Wednesday, November 19th, 2008
Guess which city is growing its foreign born population at a faster rate than Chicago? That’s right, it’s Indianapolis. Now it is easy to get a high rate on a low base, but as with population, jobs, and other stats, Indy is leading the pack in the Midwest in terms of an increase in its foreign born population. And that is reason to celebrate locally. This was discussed in a major article in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star. (There are plenty of companion articles linked off the main one, so don’t miss them).
The foreign born population of the Indianapolis area is up 69% since 2000, to about 100,000 people. My math says this is about 40,000 people added in the last few years. This outdistances regional peers like Louisville, Cincy, Cleveland, Milwaukee and St. Louis, and beats even Chicago and Detroit. Indy’s not a truly polyglot city by any means, but it is definitely getting more diverse. The Midwest challenge now is to bring other similar sized cities up as well while Indy keeps improving its own game.
This superior performance in immigration is clearly linked to the city’s economic out performance. Jobs attract immigrants. Immigrants attract jobs. And in the process, these newcomers are transforming the city in a positive way. Imagine what the state of Lafayette Rd. and West 38th St. would be without all of the ethnic businesses there. Clearly the immigrant communities have already done a huge service to Indianapolis by pumping life into this failing retail zone.
You don’t yet feel the change in the city’s demographics on the streets of downtown. But that’s not unusual these days. The way immigrants settle in the 21st century is different than it was in the 19th. Even in places like Seattle, it’s become a truism that if you want good ethnic food, you need to head to the suburbs. So it is with Indy as well, though many of those “suburbs” are the older suburban areas of Marion County.
The really good news here is that this is a very diverse immigrant population. It’s not just Latino. There are 26,000 Asians and 10,500 Africans as well. The Indian population has doubled to 6,000. The Pakistani and Nigerian populations have tripled to hit 1,000. There are close to 1,500 Burmese. There are about 5,600 Chinese. Even among Latinos, the city is not monolithically Mexican. There are many Central American nationalities represented, for example. In Pike Township Schools alone, children speak 74 languages from 63 countries.
Why is this level of diversity good? First, these immigrants bring a diversity of skill sets with them. And it boosts the number of types of ethnic retail offerings out there, a boon to those non-immigrants who might be interested in the product. But most importantly, what draws immigrants is other immigrants – friends, countrymen, etc. The more communities that exist locally, the more groups that can be leveraged to attract others. If I were the city, what I’d encourage these various immigrant groups to do is tell all their friends about Indy. The most important thing these new arrivals can do is bring a bunch of their fellows along with them. The war for talent is fierce, and other cities are fighting hard to lure immigrants.
The cloud on the horizon is that immigration appears to have slowed after 2006. In part this may be a reaction to the economy, and thus prove a short term blip. But it is a bit worrying.
To pivot in a totally different direction, and one I normally stay away from since it smacks of the political, this article really highlighted to me one of the elephants in the room of Indianapolis: the incredible lack of official recognition given to gays and lesbians.
Gov. Daniels took time out of his busy schedule to pay a visit to a local Sikh temple. Mayor Ballard served as the grand marshal of a cultural parade in the Lafayette Square area and has a department of international affairs. But have either of these two shown up at Indy Pride? Lest we think this is a partisan affair, Mayor Peterson never put in an appearance either, IIRC. Supposedly he sent some letter in his stead, but that’s virtually no gesture at all. Again IIRC, Gov. O’Bannon likewise did nothing.
I think it is fair to say that there are more gays and lesbians in Indianapolis than there are Sikhs or Chinese. The figures I’ve seen put the local gay and lesbian population at between 4-5% of the local population, which is comparable to the total foreign born numbers above. But where is the official recognition? Where is the mayor or the governor on this one?
I’m no Floridian. I don’t suggest that gaydar be added to the metro index of leading economic indicators. Creativity and tolerance are clearly very important in a city’s success, but they are only two values among many that go into a successful city. Yet when you consider how invisible Indy’s robust gay and lesbian population is, it’s troubling.
Indy is doing well, and out performing most of the rest of the Midwest. But its growth badly trails national growth leaders like Charlotte and Austin. And IMO the city has not yet reached the point where it has a self-sustaining critical mass for the new economy. It’s not inconceivable that Marion County could ultimately implode, taking the region and probably the state with it. The city and region need to be firing on all cylinders. It is going to take everything the place has got to put it over the top. That means immigrants of all stripes, gays and lesbians, African Americans, life sciences, motorsports, conventions, a new airport, high tech, distribution, traditional white Hoosier families, religious people, advanced manufacturing, non-profits, arts and culture, and things we probably haven’t even thought of yet. The city needs everything and everyone. Slighting the gay and lesbian population is like trying fight with one hand tied behind your back. The places that don’t make this mistake are going to have a big advantage.
So I’m going to encourage the governor and mayor to use some the political courage that they’ve shown they have to step up to the plate, and bring the same level of official recognition to the city’s LGBT community that they have to the various immigrant groups that now call Indianapolis home. No one is asking for a personal endorsement of a lifestyle politicians might disagree with. But when you are the chief executive of a government, your duty is to all citizens, not just those who share your personal views. And I think the public ultimately get it on that point. I don’t think anyone believes Gov. Daniels is about to covert to Sikhism just because he showed up at that temple, for example.
If you are the mayor and the governor, why not ask to serve as co-grand marshals of Indy Pride 2009? There is probably nothing that would cost so little that would do so much for the city’s image. As much as any new airport terminal or sports stadium, this is how you send a signal about being a real 21st century city.
Bonus Transit News
Christopher Lineberger had an op-ed in the Star this week exhorting the city to implement transit. While I’m certainly a fan of better transit for Indy, this op-ed did not make an effective case for it, relying on traditional but weak arguments. Consider:
1. He never once talks about transit in terms of mobility for riders. It’s all about changing urban development patterns. Clearly, transit is something he sees as a means to an end, not anything with inherent value itself. But if you don’t create a compelling mobility solution that gets people where they want to go in a manner that is competitive with alternatives in terms of cost, end to end journey time, and quality of experience, people aren’t going to ride.
2. He gives the “brain drain” rationale. “Ever wonder why so many of your young adults move to Chicago? If you do not build what the rising generation wants, it will leave or not be attracted to Indianapolis in the first place. Losing young adults also will hurt the economy if people in their most entrepreneurial time of life go elsewhere to start new businesses.” As I’ve said before, the entire concept of brain drain is flawed. The real challenge facing places like Indianapolis is not retaining home grown talent. Chicago didn’t get to be Chicago by keeping its talent at home. It did it by hoovering up everybody else’s talent. I’ve yet to see any Midwestern city outside of a tiny handful like Chicago that even dreams that someone without a pre-existing connection to the city might want to live there. But as with the immigrant example, that’s what it really takes to succeed. You have to get people to choose to move to your city for reasons apart from an existing connection or a too good to pass up job opportunity. Then they’ll bring their friends and family along with them. Indy has to find a way to do for domestic talent what it is doing for immigrants.
3. The idea that Indy will be a competitive city with Chicago in terms of urban walkable neighborhoods if it builds rail transit, and that this will cause people to choose to live there instead of Chicago, is not realistic. By any measure, no matter what Indy does, it will never match Chicago’s dense, transit oriented, walkable neighborhoods. In fact, Indy is among the more poorly positioned Midwest cities to even try because it is among the lowest density. Unlike say Cincinnati, it never had dense urban neighborhoods to rival Chicago, even in its urban heyday.
You simply cannot compete against an entrenched competitor by taking them on at their strongest point head on. Saying that you’ll take Chicago on by trying to out transit them and out walkable neighborhood them is to decide to fight the battle on Chicago’s terms. That’s a losing strategy. Rather, you’ve got to put out a differentiated offering that is unique to you and let Chicago try to beat you at your game. Indianapolis will never be Chicago. But you know what, Chicago will never be Indianapolis either. Great cities, like great wines, have to express their terroir. To be a world class city, Indy has to first and foremost be a world class Indianapolis, not a wannbe Chicago.
Having said that, I do think the city needs to densify and needs to have more walkable neighbhorhoods. But it isn’t about linear “streetcar suburbs” of the types of find in larger cities. Rather, it is a complex web of nodes. I don’t have to go into my proposed vision here, but it is something along the lines of “100 Monument Circles”. Think about the nodes at 56th and Illinois or 52nd and College and you get what I’m thinking about. But those neighborhoods are not the core of a competitive response to Chicago. Again, designing that responses is beyond the scope of this post. But I do want to highlight the flaws in the model of thinking that the Midwest’s small cities can only be successful by imitating the largest urban centers in America. That just ain’t so.
So while I agree with some of Mr. Lineberger’s prescriptions, his rationale is dubious at best.