In this issue of NUVO, Sarah Layden writes about the "Celebrate the Difference" parade taking place this Saturday in the Lafayette Square Area. This is the second year that merchants and residents around Lafayette Square have put on a parade — it's a festive way for them to showcase their area's remarkable ethnic diversity. There's really no place like it in Indianapolis.
In her story, Layden introduces us to Mary Clark, leader of the Lafayette Square Area Coalition, as well as to many of the business people who are working to make this part of the Westside a treasure trove of independent, locally owned restaurants and shops. They talk about their efforts to "rebrand" Lafayette Square and their successes in fighting crime. They talk, in other words, about the kinds of things they can actually do something about.
What isn't mentioned is the one obstacle they are powerless to change -- the drive-or-die environment that's been left them by previous generations of Indianapolis city planners.
If you don't have a car in this part of town, you might as well forget trying to get around. This is one of the most pedestrian unfriendly places you'll ever see. And we're not just talking about the commercial zone around 38th St. In meetings set up to explore ways of energizing the 30th St. Corridor, the most frequent improvement residents call for is sidewalks.
It's interesting to try and imagine what the suits downtown were thinking back in the 1960s and '70s, as they turned the area around 38th and Lafayette into a smoggy shrine to internal combustion. One thing's for sure, they weren't thinking of building a city. If anything, they were hellbent on trying to dismantle Indianapolis' urban character and turn the place into an enormous suburb. A place where there wouldn't be a need for public transportation because everyone — everyone — would drive their own car. I guess they considered this freedom.
This approach was reinforced by another prevailing attitude in local governance — one that still obtains today — a willingness, nay, an adolescent eagerness to let developers do just about whatever they please once they express an interest in building something around here.
And so strip malls and big box stores, not to mention oceanic parking lots, were thrown up on the Westside with drunken abandon. It was as if these businesses and the hoards of gas guzzling customers they fantasized about were expected to go on driving and buying for a hundred years.
Apparently it didn't occur to the brains downtown that, in cities, people walk. Indeed, one of the rewards of city life is the perpetual sense of discovery you get when you're on foot.
Being suburbanites at heart, our so-called city planners didn't get this. In Indianapolis, the words "city" and "fear" have been synonymous, like "architecture" and "clueless." The idea of walking, when you could drive, was practically an invitation to a mugging.
The irony today is that the pedestrian-unfriendliness that's been built into the Lafayette Square area is what makes people feel vulnerable to crime. They drive to their destinations, park in half-deserted parking lots, hurry in to wherever they're going and hurry out again. At best, this is not a congenial situation. At worst it's a perfect hunting ground for predators. Whereas an urban business district, filled with passersby, tends to be one of the safer places on earth.
It didn't have to be this way. The city could have encouraged development on the Westside that insisted on pedestrian access and amenities so that people living in the extensive residential neighborhoods within easy walking distance of the commercial zone would have been encouraged to own their streets.
Another irony is that the kinds of businesses that are reclaiming and reinventing the Lafayette Square Area — ethnic restaurants, groceries and specialty shops — are the sorts of places perfectly suited to a more pedestrian-friendly environment. Places whose individual character and qualities — think the aromas of fresh cooking -- are more readily appreciated from the sidewalk than from a car passing at 40 mph.
If there's a lesson in this, it's that city planning can't be based on today's business model or, for that matter, a single mode of transportation. It must, instead, be driven by the closest approximation possible of what amount to core urban principles, the first being walkability. When a principle like that is made to take a back seat to commercial opportunism, you get concrete and carbon monoxide, not to mention a lot of empty storefronts.
So if you have the chance, go to the Lafayette Square Area parade on Saturday. Treat yourself to the wonderful array of cuisines. Most of all, cheer the efforts of the enterprising people who are bringing life to this part of town. There's bound to be plenty of parking.