings. This green element also fulfills a practical purpose by catching and absorbing rainwater run-off that would otherwise choke downtown sewers. Trail construction has also been the occasion for a general upgrade of underground pipes and cables that have gone without improvement for decades.
The Trail's larger accomplishment is to exponentially raise the bar of local public consciousness about what an urban streetscape can be. The Cultural Trail bears no resemblance to a theme park; there aren't a lot of bells and whistles intended to draw people in. What we get, rather, is a thoughtfully conceived array of through-ways that are elegant in their simplicity and durable enough to withstand everyday use in all seasons.
The Cultural Trail exemplifies what is meant by the "complete streets" approach to urban design. Bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as people taking public transit, are given equal standing, or better, with automobiles. And in some places, the Trail creates passages for people where cars can't go.
And the Trail represents a new idea about urban livability, an idea that seems particularly suited to a middle-sized Midwestern city that often seems at odds with whether or not a city is what it wants to be. It shows how intelligent planning can create a downtown experience that morphs commuting and recreation, working and living.
The only aspects of the Cultural Trail that, so far, at least, don't seem to work are what might be called "attractions," i.e. public art. With the notable exception of Julian Opie's "Ann Dancing" on Mass Ave, a holdover from the city's Opie show back when one-person exhibitions of public works were commissioned by the now sadly defunct Cultural Development Commission, public art along the trail has been a disappointment.
Fred Wilson's "E Pluribus Unum," intended for the plaza in front of the City-County Building on Washington Street, was scuttled due to public protests. Vito Acconci's "Swarm Street," beneath the overpass on Virginia Ave, is over a year behind schedule. The Glick Peace Walk, a series of spinnaker-like steel installations, each one depicting a person "whose creativity, perseverance and concern for others improved life for everyone who came after them," is an exercise in misplaced didacticism. Other works, like Michael Kuschnir's "Looking Through Windows, 2012" are merely decorative or, as in the cases of Jamie Pawlus' "Care/Don't Care" and Sean Derry's "Chatham Passage," little more than eccentric one-liners.
Tellingly, the Trail makes the most of public art when it integrates the works in a functional way. Donna Sink's eco-friendly bus shelters, incorporating pieces by local poets, provide transit-takers with pride of place. The design collective M12's "Prairie Modules 1 & 2" - cubed sculptural passageways enhanced by tall grasses, black reflective pavers, LED lighting and solar panels - make a delightfully bold architectural statement in a relatively compressed space along North Street.
In light of all this, the so-called completion of the Cultural Trail seems a misnomer. The Trail's greatest contribution to Indianapolis should be to make us see what is possible - and agitate for more.
There was a time when, if you wanted to travel from Indianapolis to Chicago, there were several trains that could take you on a daily basis. These trains had wonderfully poetic names, names imbued with the magic of departing and arrivals. There was the South Wind and the Sycamore, the Kentuckian and the Indianapolis Special. There was even a train named for Indiana's most famous poet, James Whitcomb Riley.
But that was long ago. Today, the only train that will take you to Chicago is called the Hoosier State. It runs four days a week, and takes three and a half hours to go from station to station, provided it doesn't have to wait for a freight train to pass.
So much for progress.
Amtrak is responsible for passenger rail service between Indianapolis and Chicago. As meager as that service has become, it could go away altogether if the Indiana State Legislature doesn't immediately agree to allocate funding to support it.
Right now, the Hoosier State train is funded by the federal government to the tune of about $4 million a year. The feds, however, have announced that, as of Oct. 1, they will stop funding Amtrak routes shorter than 750 miles. That means Indiana has to pick up the slack, or lose its Indianapolis-Chicago passenger route.
Earlier this month, an Amtrak representative with a name almost as magical-sounding as one of those used for the trains of yesteryear visited the Indiana Statehouse. Charlie Monte Verde reportedly told state legislators they have a decision to make: "The time is essentially now if you want to have passenger rail as part of your transportation system."
So here, in the midst of trying to protect factory farmers from whistle-blowers, and making it harder for women to protect their bodies, comes this hot potato of an ultimatum regarding the future of transportation in Indiana.
It's not as if Indiana is being blind-sided by this news. People have been trying to get a conversation going here about improving our passenger rail service for years. There's been a movement afoot, for example, to create a Midwest high-speed rail network linking Indianapolis with cities like Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. Neighboring states have invested in doing studies and upgrading track in order to make themselves competitive for federal grants.
Meanwhile, Indiana, the reputed "Crossroads of America," has willfully remained aloof. When Gov. Mitch Daniels leased the Northwest Tollway for Major Moves, creating a windfall of $2.6 billion for the state's transportation budget, there was hope some of this money might be allocated for investment in modes of transport other than cars and trucks.
Didn't happen. Major Moves wound up being a major tribute to the internal combustion engine, shoring up worn and degraded automotive infrastructure and creating 104 new roadways. Those who claim that the problem with rail is that it doesn't pay for itself might reflect on how the state will pay to maintain these new and existing roads now that the Major Moves money is in the rearview mirror.
Advocates for highway spending will argue that these roads carry the commerce Indiana depends on. True enough. But have you driven Interstate 65 between Chicago and Indy lately? The truck traffic is enough to make your axles quake. This is not a bad thing, but its sustainability is doubtful. Not only does it make road maintenance a perpetual headache, it also pollutes the environment and makes our economy even more dependent on fossil fuels.
But, you say, Amtrak carries passengers, not freight. Right. Trouble is, if Indiana doesn't pony up the dough to keep our passenger service up to speed, there's a good chance we could lose a significant share of our freight trains too. That's because freight-hauler CSX owns the tracks and dispatches the trains between Chicago and Indianapolis. If Indiana walks away from that route, CSX could lose the incentive to upgrade its line.
And Indiana could lose jobs, that word all Hoosier politicians love to whisper to themselves as they go to sleep at night (or during committee meetings, in many cases). Amtrak's largest maintenance facility is in Beech Grove. The place employs 550 people; the annual payroll is $49 million. You'd think these numbers alone would be enough to make an Indiana investment in Amtrak a no-brainer. Those numbers could actually grow if we made ourselves Amtrak-friendly, for a change.
Ultimately, though, the future, with a capital 'F,' is the biggest reason why Indiana needs to step up and allocate money for Amtrak passenger service. In case you haven't noticed, it's the 21st century. Everywhere else, people are working to limit their dependence on gas guzzling vehicles. A major part of the human project is about trying to figure out ways to make going places easier, cleaner, more efficient. Deciding to write passenger rail service out of this state's transportation plan will not only isolate Indiana from the rest of the country, it will be like sealing the state in a cube of smoggy amber.
The deadline for Indiana's decision on passenger rail service is Oct. 1. But the Legislature only meets for another week. We need to get this done. Now.
As we contemplate the Indiana Senate's refusal to let the people of Marion County vote in a referendum on whether to support raising taxes for expanded public transit, let us take a spin in the WayBack machine ...
The year was 2009. It was the lowest point during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The stock market crashed; the bottom fell out of the housing market. In Indianapolis, people were still smarting over a spike in property taxes that had yet to be capped.
It was not exactly the greatest time to ask voters to support a referendum for a new $700 million building project.
But that's what the administrators in charge of Wishard, the city's public hospital, did. Wishard had already managed to dig itself out of a deep financial hole. This turnaround kept the hospital afloat, but Wishard was still overextended and out of date. The Health and Hospital Corp. of Marion County, the board governing Wishard, said they had no choice but to call for a referendum asking the county's citizens to allow them to issue bonds to cover the cost of a new $754 million facility.
Wishard promised the new hospital could be built without raising taxes. That was important because many people were wondering how they were going to find the dough to pay the duty on their homes.
Nevertheless, a couple of Republican members from the Indiana Senate, Scott Schneider and Phil Hinkle, had their doubts. They showed up outside Downtown's Central Library to express their opposition to Wishard's referendum. They chose that location because the Central Library's expansion project had been behind schedule and over budget. By the time Schneider and Hinkle showed up, the new, mightily improved and wildly popular Central Library had been completed for almost two years, but that didn't keep the senators from using it as an example of what bugged them about government.
Government, proclaimed Schneider and Hinkle, standing in front of the city's state-of-the-art public library, can't build things on time or budget. "What they're asking the voters and the taxpayers to do is to cosign on a $700 million loan," said Schneider. "And there are risks to that."
Voters went to the polls a week later. They gave Wishard a resounding vote of confidence. Eighty-five percent voted Yes, carrying all 522 of the county's precincts. In 33 of those precincts, the approval was unanimous. As a result, the new Wishard, renamed Eskenazi Health, will open this December — on time, and on budget, by the way.
I've been thinking about the Wishard referendum lately; I suspect the Republican senators who say they need more time "to study" the proposal to expand mass transit in Marion county have been thinking of it too. Here's the deal: They don't want to see mass transit put to a vote because they're afraid it, like the Wishard referendum, will pass. And if it passes, they're afraid it might actually work.
If your entire political career is dedicated to the idea that the government you are a part of is an inept, trouble-making force that you are there to belittle and inhibit, then it must be hard to remember that our government is, in fact, based on the consent of the governed. That government, in other words, is We the People.
And when government does, in fact, do something that we not only need, but like, well, that must be hard to compute. Maybe it's even embarrassing.
Schneider, predictably, is one those Republican senators who has expressed doubts about the mass transit proposal. He doesn't like the idea of higher taxes and, as with Wishard, worries that we could be committing ourselves to a project whose costs could come back to bite us in the future.
Schneider prides himself on being a small businessman. On his website he says that government "needs to create a positive, pro-growth environment."
But when We the People (government, that is) make public investments, isn't that a vital part of creating a positive, pro-growth environment? Tell me what is pro-growth about having an outdated public health system, an undernourished public transit system or, for that matter, a musty public library.
Under-performing, inefficient and antiquated public services perpetuate the idea that government can't do anything right, that business solutions are always best. This puts government exactly where certain politicians, who are often the beneficiaries of corporate campaign contributions, want it to be. The result is that we are subjected to a politics aimed at undermining public institutions instead of public problem solving.
Although politicians like Schneider might not think so, We the People were voting for growth and a greater degree of shared prosperity when we (with the blessing of the state Chamber of Commerce, no less) voted to invest in a new public hospital. It remains to be seen whether we will vote to pay for expanded transit. But, contrary to what some of Indiana's senators say, what's keeping us from this vote isn't the need for more information. It's that some of those politicians are afraid a public solution to our transportation challenges might actually work.
The national debt is like white noise. It's a sound that never lets up, is never still. Take a look at a web site called USDebtClock.org and you'll see the visual equivalent of what I'm talking about, a screen of constantly flipping numbers that defy the eye to focus and the mind to comprehend.
As I write this, the national debt apparently stands at somewhere around $16 trillion. I don't know about you, but trying to grasp what $16 trillion actually means is like trying to imagine how many dreams you'd have on a trip into deep space.
The late Republican senator Everett Dirksen of my home state, Illinois, supposedly cracked that, when it comes to government spending, "a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money." Climb up into the trillions, and the effect is just the opposite. The money gets more unreal the higher you go.
For those of us back here on earth, of course, money, or the lack of same, is anything but unreal. We cling to our jobs, if we're lucky enough to have them. We guard our health benefits as if they were bones in a dog pound. And we clock our way through the monthly rituals of paying the rent, the mortgage, utilities and credit cards.
For most of us, the reality of managing money looms like a picture window — and our noses are pressed against the glass.
It's tempting to want to use our everyday experiences with money as a way of dealing with the white noise enormity of the national debt. If we have to cut back, shouldn't the government? Our politicians and media seem to have adopted this approach. They have calculated, perhaps rightly, that dealing with the nation's finances is way more than most Americans can handle.
That may be why we're being subjected to a constant tug-o-war between President Obama and Republicans in the House and Senate. The president says the way to fix the debt is through collection of more revenue. Republicans want to cut spending. Meanwhile, the media sits on the sidelines, trying to assess which side is pulling the hardest. The result is that we, the people, are given the impression that a Grand Bargain needs to be struck to reconcile the competing forces.
We are told this bargain must include cuts to so-called "entitlements" like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. This is hard news for those of us with our noses against the glass. Have you checked your savings account lately? Your 401k?
Chances are, you've got less socked away than you need. This is not because you've been living the high life; it's because most of us haven't been earning enough to keep up with the cost of living since about, oh, 1979.
But maybe you're younger. You think time is on your side. Except you're not saving anything because you're making the minimum and you've got student loans to pay. That's OK, though, actuaries insist you'll be able to work into your 70s. Of course, what you'll be doing is anybody's guess. Let's face it: Unless they're in charge, septuagenarians will never be cool.
My point is that Social Security and Medicare are all the savings and health insurance many of us will ever have. What's more, we've paid for it with our taxes. Any so-called Grand Bargain involving rolling back these programs is bound to make a future in which older people have less to spend and receive less care.
But what if there's another way of dealing with the national debt? Shouldn't we consider it?
The Congressional Progressive Caucus has produced a budget for Fiscal Year 2013 that promises to balance the federal budget within a decade, moving to a surplus of $30.7 billion in 2021. The CPC calls this "The People's Budget" because it shows a way our country can deal with its debt problem without hollowing out the programs people need to get by.
The People's Budget says we can finance $1.7 trillion in public investment over the next decade; strengthen Social Security by lifting the cap on taxable earnings and save $308 billion over the next 10 years in health care costs by creating a public option for health insurance (remember that?) and allowing the government to negotiate prescription drug prices for Medicare Part D.
It also reduces the budget for conventional and strategic military forces, saving $692 billion; and ends all emergency war supplemental appropriations, saving $1.6 trillion. The PB calls for meaningful individual and corporate tax reform.
I know what you're thinking: yeah, right. Given the white noise created by our national debt, who can say whether these numbers add up any better than, say, Paul Ryan's version, where cuts to domestic programs make even some Republicans flinch. But why is it that instead of trying to strengthen our safety net, the pols and pundits think we should cut it?
It makes me wonder. Maybe that white noise we're hearing about the debt doesn't really have to do with numbers. Maybe it's like the sizzle a frog hears before it realizes the water it counts on is starting to boil.
Check out the People's Budget. Then contact your congressperson and ask whether they support it.
The mainstream media has been fretting lately about what's going to become of the Republican Party. Who are these people? What do they want?
Well, take a look at Indiana. Last week we began to see what's going on. First, the Tea Party weighed in on public transit. They don't like it. According to Chase Downham, head of the Indiana chapter of supposed Tea Party group Americans For Prosperity, the transit plan's tax increase is a deal breaker. Not only that: The future costs associated with a better public transportation system in and around the city of Indianapolis will be more than Hoosiers should have to bear.
The Tea Party likes to portray itself as a grass-roots movement, regular folks standing up on their hind legs and barking that they're mad as hell and ain'tgonna take it anymore.
But then we come to find out that Americans For Prosperity is a group founded by the Koch brothers, the billionaire oil and gas tycoons who have made it their life's work to dismantle such messy democratic details as voting rights. The Kochs have supported legislation in states aimed at making it as difficult as possible for minorities, the elderly and students to cast ballots in elections.
The Koch brothers have invested heavily in state governments, where they can get more bang for their (considerable) bucks. They have contributed significant sums to an organization called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. The busy rightwing bees at ALEC spend their days writing bills that reflect the Koch brothers' contempt for government regulation. These bills are then carried by ALEC-supported drones, er, state legislators, to their respective states, where the bills are introduced as if the state legislators had thought them up all by themselves.
Remember the bill making it illegal to blow the whistle on big agricultural and factory operations that are mistreating animals or polluting the environment? We probably have ALEC to thank for that. Similar, ALEC-crafted bills are currently under review in several other states.
Readers of this column may also recall that the head of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Tom Easterly, was observed making a presentation at an ALEC conference. Easterly's subject reportedly concerned how state legislators could draft bills to get around federal environmental regulations. Easterly, it should be noted, has since been reappointed by Gov. Mike Pence.
And speaking of Gov. Pence ... Chase Downham, the Americans For Prosperity guy, used to work for Congressman Pence. But wait: there's more.
People had begun to wonder where Pence was during this legislative session. Apart from his one-note stumping for a tax cut that most of the pols in his own party seem to be against, Pence's voice has been noticeably absent regarding most other issues under review.
As the Star's Chris Sikich reported on March 15: "Gov. Mike Pence has notably and forcefully called for the state legislature to pass a 10-percent cut on income taxes, but beyond that keystone issue, lawmakers and lobbyists at times have noticed the sound of silence coming from his administrationÉsome lawmakers and lobbyists say Pence's staff has been slow to react and testify on other important measures, leaving uncertainty about where the administration stands on key issues."
A few days later, Chase Downham delivered what sounded like the Koch brothers' view on the proposed public transit referendum: The very idea that citizens in Marion and Hamilton Counties should be able to vote on whether or not to raise their taxes in support of improved public transit was a terrible idea.
As if on cue, our heretofore silentguv showed up. He let it be known he's not a fan of letting the people in Marion and Hamilton Counties vote, either. "I'm someone who believes this economy is still struggling and we ought to be reducing the tax burden on Hoosiers," said Pence, trying to save us from ourselves. Of course, he also said he would keep "an open mind."
Until he hears from another of the Koch's messengers, that is.
By this time, it should be clear what the Koch wing of the Republican party is up to: making government as weak as possible.
This has been manifest on the national level as the country has slogged through one contrived budgetary crisis after another. There was the Debt Ceiling, then the Fiscal Cliff, then the Sequester — and more to come.
With each dose of melodrama, followed by yet another anticlimax, it's been hard not to conclude that our government is making itself increasingly irrelevant as a problem solver. Nothing gets done, or when it does, as with Obamacare, the results are (first) watered down and (second) never settled. Old Mitch McConnell recently fired up a conclave of young conservatives by saying Republicans won't rest until they repeal the health care law.
The pundits who keep wondering where Republicans are headed should pay attention to what's happening in Indiana. Indiana legislators, armed with prefab bills written by ALEC, and talking points manufactured in think tanks, are acting as shills for corporate power. Their project, amply backed by plutocrats like the Kochs, is to make sure that government can't do anything. It's like a bad joke about democracy, in which "the people" is the punch line.
Our son is engaged.
To be married, that is. He called us a few nights ago. Before telling his mother and me the news, he made sure we were both on the line; his mother held her breath in the kitchen (she had a feeling this was coming), while I (clueless) hustled upstairs to pick up the extension.
Something like pandemonium erupted shortly thereafter.
By our reckoning, Graham and Amy have been together for about five years. They met in college, where they traveled in the same circles; then they were friends, who managed to navigate the various iterations of today's courtship rituals, including moving in together and moving to another state.
All of us know how fraught marriage has become. It's almost as risky a proposition as opening a restaurant. Something like half the couples who agree to marry wind up getting divorced. That's what happened to me the first time I tried it. I can still remember sitting alone with the judge in his office in the county courthouse as he signed the no-fault papers. It was late in the afternoon on a bone-chilling day in early spring. When he was finished, the judge looked at me in a way I would like to think of as kind. In that moment we were like two characters in an Edward Hopper painting; there was nothing left to say.
Graham's mother and I will celebrate our 30th anniversary this June. I am at a loss to account for our good fortune. All I can say is that hardly a day goes by I don't thank my lucky stars I had the presence of mind to ask her to marry me.
And that she said yes.
Like Graham's mother and I, Amy's parents are long married. I am told that when Amy offered them the news over the phone, Graham could hear the whoop of joy from across the room. I can't help but think this makes some kind of a difference, that if the mothers and fathers in this story were living apart in different towns, different states — geographic and otherwise — their feelings, while no less loving, would surely be tempered somehow by bittersweet experience.
As it is, the prospect of this impending marriage feels tidal, like the natural movement between and across generations. Our family histories make it possible for us to celebrate it as both a distinct moment in time, one to be gathered round and savored for itself, and a continuity, another turning of our mutually familial wheel.
A dear friend of ours, twice divorced himself, asked why anyone today would feel a need to marry. I doubt there is a need, as such. We've known couples that have made long and rich lives together, and never needed vows. Perhaps it's the word "need" itself that's a culprit here. You shouldn't get married out of need; and need is certainly not enough to hold a marriage together in any true or nourishing way.
The wanting to be married must run deeper than the imperative to scratch a certain itch. For some of us, it's a family thing, but it's a community thing, too. Marriage is an opportunity to stand before whomever it is we consider our tribe to acknowledge that two of us are crossing a threshold. It doesn't matter how old we are, where we've been or what we've done, getting married is a way of finally declaring ourselves adults.
No wonder then so many same sex-couples want to participate in this. Laws supposedly intended to "defend" marriage, by forbidding some of us from tying the knot, actually do little more than consign an entire class to a state of perpetual relationship adolescence. As countless Internet dating sites attest, it's hard enough for two people to find each other in a way that matters in this world. What's crazy is that, so long as we have this thing called marriage, we try to prevent some of us from being part of it.
Marriage, of course, is also a way of believing in the future. But even that has become a loaded proposition these days. There was a time — not that long ago — when the idea of progress was a palpable thing. Standards of living improved from one generation to the next, as surely as day follows night.
Well, we're not so sure about that now. It seems we work more and earn less. Even a college degree isn't what it's cracked up to be. As for the planet, we keep pushing it harder, making more demands. We know we're doing damage, finding it in the air we breathe, the water we drink, hiding deep inside us.
As Rick tells his lover Ilsa in the movie Casablanca, the problems of little people like us don't amount to a hill of beans in this world. Under the circumstances, it can be easy for marriage to seem like just another pale gesture.
Or its defiant opposite. Because when two people get married, they show us a way forward. In this, Graham and Amy, bless them, are leading with what is best about us all, their hearts.