86th Street - the other SouthsideDavid Hoppe

Sometimes a story comes along that doesn't seem significant at first. Then you start tugging at it. Suddenly you're looking at something that's much bigger. The fact that a lot of college-educated professional people - the people, that is, that tend to go to museums, plays, concert halls and, yes, art films - like the suburbs. They like the housing values, the schools and, I suppose, baby trees and three-car garages.

The recent news that a seven-screen theater devoted to showing art and foreign films will be opening next December at the Fashion Mall on 86th Street is a good example of what I'm talking about. The new theater will be located on the mall's second level, near the Parisian department store. It will offer audiences a boutique cinema experience, with a full-service bar and one screening room with as few as 95 seats.

Opening a theater like this here in, say, 1990 would have been inconceivable. People would have said there wasn't a large enough audience to support it. What has changed between then and now is what makes this story worth thinking about.

It starts with the location. I know a few city lovers who seem less than thrilled about traipsing up to Keystone at the Crossing for their latest hit of Almodovar. Why, they ask, can't we have something like this downtown? What these folks (and, to a certain extent, I consider myself one of them) are grappling with is the increasingly vivid fact that Indianapolis is less a city than a mile-square business district surrounded by a farther and farther flung variety of suburbs. The urban optimists among us have begun calling this "the metro area." Those with a grimmer view call it "sprawl."

In any event, the fact is that a lot of college-educated professional people - the people, that is, that tend to go to museums, plays, concert halls and, yes, art films - like the suburbs. They like the housing values, the schools and, I suppose, baby trees and three-car garages. Maybe it's what they grew up with. For these folks, 86th Street is now the Southside of town.

For years, Indianapolis arts and cultural organizations have gravitated around our downtown area. That's the way it's always been with the arts in America. Downtown is where institutions and careers are built. But this could work in other cities because in other cities the most affluent people - the people who supported the arts - lived downtown.

Not in Indianapolis. Here the Mile Square was barely measured and people were building single-family homes on the margins. So our arts organizations set up shop downtown by force of cultural habit. The audience, meanwhile, has been moving farther and farther away. It's no wonder that local arts administrators today have a tendency to put public transportation near the top of their wish lists. They want to bring the audience back.

But suburban folks don't appear to be in a hurry to come back. Apart from the occasional sporting event or blockbuster show, they don't have the downtown habit. In a recent presentation on the need for an expanded convention center, Fred Glass, the head of the city's Capital Improvements Board, told state legislators that half the people who go to Circle Centre Mall are conventioneers. The same, he said, holds true for the percentage of people who dine out at Palomino, as well as for the number of annual visitors to the Eiteljorg Museum. In other words, take away the crowds brought here by the convention trade and downtown Indianapolis is suddenly very quiet indeed.

Last year, there was a lot of ballyhoo when the new Market Square condominiums were put on sale. This high-rise project promised a downtown living experience comparable to Chicago. After an initial flurry of interest in the $350,000 units, sales slumped; by the end of 2004 fewer than 50 units, or less than half of what had been projected, were sold. Developers have reportedly gone back to the drawing board to try and make their apartments more attractive.

They might think about putting them in Noblesville.

Last fall a few eyebrows went up when Primary Colours, the artists' collective that has gone out of its way to promote itself as nothing if not hip in the "downtown" sense, held one of its Allotropy happenings in ... Noblesville. Last Saturday, the annual AYS Mardi Gras parade took a turn around the town square in Noblesville before migrating back to its traditional route on Massachusetts Avenue. And there's a new performing arts complex going up in Carmel. If what's on offer there turns out to be more cutting-edge than conservative, the cultural landscape around here could find itself in the midst of a major, northward readjustment. How long will it be before one of the city's established arts organizations decides the grass is greener in the suburbs?

The centrifugal force pulling people away from the city's center informs the urgency Mayor Peterson brings to his Indianapolis Works initiative as well as his proposal to double the size of the convention center and build a new stadium. Whatever else they do, these efforts are ultimately about consolidating an urban identity. Whether the people who actually live here are attracted to this version of themselves is far from certain.