2008 Year in Review 

Barack Obama

It’s not just the historical significance of his election. Nor is it simply the hope and change he symbolizes. Indeed, Barack Obama’s status as the top news maker of 2008 has just as much to do, for us, with his genuine presence in our city: the unprecedented number of his visits to Indiana, including rallies in Plainfield, downtown Indianapolis and the fairgrounds; his availability to the media (including NUVO!); and the pervasive enthusiasm and seemingly relentless energy of his campaign staff, volunteers and supporters. The Obama phenomenon was tangible in our city, one of hundreds of American cities in which he managed to engage citizens in presidential politics like never before.

No matter what else 2008 brought, for many of us it brought the much, much needed proof that change is possible. And while there is still a great deal to be proven, it’s nice to feel this damn good at the end of a year when there is so damn little to feel good about.


America may have elected a black man as its next president, but here in Indianapolis the biggest news about young black males is the staggering rate at which they are murdered. As the number of homicide victims rises once again to a historic level (120), it’s clear that Indianapolis has a problem. Our per capita murder rate in the city is higher than Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, Louisville and a host of other cities. And although they comprise less than 15 percent of the total population, more than half of the murder victims in Indianapolis each year are black males. One in three victims is a black male under 30.  

Even more staggering, nearly 80 percent of murder victims in Indianapolis die as a result of gunfire. The new mayor has noticed. Just last week he expressed an interest to make the penalties for carrying an unregistered gun much stiffer — on par with New York City. Whether or not we’ll see such progressive government here remains to be seen. But let’s hope at least a few of our lawmakers find time in 2009 to take some much needed action to save lives.


    A research team from Indiana University concluded last week that there are no significant educational outcomes for students of public schools versus those who attend charter schools. It’s too soon to say what lawmakers and educators will do with that information, but one thing is clear: There is a distinction between the conditions of many Indianapolis Public Schools and the city’s charter schools.

Voters chose overwhelmingly in November to approve a bond measure allowing IPS to make much needed improvements to the conditions of many of its aged buildings. But it isn’t enough. With declining enrollment, growing budget deficits and dozens of crumbling buildings, the board has announced it is closing six elementary schools (including a few that were scheduled for improvements with the bond money). In addition, more than 400 educators will reportedly lose their jobs in the coming year.

Dr. Eugene White has been given an almost impossible task in his role as superintendent. And while few are losing faith in him, many are realistically pessimistic about the future of IPS and the children it is charged with serving.

Saving the strays

    After years and years of allegations, abuse and animosity, those who care about stray animals and those who care for stray animals in Indianapolis seem to have come together in 2008.  

Warren Patiz, founder of the animal advocacy group Move to Act and one of the city’s harshest critics of the Humane Society over the years, got himself appointed to the board of Indianapolis Animal Care and Control.  

Martha Boden, the often maligned and frequently mistrusted director of the Indianapolis Humane Society, resigned. In addition to hiring a new leader, IHS has announced it is opening a low-cost spay/neuter clinic next year and has stopped importing puppies from other states to sell here as adoptions.

Steve Talley, a nice but essentially clueless man when it came to his political appointment as director of IACC, thankfully resigned after an investigation revealed abuse at the city shelter.  

And his replacement, Douglas Rae, former chief operating officer of Philadelphia Animal Care and Control, is a no-kill advocate who aims to cut the number of animals euthanized here from the current average of about 60 percent to 15 to 20 percent.

André & Co.

The passing of Congresswoman Julia Carson at the end of 2007 set the stage for one of the most expensive, aggressive and interesting political campaigns of the year. Her grandson André Carson had to win four different elections before finally getting his own term as congressman (the Democratic Nominating Caucus, the special election, the primary election and the general election), which he did handily each time. In November, he won with 65 percent of the vote, more than his grandmother received in her last election (and previous ones). And while Carson’s new job in Washington is historic and newsworthy (and the subject of NUVO’s Cover story next week, BTW), it was the casualties of those elections to fill Julia’s seat that leave us with much sadness.  

The primaries, in particular, brought together a handful of Democratic candidates that made it difficult to choose. Even when “the best man wins,” the losses by his competitors are sometimes losses for us all. Dr. Woody Myers and members of the Indiana General Assembly Carolyn Mays and David Orentlicher were André Carson’s main competitors back in May.  

While Myers hadn’t been involved in the community for some years, his return to Indianapolis and ambition to serve his hometown in Washington were positives that we hope encourage him to continue looking here for his future. And while it will be unusual to not see Mays and Orentlicher in the Indiana House of Representatives come January, Mays continues to stay involved through her newspaper, The Indianapolis Recorder, and Orentlicher continues to be one of the best faculty members at the law school and a great community organizer. Selfishly, we hope they take jobs working for us again very soon.

New airport

Ten years ago, when the idea of a new airport for Indianapolis was just a gleam in some local plutocrat’s eye, the economy was different and so, for that matter, was air travel. There’d been no Sept. 11, no spike in the cost of fuel, no financial system meltdown. People thought nothing of flying cross country for a lunch meeting or a weekend getaway.

So the fact that our local airport authority based its financial projections on a 20-year pattern of continuous growth didn’t bother anyone.

Well, a lot can change — sometimes in a matter of months. Our new airport has opened at a time that looks a lot different from what was probably expected. Needless to say, the building hasn’t been paid for yet. And, in terms of revenue, it will have to hit what begin to look like some pretty ambitious marks to keep its creditors at bay.

There’s also the matter of what’s to be done with the old airport, sitting in rejected silence, not a stone’s throw away from the city’s new trophy. Latest word is that it could take years to deal with what is sure to become one of our weirder eyesores. Urban legends are bound to start springing up there, like weeds through cracks in the empty parking lot.

But having remarked on all this, one still must congratulate those who played a part in actually building our new starbase for a job well done. The place is elegant, green-aware, seemingly easy to navigate and, with its abundance of designer artwork, almost relaxing to look at — which is no small thing to say during a time when air travel has generally become more ordeal than overture.

New library

This was also our year to experience a new, expanded downtown Central Library. The product of a process marked by board mismanagement that literally reached criminal proportions, there were times when one wondered if all the strife surrounding creation of the new building was worth it.

Almost incredibly — and surely in spite of the personalities presiding — the new building has turned out to be a smashing success. Opened last December, it is easily the most impressive new addition to downtown in 20 years. Architect Evans Woolen found a graceful, literate way to fuse Central’s neo-classical original building with the demands and look of the information age, creating a whole that honors history but casts its lot with the future.

The public’s enthusiastic embrace of their new library demonstrates that, when it comes to public projects, even the rockiest process is all but erased if the outcome is outstanding.

Now, if only Evans Woolen and the library board could make peace …

New stadium

Lucas Oil Stadium brought home in a way nothing else could what’s really important to the backslapping poobahs who run the local Business Party: sports.

Opening the Luc was the capstone to a strategy hatched in the 1970s, namely to brand Indianapolis as a national sports destination. A Super Bowl and several Final Four tournaments are soon to follow.

All of this is great fun, of course, and an economic boon for a city with a precarious economy. Indeed, what finally got the Luc built was not, contrary to popular opinion, our need to keep the Colts (urgent as that may have been), but the necessity of expanding the Convention Center on to ground occupied by the Hoosier/RCA Dome. Conventions, after all, are surpassed only by Big Pharma when it comes to revenue around here. To stay competitive, the Convention Center needed to grow.

And to make the NCAA happy, Indianapolis needed a bigger venue for tournament basketball.

So the rationale for the new stadium was a many-splendored thing, crowned by our movers and shakers’ ambition for jock destinationhood.

What was illuminating was to see the alacrity with which a city traditionally allergic to taxes imposed higher fees on the costs of restaurant meals, hotel and motel rooms and rental cars.

So be it. The place looks great on TV — a good thing, since most local citizens will never be able to afford to actually get in for a game.

Arts budget cut

At almost the same time that the Luc was opening its retractable roof for the Colts’ first home game, the members of the City-County Council were approving Mayor Greg Ballard’s recommendation to cut the city’s arts budget by a third, lopping a half million dollars off what was already one of the most modest public arts funds for a supposedly major American city.

The cut was occasioned by our new mayor’s discovery that the $70 million of “fluff” he claimed, as a candidate, was lurking in the city’s budget wasn’t actually there. This created a problem, since the city was in hock up to its eyeballs. At times such as these, when problems turn out to be harder to solve than expected, the charms of symbolism are bound to warm a political neophyte’s heart.

Even though the $1.5 million the city invested in arts funding brought the city half a billion in return, Ballard needed a symbol to show the knee-jerk tax resisters who elected him that he was no wimp.

And so he made a cut that did virtually nothing to improve the city’s financial situation, but sent an unmistakable message to the arts community: Welcome to the minor league.

Cultural Trail — phase 1

It is almost dazzling how painstaking it can be to get an obviously good idea off the ground in this town. That has certainly been true of the Cultural Trail, a bike and pedestrian-friendly route designed to connect many of the city’s cultural districts.

Kudos to Brian Payne, head of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, for having the original vision and then for sticking with it, slogging through all the meetings and mind-numbing schmoozing it takes to persuade people that something new might actually be worth doing. In this case, it was Gene and Marilyn Glick who stepped up and made the $15 million contribution that meant the project was a go.

The trail’s first leg, along Alabama Street, was completed this year. It’s a handsome piece of work that demonstrates the power of place-making in a downtown environment.

It also begs a question: Will the obvious appeal of the trail’s amenities have a ripple effect on other parts of downtown’s streetscape?

Working poor

According to a report entitled “The Status of Working Families in Indiana: 2008 Update,” poverty — or something close to it — is catching up with more of us. Among the report’s findings:

• Indiana’s poverty rate increased from 6.7 percent in 1999 to 11.8 percent in 2007, an increase of 5.1 percent. The national rate of increase during this stretch was just 0.7 percent.

• The median hourly wage in 2007 in Indiana was $14.85 — an increase of just 45 cents per hour since 2000. Meanwhile, the cost of food, energy and health care went way up.

• The median household income for Hoosiers dropped nearly $3,000 since 2000. Nationally, the MHI dropped by $700.

Public what?

The public transit news in 2008 was … interesting. On the plus side, the public expressed support for a light rail line between Fishers and downtown Indianapolis.

But where the money will come from to pay for it is still unresolved. And, even if the money were to turn up tomorrow, the chances of the line being finished before 2012 are slim. Oh, and the fact that people are actually talking about recycling an older train, rather than making the line state-of-the-art, in order to cut costs isn’t exactly encouraging. This ain’t Petticoat Junction we’re talking about — or is it?

Our forever embattled bus system, IndyGo, saw a spike in ridership as gas prices grew more expensive.

How did IndyGo respond to this good news? It raised fares and cut service routes.

No wonder Indianapolis was ranked 48th out of the 50 largest U.S. cities in a study of “Post-Oil Preparedness” by Common Current. The rankings were based on public transit use, city carpooling rates, overall metro area public transit ridership, metro area sprawl, telecommuting, biking and walking-to-work rates, and use of heating oil.

But the good news here pertained to President-elect Barack Obama’s expressed interest in a NUVO interview in creating an intercity transit system linking Indianapolis with Chicago and other regional cities.

That way, if we can’t get around town, we can, at least, get out of it.

Layoffs at ‘The Star’

The Indianapolis Star, local satellite of the Gannett corporate empire, tightened its bottom line by laying off members of its newsroom staff in December (in addition to layoffs that took place earlier in the year). Especially notable among the fallen bylines were Susan Guyett, Christopher Lloyd and Whitney Smith who, between them, accounted for most of what was left of an already depleted arts and entertainment section.

If cuts to arts coverage at daily newspapers has been a national trend, these lay-offs still registered as yet another blow to the local arts scene’s struggle to be taken seriously by the larger community.

There is a silver lining, though: After years of incomprehensible obscurity on The Star’s copy desk, Jay Harvey will again be writing about classical music and theater (and jazz, too, we hope). Harvey’s one of the most astute critics around. His virtual exile by Gannett –— and now his return — says more about Gannett’s Soviet-style of management than its dedication to covering the arts.

Adios, Dr. Reed

Virtually lost in the 2008 election hoopla was the retirement of Dr. Sue Ellen Reed as state superintendent of schools. Reed served 16 years — or four consecutive terms: as long it takes a Hoosier kid to go from kindergarten through their first three years of college (if, that is, they can get into a college). During that time, complaints about the state of public education in Indiana were chronic and commonplace by people of all political stripes, economic levels and regions.

And Indiana kids remained at an educational disadvantage compared to their peers in most of the rest of the country.

But, if past is prologue, it is hard not to conclude that if Reed had chosen to run again to lead the state’s educational efforts, she probably would have won. That’s because voting for the state superintendent position represents democracy at its worst. It’s what you get when the electorate votes for candidates it knows little or nothing about, to do a job it is ill-equipped to judge — in other words, a bad habit.

Makes you wonder about Reed’s successor, Tony Bennett. Given his high level of name recognition, a lot of Indiana voters probably think he’s going to make crooning a big part of the state curriculum.

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