"Isn't it mesmerizing to look out there and imagine Tomlinson Hall being out that window?" says Tiffany Benedict Berkson - Victorian enthusiast, history detective, locavore with a taste for Indy lore and proprietor of HistoricIndianapolis.com - looking out from the City Market's Tomlinson Tap Room at what was once Indy's prime gathering space.
All that remains after a 1958 fire that led to the hall's demolition is a brick and limestone arch, which stands in City Market's courtyard so unobtrusively that you might just miss it. It's a launching point for Berkson, who's been deep in research on City Market and Tomlinson Hall - both built in the same year and designed by the same architect - while preparing to host a pajama party/historical treasure hunt to be held at midnight (just 36 hours from now) in the market.
"It was the first place in Indianapolis where everyone was welcome: women, blacks," she says, noting that Booker T. Washington once spoke there. "I think it's profoundly cool that we had a place like that."
"Profoundly cool": that's a phrase that sums up Berkson, in a way. She's fascinated by history, by its stories, its alternate realities that she can escape to; she enjoys the research process of going to a library and huffing dust; she's involved with the Victorian Society in America's Indiana branch (which will celebrate the three-year anniversary of HistoricIndianapolis.com at a July 19 gala).
And she's committed to bringing her discoveries before an audience of un-stuffy fellow "dorks," as she puts it, those who are savvy with social media, who want to be able to have a drink while talking about, say, trellises or Impressionism, who care more about stories and grand themes than dates and minutia, who aren't as interested in degrees as what can be done with those degrees.
The profundity is there, if not always presented in a footnoted style that would please a history major; and so is the "cool" factor, which has drawn a contingent of thousands of Facebook followers and has earned Berkson a spot on a list of local up-and-comers put together by The Indianapolis Star (not to mention a nomination for a Junior Achievement award).
Born in California, Berkson has worked as an actress - including a stint as a stereotypical extra - and a pharmaceutical rep. Her mom is from here, and in 2009, a few years after she moved to Indy to be closer to family - and around the same time she left the pharmaceutical world - she started HistoricIndianapolis.com, which has expanded from a simple blog to include a video component (featuring Berkson touring local sites), as well to putting together live events, like the City Market pajama party.
The following interview, conducted over a beer at the Tomlinson Tap Room, is edited for space, clarity and to protect the innocent.
NUVO: Tell me more about the Historic Indianapolis Pajama Party.
Berkson: This idea came out of a survey I did earlier this year. Everything people had to say was positive, but they wanted more - more in-depth articles, more pictures, more learning opportunities. There are so many fantastic historic places that we have left, but they all have their struggles. So the City Market event is a great marriage: It gets people out and about, and it helps them see and appreciate City Market in a new way, to get people excited about history and historic spaces, to engage with them in a new way. My goal is that everyone who comes leaves with a different perspective on the space than they had before.
NUVO: What got you interested in the Victorian era?
Berkson: We all have our passion for certain eras. For me I really used to love all of the frou-frou of the Victorian era. But now I'm fascinated by the history of the period - that it was during the Industrial Revolution, that Indianapolis made huge leaps forward, because it was during the Civil War that we had the first big population boom, with the prison camp and other military training facilities located here. A lot of the names on buildings and streets are from that era, that pre-1901 crowd. They set the stage for what Indianapolis would become. I love how industrious people were; it's when we got the reputation of being a land of opportunity. You have stories of people like our mayor, Thomas Taggart, who came here from Ireland with less than a dollar in his pocket and ended up being owner of French Lick Springs Hotel and being mayor of a thriving Midwest city. That's an awesome story, and that's what excites me about the Industrial Revolution: That these people, with nothing but guts, brawn and determination, made things happen.
There are things I wish we could return to from that period. People ask if we can make public transportation more effective. Well, hello! We already had it. Rather than looking at the past for the past, it's looking at the past to see what it can become again. I think Indianapolis was a really thriving metropolis in its day - and I think we're heading there again. A few of the right moves and we can become a player on a national level - and I'm not talking about sports.
NUVO: Indianapolis went through another big building and population boom in the '60s and '70s.
Berkson: I wince when I think of that period, because it was when a lot of buildings that I could shed tears over were destroyed. This city has been very good at tearing stuff down. I think our license plate should be changed: "You build it; we'll knock it down."
NUVO: But would we have grown and attracted businesses while maintaining the city's supposedly outmoded infrastructure?
Berkson: I don't think that's a fair question, really. Where there's a will there's a way; we could have maintained historic buildings without compromising economic growth. We keep trying to apply broad answers to questions that should be handled on an individual basis. For example, when the Mayor talked about demolishing 2,000 houses. He's trying to wipe the slate clean, but that just creates a whole new set of problems, because what's happening to the empty lot? I interviewed a lady who lived next to a house that had a couple issues and had gone into foreclosure. She said that she didn't want them to demolish it because she wanted a neighbor here. And if it were demolished, who would cut the grass, who would pick up the trash.
NUVO: One could look at Detroit, which has an urban jungle feel now, because there are so many empty, overgrown lots.
Berkson: In general, we're such a wasteful country. I scrub my toilet with an old T-shirt, and there are other countries that would love to have that T-shirt. Well, pre-toilet cleaning.