Backyard stars 

Editors note: David Hoppe is on vacation this week; this column ran June 21, 2006.

The other night, as my dog and I were making our usual circuit around the neighborhood park near our house, I looked up at the sky and saw stars there.

This is not an unusual occurrence. When it’s clear, a few stars are usually visible overhead. I’m not a student of these things, but on the best nights even I can identify a constellation or two. And when this happens, as it did the other night, I am reminded — again — why I’m glad to be living in this town.

I’m not immune to fantasizing about what it would be like to live in other places. Like most people I know, I seem to spend a fair amount of time weighing the pros and cons of different destinations. In my experience, that’s Indianapolis’ favorite form of table talk. Whereas in New York people are forever talking and conniving about the availability of a better apartment, and in Chicago they obsess about hot, new neighborhoods, in Indianapolis we talk about whether or not to pull up stakes altogether for some other, presumably better, city.

Make no mistake, there are plenty of things around here that seem custom-tailored to get a person’s goat. If chamber of commerce-style cheerleading were an artform, Indianapolis would build a museum to honor it — and try to do it on the cheap.

I find that I’m often thinking about this kind of craziness as I’m fumbling with my dog’s leash or pulling on my shoes in preparation for our evening constitutional. Then we step outside.

Depending on the weather, people might be partying, there’s live music playing in the middle distance and, on occasion, the sky will be raked by celebratory searchlights. Most nights, though, it feels as if we’re five miles from nowhere in particular. The streetlight at the end of the block casts a pale light across the peak of an old, wood-frame garage and, if you didn’t know better, you’d think this was the edge of farm country. It’s that quiet.

Indianapolis has a split personality, there’s no doubt about it. For every one of us who can’t wait for this place to grow up and be truly urban, there’s someone else who says, “Hold on, not so fast.” This ambivalence can cause problems. It manifests itself, among other things, in suburban sprawl, undistinguished downtown architecture and an unwillingness to come to grips with what it costs to make a big city work. Some of us keep hoping we can be the biggest little town in America when it’s plain this is like a 40-year-old man trying to fit in the jeans he wore in high school.

Personally, I like the way this town, at its best, blends urbanity and nature. Take a canoe ride down the White River some time — you’ll find yourself amazed at how quickly you can go from seeing a blue heron to having dinner on Massachusetts Avenue.

Many cities are defined by their downtown architecture. We’ve shortchanged ourselves in this department, it’s true. But it is just as true that you can’t get Indianapolis until you venture into our neighborhoods. The key to this city lies in the quality and variety of its residential architecture. This is ultimately a city of homes, of backyards and gardens. I’m not talking here about the decorator porn you see in Indianapolis Monthly. We’re more abundant, more bumptious and more fun than that.

On Memorial Day weekend, I stood in the backyard of one of my neighbors, cracking open freshly boiled crawfish with about 50 other lucky folks. The crawfish were spicy and the beer was cold. Parents and kids licked their fingers and stood chatting or wandered off. I counted three, maybe four generations there. People who hardly knew one another talked about the race and the exploits of race car drivers in an easy, half-joking way. It was a beautiful Indianapolis afternoon.

Last week, I saw an item on the evening news about the high cost of new downtown condos. Apparently people are paying as much as a million bucks to live in the heart of our fair city. Insofar as this makes Indianapolis appear to be in a league with other big cities, this, I guess, is good news.

But I will continue to think that Indy’s ultimate success will be based less on trying to be like other cities than on identifying those local characteristics that set us apart from other places. What, in other words, should it mean to live in this medium-size Midwestern place now that we’re in the 21st century?

I’m not sure yet how to answer that question, but I know this: In most cities of any size, the lights are so bright they make it impossible to see the stars at night. You have to drive out beyond the city limits if you want to look at the Big Dipper or Orion’s Belt. In Indianapolis, if it’s not too cloudy, I can see them every night when my dog and I go walking.

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