Sunday, January 4th, 2009

“Our Product is Better Than Our Brand”

Beyond the obvious of climate and such, why is it that so few people choose to move to the Midwest, which continues to see very high levels of out-migration with comparatively little in-migration in most cases? You see, I’ve always been struck by an interesting point: when people move to Midwestern cities, they fall in love with them. I know a lot of people who have left Indianapolis for various reasons, but don’t know anyone who left cursing its name and saying how much they hated it. In fact, just the opposite is more likely. People are initially skeptical (“Indianapolis?”) but then are surprised how much they like it.

I’ll give one example: Dr. Ora Pescovitz is the CEO of Riley Hospital for Children. At a panel discussion a few months back talking about the huge progress she’s seen in Indy, she noted how she’d been dragged “kicking and screaming” there as a “trailing spouse” who did not find the city attractive “personally or professionally”. Now she feels totally different.

And where there is negativity, it is often interesting where it comes from. One person I know noted that there are two kinds of people in Indianapolis: those who love it and those who hate it. The people who love it often moved there from bigger cities – this person grew up in Manhattan – while almost all the haters were natives.

I won’t profess to say Indy is unique in this regard. The story of “skeptical coastal big city dwellers move to smaller Midwestern burg and fall in love” is all too common. I know people in Louisville, Cincinnati, etc. who all feel this way about where they landed.

Midwestern cities, and especially Indianapolis, have more discreet charms. Unlike with New York or San Francisco, they don’t hit you in the face with their very coolness on the cab ride in from the airport. You so often have to be in the know to find the goodness. And a lot of the great things about the city aren’t the same things that are great about those coastal cities. It requires a bit of discovery and understanding what you’ve gained as well as what you’ve lost.

There are two huge obstacles to boosting the number of people to choose to move to Indianapolis (and other Midwest cities).

1. Getting them to consider it in the first place.

2. Closing the deal once you get the audition.

Regarding point #2, I’ve got a jeremiad of biblical proportions saved up on this topic for another day. Let me just say for now that while people, especially those from smaller cities, who visit and spend their time in a carefully circumscribed area in the Wholesale District and maybe Broad Ripple might leave impressed, people from equal or bigger cities who leave those areas and see what the city really looks like are likely to be turned off if not repelled by the face the city shows the public. Indy is flat as a pancake. It doesn’t have the mountains or an ocean or perfect climate. It has to rely on its built environment to create a sense of place and positive impressions. Unfortunately, it fails in this regard. The city absolutely must figure out how to bring the great qualities it has more to the surface so that they are readily apparent to the casual visitor. One of the absolute imperatives for the city is to make step change improvements in its physical appearance and quality of public space. The current physical appearance of the city is like the smartest kid in the class showing up to the job interview in ripped jeans and a stained t-shirt. No matter how good you are, you’re not getting the job.

On point #1, I think newcomer Don Welsh, new head of the local CVB, summed it up perfectly: “Our product is better than our brand.”

The Midwest and its smaller cities suffer from huge brand image headwinds. Now, some of it is legitimate. The product that Indy and other places is selling is still not where it needs to be. On the other hand, it is way, way better than it used to be even 15 years ago and I don’t think that these places have gotten the cred they deserve for what they can pull off today. And what’s more, I think some of these places, and certainly Indy, are getting close to what could be a tipping point in terms of pushing the stone down the hill instead of up it. You absolutely can get a great meal, see an indie film, consume quality local artisinal products, see great art or a world class symphony performance, etc. This wasn’t always the case for many of these items. And the new amenities have not been purchased by sacrificing low costs and generally easy living.

The Midwest is often seen as a land of retrogrades, a see of white bread – and white skin – provincialism. A place stuck in the 1950’s. Polluting, non-creative, etc. Even where the brand image is neutral, why would anyone put a Midwest city on their list of places to live? Other than Chicago, Minneapolis, Madison, and Ann Arbor – and to a lesser extent places like Bloomington, IN – few places bring positive associations to mind when you say their names on the coasts.

Unfortunately, negative brand images, once acquired, are difficult to dispel. As with anything, people latch on to anecdotes that reinforce what they already think while tuning out or discounting those that don’t. For example, ask people what comes to mind when they think of Cincinnati, and you’ll get that Mark Twain quote, race riots, Mapplethorpe, Larry Flynt, and maybe WKRP. Baseball fans might remember the Big Red Machine. Other than that last entry, this is not an inspiring collection. And while there are some elements of truth in them, they don’t tell the whole story about what Cincinnati is today.

As often, let me focus on Indy here in looking at what to do, but I believe the lessons are absolutely applicable to other Midwest cities. Indy’s problem is that it is fighting something with nothing. You can’t fight a neutral to negative brand stigma with approaches that are themselves content free. Consider some of the things used to describe the city, its value proposition, and its aspiration:

  • A great place to raise a family. As opposed to what, a terrible place to raise a family? Most cities I’ve been to claim to be a great place to raise a family, and with some degree of validity.
  • Big city amenities with a high quality of life. Again, you and 25 other cities pitching the exact same thing.
  • “So easy to do so much”. But what is it one would actually do?
  • “Amazingly always new”.
  • “A safe and liveable city”. Again, as opposed to what, unsafe and unliveable?

The problems with these is not that they are bad or even wrong. The problem is that they have no power to inspire. They don’t create any type of emotional connection or resonance with people. What’s more, the implicit message behind most of them is “We’re good enough, and that’s good enough.” They are incredibly modest ambitions. But that’s not good enough. It’s like I’ve said before:

“People with talent, with big dreams and ambitions, want to live in a place where the civic aspiration matches their personal aspirations.”

Or perhaps to put it another way,

“You can’t have a life sciences industry without life scientists.”

People follow jobs, but jobs also follow people. Any business making a location decision wants to know that there is a qualified labor force available. To change the game in the Indiana economy means making the place more attractive to the labor force of the 21st century.

I want to stress that there is no moral or ethical reason to try to set the bar higher. There’s actually a lot of charm and goodness in simple, modest ambitions. But to make that choice requires a rich awareness of the implications and consequences. It means your brand image around the country improves slowly at best. It means lagging in talent acquisition and in-migration. It means settling for economic growth below potential.

The Midwest suffers from a failure of ambition. I’m not talking about booster club society cheers about how great we are. I’m talking about ambition properly so-called. About understanding who you are, what your values are, where you stand, and where you want to be.

The fundamental problem with modest ambitions, as I said, is that they have no power to inspire. It takes a pretty cold and calculating person to create a purely rationalistic choice in favor of it, but that’s not how we are as human beings. The problem with recognizing this is that it often gets caught up in various debates about public policy. There’s a huge intellectual battle out there because what I will call the “Joel Kotkin School” and the “Richard Florida School”. Kotkin basically argues that economic growth is powered by traditional but unsexy items like low taxes, good government, and quality schools. Richard Florida, exponent of the Creative Class theory, says that it is more about high quality amenities and service levels needed to attract the new economy labor force.

But the Kotkin-Florida split is a false dichotomy. The fact is, they are both right. Kotkin is right that you really do need a “safe, liveable city”, with good schools, efficient and lean government, low taxes relative to the service levels purchased, and a pro-business regulatory environment. But this is just the ante. All you get for this is a seat at the table. It’s a necessary but not sufficient condition. If it were, many Midwestern cities, which offer a reasonable version of this already, would be up there with the southern and southwestern boomtowns. But they aren’t. The problem is that these items are like the “food and shelter” levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you don’t have them you’re screwed. If you do have them though, that doesn’t mean everything’s wonderful. Man does not live by bread alone.

Florida is right in that talent matters in the world we’re in. If you have a region with low educational attainment, and few people with in-demand skills for today’s industries, you aren’t going to get much economic growth, no matter how low your taxes or traffic congestion. Maybe you’ll get some branch plants and such, but even if you are successful, you’ll be nothing more than a shadow city, dependent on decision makers far away for your economic well-being. You certainly won’t have many innovative new businesses like Xylogenics. Unfortunately, Florida, likely due to his need to appeal to a popular audience, has reduced his thesis to a formula, and gives scant credence to economic drivers beyond his “three T’s”. Also, cities following his advice have tended to turn into tax and spend republics like New York and Chicago. Maybe a city like New York or San Francisco can get away with that, discounting their crushing taxation as “that’s life in the global city”, but Indianapolis can’t. (We’ll see how well a high tax, high spending approach holds up in those places in a post-bubble world).

I think there’s an opportunity out there for a city to stake out a claim to a third way between these two poles. A commenter in one of my threads noted that there is a gap in the market out there for a good government, reasonable tax, pro-business environment city that also brings the right kind of amenities to the table. I agree, and I think this is the territory Indianapolis needs to claim for itself. It needs the Kotkin side to have the good business climate and it needs the Florida side to inspire people to want to live there.

The question is, what is that inspirational vision the city should bring to the table? The Star just took Mayor Ballard to task for failing to articulate a vision. But I think this is wrong. Firstly, different leaders have different styles. Mayor Brainard in Carmel is clearly a more visionary type of leader. Mayor Ballard is more of a nuts and bolts guy. Cities need different leaders at different times, and if you ask me, Indianapolis still has some work to do on fixing the basics, unfortunately. I’ve said it before, but if Mayor Ballard does nothing but put Indianapolis back on a solid, sustainable financial and operational base, that would be a huge accomplishment. And it is difficult to blame the guy for not giving ideas when he’s got sharks circling ready to mock him for anything he does. As always, the cricket tournament and Chinatown ideas are trotted out. But both of those were great, creative ideas. (Read the postcript and I’ll tell you why).

The Star also mistakes projects and “legacies” for vision and brand. This switches the cart and horse. The problem is that there has been far too much focus on splashy grands projets at the expense of the rest of the city. This is why Monument Circle and the Wholesale District look great while much of the rest of the city looks very poor. But the mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary spaces, not its special ones. Every place bricks up its Main St. Great cities understand that the average street is just as important. That’s where real liveability begins.

First you’ve got to define your vision and brand, then you undertake projects to support it. Again, one area where the city got this right in spades was the amateur sports strategy and vision, followed by the building of the facilities and other programs needed to implement it. Just implementing random projects doesn’t take you anywhere, particularly when they are the same things everyone else is doing.

What’s more, why blame Ballard for the lack of a vision? It’s been noted by many for a long time that the city lacks a strong sense of identity and has a weak brand. From the criticisms, you’d this this was a recent phenomenon. But the city has had many years to figure this out and hasn’t. There’s a good reason for that: it’s really, really hard.

Unlike a marketing campaign or a tag line, a true brand and vision is about what you are all about as a community, what your values are, and where you want to be. This isn’t something that can be imposed top down. It has to spring from the soil. While leaders – and not just the mayor – can articulate and give voice to the vision, they ultimately can’t create something where there is nothing there. Trying to, for example, position Indy as the next hip and trendy destination is likely to fail because that’s not what the city is all about. Rather, a true vision is an emergent property of the community.

The city has to figure out what its “brand promise” is. I put up an extensive posting about this previously that I won’t repeat here. The key is that the city has to find an inspirational vision for itself rooted in what it is and its own essential character. A great city, like a great wine, has to express its terroir. While I can’t offer the answer, let me share a few ideas again, and things I believe are areas ripe to include:

  • The first is that ornery Hoosier attitude. We stood nearly alone on DST for how long? But repositioning that for the future makes what is conventionally seen as a weakness into a strength. In an era where cities are choosing either a Kotkin or Florida approach, Indy can stake out that third way, a unique and differentiated path for itself. When other cities are implementing the urban redevelopment dogma du jour, Indy will take an independent look and not be afraid to chart its own path.
  • Indy is solid, masculine, un-pretentious. While we can want nice, upscale stuff, the city does not have to try to be a totally hipster haven or seek to emulate Boston or Paris.
  • Un-pretentious is good, but I do think the city needs to get to where it can show more pride and swagger about what it is. Not naive boosterism, but rather a firm belief that it can be one of the national winners, that it can move up in the league tables, based on rich understanding of where it is and where it wants to go. They city has to be able to stop apologizing for what it is. I remember reading once in the Wall Street Journal where they talked about Eli Lilly interviewing MBA candidates, and the first question Lilly asked was, “You do realize this job is in Indianapolis, right?” This was years ago. While the city might have needed to apologize then, things are different today, and they’ll be still better tomorrow. The city needs to get to the point where it has the courage to tell that top MBA recruit that “one great thing about this job is that it is in Indianapolis”.
  • Indy is the place where you can help write the future, where you can be a producer, not a consumer. Someone mentioned this to me before and it helped crystallize my thinking on this point. Indianapolis has one of the most open, receptive social structures out there. Of course there are established social networks and hierarchies. But the point it, they aren’t impenetrable. I think it is a unique place where outsiders can come and make a difference, perhaps moreso than any other place I’ve seen in the Midwest.

For more, please read that previous brand promise posting. Whatever the case, it is critical that a vision and brand be created that can inspire people to want to live in the city, especially people who have no connection to it. That’s where all the focus on brain drain falls down. I’m skeptical of the brain drain concept, and one reason is because it implicitly assumes that the only people who would consider living in a place are people with some pre-existing connection. But Silicon Valley didn’t get its tech talent by retaining its home grown talent. It got it by hoovering up everybody else’s home grown talent. Most very successful cities have high out-migration rates. But they also have high in-migration rates that more than offset the losses. We need to boost brain inflow more than we need to staunch brain outflow.

In the mid-90’s, one of my old college roommates rented a U-Haul trailer, packed up his stuff, and moved from Kokomo to Seattle sight unseen. While my sample size might not be the greatest, I don’t know anyone who, without either a specific career opportunity in hand or a pre-existing personal connection, decided they wanted to move to Indianapolis, who decided, this is where I’ll plant my flag and make my fortune. But that’s where we need to get to. Until a city has some intrinsic attraction to people without a connection to it, it’s operating well below potential. I asked a local leader what his ambition for Indianapolis was, and he said, “To be one of the top cities in America people aspire to live in.” Amen. Imagine that, people aspiring to live in Indianapolis. That’s where the city needs to get. No, it doesn’t have to be New York, where millions dream to make it big in the world’s ultimate arena. But it has to figure out what to do for domestic talent what it is already doing for its surging international immigration population, namely create a compelling brand and environment that makes people want to build their future there. And in a sustainable, real way, not in a 15 minutes of fame, flash in the pan way. There was a time in the mid-90’s when people moved to Cincinnati to start bands because it was a hot music town. The minute the music scene crashed, so did that people inflow. But Seattle retained its drawing power long after grunge was history.

So creating a better brand for Indianapolis, not just a better marketing slogan or tag line, but a better true brand positioning, is key. The city is really coming into its own as having a product worthy of a great brand position. The current brand position lags the product. It’s time to have a brand position that leads the product, and in a way that we can not just attract others, but also serve as an inspiration for those there to create the future they want to achieve as a community. As one Austin, Texas leader said about their community’s push to become the live music capital of the US, “recognize the power in the unadulterated brashness of saying, ‘We’re going there’ … It works more often than not.”

A great ambition might seem like just a little bit of a bridge too far. But I can imagine back when Mayor Hudnut, Jim Morris, and company were sitting around that table back in the 1970’s trying to figure out what to do to jumpstart the city and somebody threw out that line, “What about sports?” Would anyone then have believed that the NCAA would be headquartered in Indy, that it would regularly host the Men’s Final Four, that would host the Pan Am Games, and that Indy would not just be an NFL team, but bring home a Superbowl trophy? (Ouch, I know, I know, bad timing on that comment). I’m guessing even the people there would have thought it was crazy. But they aimed high, and succeeded beyond probably their own wildest dreams.

As I said, I tend to value ambition and continuous improvement. Others don’t. That’s a value choice and I recognize that to a great extent is it only personal preference. By all means if others don’t share it, then say so. But to achieve the things leaders have said they want to set out, like being a hub for life sciences, I believe this is something that needs to be done. It’s not just the mayor’s job. It’s everybody’s job. The mayor’s got a big gun of a bully pulpit. But the community has to help load the ammo and figure out where to point it.

Postscript. Both the cricket tournament and Chinatown ideas were creative thinking and good ones. Were they completely thought out? No. Are they guaranteed to be feasible? No. But as concepts they have a lot going for them. Cricket is popular internationally, so has the potential to boost the city’s international profile. It also is aligned with the city’s overall sports strategy. What’s more, cricket is huge on the Indian subcontinent, so it plays to the city’s growing Indian and Pakistani communities, and potentially helps recruit more immigrants from those areas. And as everyone knows, India has been huge in the technology space, so luring that Indian tech talent could be a boost to the local high tech economy as well.

As for Chinatown, traditional Chinatowns grew up as segregated ghettos. It isn’t feasible or likely even desireable to recreate them in that mold artificially. However, Indianapolis already has a thriving and growing pan-Asian commercial zone along 38th St. and Lafayette Rds. Why not add some branding? Now I’ll admit that I’ve never been a particularly big fan of ethnically branding neighborhoods. This is a recipe for tension when, as is inevitable, the demographics finally change. But it is frequently done in America and has worked in certain instances. The city already has a forthcoming $18 million project on the books to reconstruct 38th St. from I-465 to I-65. I don’t know the details on this project, but if it ended up doing nothing but creating a smooth driving surface but nothing else, that would be $18 million not properly leveraged to best effect. I said the city needs to dramatically improve its physical appearance, so this project needs to do that, as well as add multi-modal accommodations to the road. As part of this, why not include some pan-Asian signage and branding? Again, the commercial district exists and is real. This is only recognizing what is there, not trying to create something artificial. It also highlights the city’s diversity and would improve the appearance of the roadway as well. It’s a true win-win.

Topics: Civic Branding, Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

35 Responses to ““Our Product is Better Than Our Brand””

  1. Mordant says:

    “why not include some pan-Asian signage and branding?”

    Can you elaborate on this? Are you suggesting, for example, that certain exit signs on I-65 contain text in Mandarin or Hindi? Or are you referring to local street signage? Re branding, what options do you see other than officially labeling the area? Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    I wasn’t thinking of interstate signage, though there is precedent elsewhere for signage pointing to particular ethnic districts.

    Dual labeled street signs in various languages (care would have to be taken to properly represent things), possibly national flags along the side, various decorative arches, lanterns, etc. The design is an “exercise for the reader”. Of course, as always, I’d suggest very high quality, with a lot of thought into it, not just kitsch, which is what I described could easily become if not well done.

    Another intriguing possibility is to include zoning overlays to encourage large vertical blade type signs in bright neon colors for the businesses, with signs encouraged to be located near the street. This could give a bit of a feel of being on one of those great Asian commercial avenues. What’s more, with this one, the private sector foots the bill if there is interest. It’s a matter of just having the right regs in place.

    There are lots of possibilities along these lines.

  3. Adam says:

    Great post as usual! A couple things that jumped out to me personally.

    1. The looks of Indianapolis outside of Monument Circle and the Wholesale District. As far as crime and run-down areas go, have you heard of the “Broken Windows theory.” It basically says that if one window is broken in a building, the probability that someone will break another grows, the growth continues exponentially until the whole area is a dump. For some examples on this look to the cleaning up of the New York subway system in the mid 90’s which carried over into the cleanup of the city as a whole. This works in a positive fashion as well. If you get one good development in an area, the probability that another one would be attracted to that area goes up. This would continue exponentially. (Of course all of this is with all else held constant) But I think the city can do a lot of small inexpensive things to really start turning the corner in this city. This goes along with how we treat our ordinary spaces.

    2. “Indy is the place where you can help write the future, where you can be a producer, not a consumer.” While your post on this seemed more arts focused, I think there is much more there. Take me for example, I enjoy the arts but am not an “artistic guy”. I am a creative guy who thinks outside the box. I am currently a University student in Daytona Beach, Fl. Most importantly I am an entrepreneur. When I graduate I want to move to Indianapolis. Why? Because there is so much opportunity. It is a city on the edge. A good hard nudge can send it into another class, but if no one is there to nudge, we will remain here without a solid identity forever. I will be one of those people who give a nudge. I see so much opportunity there. New York, Chicago, or San Fransisco don’t offer me anything. No matter what I do there will be an immense amount of competition. There is no good way to market Indy to people like me, but I think this should be some sort of selling point somewhere. Indy has enough mass to support what you want to do without all the competition of big cities. If you attract these people, they will tell people they know and more will come.

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    Adam, thanks for the comments. I’m very familiar with Broken Windows. Actually, there was a controlled test that more or less demonstrated it was true. I don’t have a link handy but I think it was out of the Netherlands. They tested whether passers by would steal a bike left unlocked or not. If there was graffiti and litter present, they were significantly more likely to do so. This was all on hidden camera.

    On the second point, I think you are onto something. And I’m definitely of the opinion that Indy is a place that, if the dials get tuned the right way, could really take off.

  5. Ahow says:

    A couple of comments:

    1) I moved to Chicago and later to Seattle, sight unseen in both cases. Why? Well, I had heard that both places were just awesome. Nothing else really. They just both have that reputation.

    2) I moved back to Indy. As a fresh grad, I always said, “Indy would probably be a nice place to raise a family, but I would never want to live there again.” As time progressed, my feelings changed. My wife and I moved back this fall and couldn’t be happier. I just wish those that have never lived here would feel the same way. As above, we need to gain that reputation.

    3) My wife is Indian. She is torn on the makeup of Indy. For one, she has certainly found stores that sell Indian spices and food. However, as she walks around, usually the only non-whites other than her are Latinos. I know there are Indian communities around but I don’t feel they have integrated into the mainstream much, if at all. I don’t know how you cure this. Maybe it has to hit some sort of critical mass before it spills over into the rest of the community.

  6. kevin f. says:

    You bring up a very good point. I read recently, that part of what made Chicago what it is today is the great fire that devastated the city. After the fire, one of their civic leaders travelled the country and encouraged entrepreneurs to relocate there, reminding them that fortunes were now to be made since Chicago was basically a blank slate and had to be rebuilt. Although Indy doesn’t need to be rebuilt, I would say we are still a bit of a “blank slate”

    You blogged on this very recently but I think it bears repeating…..Indy should do more to embrace the gay/lesbian/transgendered community. I honestly believe there is a direct parallel between the vibrancy of a city and the vibrancy of its glbt community. We are a major factor in the turn around of blighted areas. (Mass Avenue anyone?) Not to mention; Woodruff Place, Irvington, Chatham Arch, Old North Side, Fall Creek Place, St. Josephs, and now Holy Cross is starting to evolve. Remember when the only people willing to live downtown were the gays? We are big supporters of the arts, independent retailers and restaurants, coffee shops, etc.

    Bloomington understands this and is actively seeking glbt tourists, as are cities like Philadelphia and Atlanta. I can tell you that just like you have seen improvements in Indy and peoples experiences and perceptions over the last ten years; the same is true for the glbt community. It was very common for gay folks to bemoan living in Indy and how “lame” the gay scene was and often they moved to Chicago and elsewhere. I’m not seeing or hearing near as much of that now at all.

    Indy’s gay scene also benefits from being the only big city in Indiana. Many of us definitely want an urban experience but not necessarily too far away from our families, so we settle in Indy. I and my partner are not, nor do we have that many friends who are Indy natives but we all dot the Indiana map extensively and in all corners. I think Indy should market itself within the Indiana borders as an island of opportunity, because compared to the rest of the state, it honestly is.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I grew up in central Indiana, lived on the east coast for a while, then moved back to Indy to raise a family. We stayed there for almost 13 years, but now I’m in Seattle. (It’s interesting that Seattle was mentioned several times in your post, and I find a lot of midwestern natives out here, btw.)

    I love Indianapolis. So why leave? Jobs. I work in high-tech and enjoyed my career in Indy, but there isn’t enough diversity of employers. One feels like the next downsizing/outsourcing initiative will force a move to another city to get the next job.

    The city I lived in on the east coast, and Seattle, have enough technology companies that the downsizing of any particular one is not necessarily a big issue.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I totally agree with the potential that exists with the 38th street and Lafayette rd corridors to be THE designated international district of Indianapolis. Besides the obvious ‘placemaking’ attributes (with/out turning it into Disney!!) this would give the public a destination to celebrate and learn about the ethnic communities that DO ACTUALLY exist in this community. A ‘poor mans’ Las Vegas approach would physically give this district the unpretentious marking it begs for! Love the zoning overlay/verticle signage idea. Affordable, unique and unpretentious ways to give Indy community-oriented ways to identify itself.

  9. Josh says:

    Interesting way to view the mayor’s comments – and I have to admit, changes my mind somewhat.

    However, I’d like Indy to come up with a new way to welcome immigrants. The Chinatown’s – even the best ones are all crap now, aside from a few amazing food places. How can we celebrate and enjoy the unique qualities without everyone’s fear of sillyville? I think it lies in having people who know the difference helping in the decision-making.

    Unfortunately, the design community LEADERSHIP (not the young designers, many of whom are quite good) doesn’t have the sensitivity to pull this off. They will put up red street lamps and banners of dragons. One great idea would be to come up with a simple design template for things the roadway project will need anyway (benches, street lights, plantings, etc…) and offer it up as advice. It might go somewhere.

    Great ideas.

  10. Anonymous says:

    It’s very good of you to keep the need for a big picture approach out on the table for discussion. A few thoughts:

    1) City, regional and state leaders in the Midwest have to continue to hear the mantra–over and over until they truly get it–that absent compelling natural features or climate, their cities, metro areas and states have to try harder to create places that attract talent and investment. As you mentioned, they have to provide, at a minimum, quality basic services (ala Kotkin) and also high quality amenities that boost their curb appeal. As Florida pointed out, people select cities a lot like they select a house. There are just too few places in the Midwest that can consistently compete with the country’s high growth region… the big smiley belt that starts in Boston and follows the coasts to Seattle.

    2) I understand what Don Welsh meant when he said “our product is better than our brand.” However, his statement also reveals how misunderstood the concept of branding has become. Indianapolis may have some image and identity problems, but its core brand promise–the combination of what exists today and its collective aspirations for the future–appears to align very closely with its current “product”… for better and for worse. Image and identity is not interchangable with true branding, and branding is not just a marketing endeavor–although marketing is an important aspect of branding.

    My guess is the city needs to do a better job of projecting its image and identity in the national and international marketplace, but it also needs to take a hard look at its existing core brand promise and decide if it’s sustainable in the future global economy. In this respect, branding is about planning and alignment of precious resources to maximize return on investment, especially public investment. The city cannot be all things to all people, so it needs to decide what its most sustainable strengths are and focus on improving them. If it cannot be number 1, 2 or 3 in a given market or market niche, then it should look for opportunities where it can truly differentiate itself… economically, socially, culturally and environmentally. Which I think you’ve been saying all along in a slightly different way.

    3) Most American cities, and especially those in the Midwest, cannot compete with the country’s media, publishing and cultural centers (LA, NY, Boston, Chicago, Washington DC) for image and identity. Quite naturally, a lot of the content produced in these centers serves as PR for the quality of life they offer or propose to offer. I’m not saying this is fair or unfair… it’s just reality. There will never be a prime time, highly marketed soap opera called “St. Louis” ala “Dallas.” There will probably never be a “CSI: Tulsa.” So, we here in flyover country have to get over that and make our own good luck. Goosing existing cultural institutions that nurture unique, indiginious talent would be good place to start. It would help to if there was a way to get the talent to maintain a Midwest home base after they become successful itstead of leaving for coasts.

    The same obviously goes for all talent, not just the folks connected to media or cultural endeavors.

    Just my 2 cents for now…

  11. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone.

    kevin f., you might be onto something with the Chicago comparison. Indy really is the blank slate. It’s a land of opportunity in a way that more established places are not. Adam of course latched onto this as well. And regarding the LGBT community, I’ve said it before, but Indy can’t afford to be leaving anybody out of the equation. It needs everything its got to put it over the top.

    anon 11:52, there’s definitely a chicken and egg thing going on with labor and jobs. There’s a mutual feedback cycle at work. Seattle is both a better high tech hub, and a larger city to boot. Indy is still a bit too small in my view, and also the air is a bit thin in some industries, I’ll admit. As a tech guy myself, I feel your pain. This is changing, but it’s a journey. But it’s like Richard Stallman said of free software. With free software the question isn’t, “When will this feature be done?” It’s, “How can I help get it done faster?” I must confess, I love Seattle and have been tempted to move their myself. The West Coast is great.

    anon 2:04, Josh, excellent feedback. I too am very worried that this would be botched, and made to look cheesy. One reason I like that blade signage idea (which I thought up on the spot, btw), is that it would disburse the decisions to all those small businesses and individuals. That way if it looks funky, it at least looks authentic. One downside is that this motif might be viewed as too East Asia centric. A huge number of those businesses are South Asian and Indian.

    anon 6:56, you nailed it. In fairness, I am probably twisting Welsh’s words a bit. He was, I believe, referring to the city’s marketing brand positioning as a convention destination. Also, I’m suggesting just what you recommend: redefining the brand promise for true success in the 21st century. Of course, after doing that, we’ve got to walk the talk. Excellent insights there.

  12. Josh says:

    Actually, when you mention Austin, I think they do a pretty good job of being an interesting, people-drawing city that has pretty low taxes – at least I’ve heard their taxes are relatively low.

    Maybe our catch phrase could be “Keep Indy Normal”… joking.

    And on the TV front, supposedly the new murder solving show on… Discovery? that features Indy is supposed to be pretty good. Apparently they chose Indy because we have the highest solve rate of any metro area.

    One note on the whole city being done well. I just don’t really see that actually applying to any city. Every city has rundown streets and sidewalks in certain areas and then centers of activity. I think it is these areas that affect perceptions. Most of NY, Boston, SF, Portland, etc… are rundown and crappy, but it doesn’t matter because people are drawn to the things they like about those places. And, the cultural and personal makeup / vibe is very important. Why do all hipsters live in Williamsburg? Because other hipsters do. Its crappy as hell – a major draw for them.

  13. The Urbanophile says:

    Josh, that show is called “The Shift” and you can download it off iTunes for $1.99 an episode. I was pleasantly surprised by it. They went for portraying Indy as a gritty big city.

    I like Austin as an example precisely because they are in low-tax Texas. I also like that “Keep Indy Normal”. That’s a nice twist on that ornery thing.

    I’ll agree with you that every city has rundown areas. But Indy is unique in many regards. I’ll save my tirade for another day, but Indy generally lacks old dense commercial districts, so doesn’t have that romance of the older areas of bigger cities. It mostly has huge power lines running down every main street – and often with utility poles on both sides of the streets. Even its most affluent neighborhoods like Meridian-Kessler lack sidewalks and curbs on many streets. Where the city does have sidewalks, they are usually narrow 5′ strips directly next to the street, often obstructed by various poles. The main street in front of the brand new $720 million stadium features this exact setup – plus has a suburban style Subway, Arby’s, and White Castle. I could go on and on and on.

    Contrast with Chicago where there are no on street power lines (they use alleys for that), excellent street lighting on every street, generally very wide sidewalks on commercial streets, with every side street (excepting a few northwest side WPA streets) having curbs and sidewalks 6′ or more wide, separated from the curb by a 6-8′ parkway with mature trees and usually landscaping courtesy of the homeowner who lives there. The well maintained parks are all enclosed in freshly painted wrought iron fencing. There are on street bicycle paths and bike parking everywhere. Again, the list goes on. A similar story could be told for San Francisco and many other places.

  14. Carl says:

    As interesting aside to the branding question, I noted several months ago that Boston has a “design czar.” Brilliant idea. Not every city can led by a Richard Daley or John Norquist… successful mayors who are also extraordinarily gifted urban planners/designers in their own right.

    It would undoubtedly be difficult to quantify, but I wonder how much additional value a talented desig

    n czar can bring to a city… say, in increased EAVs. I would love to see a thoughtful analysis of what Daley’s streetscape program has meant to the Chicago in new investment dollars and increased property values over the past 2 decades. I am quite certain the original infrastructure investments (streetscape improvements) would be dwarfed by the increases in commercial activity and real estate values.

    Boston, by maintaining a design czar position (at a salary range that I would guess/hope falls between $100-$200 K) will likely realize a significant return on its investment through various multiplier effects.

    It’s amazing that declining Midwestern cities have not latched on to this concept. A design czar with a small support staff could probably function adequately on a budget less than $1 MM per year. That’s chump change for any significantly-sized city.

    If anyone in Indianapolis had a clue, they would contact you immediately about the position.

  15. The Urbanophile says:

    Carl, The Urbanophile is always for hire if the price is right!

    Beyond a design czar, what cities really need is a VP of Strategy and Brand, which would encapsulate the duties of a Creative Director position.

    Seriously, there are plenty of people in Indianapolis who know and understand good design. The city could easily pull together a small volunteer group and ask them to informally, and strictly off the record, weigh in on various proposals. I’m highly confident that many civic projects could be dramatically improved without any material increase the budget.

  16. Carl says:

    Agreed. Yours would be the ideal situation.

    However, based on the realities of how the world works, my guess is that only a position of stature within a city of Indianapolis’ level of sophistication could command the attention of the people who need to be moved off their spot to make good things happen.

    I don’t think the position you described will cut it. It has to have the prestige and financial backing to attract sufficient talent (if only limited in numbers) to affect meaningful change.

    The charge–and consequences–are high risk. If underfunded or ignored, the position would evaporate in a heartbeat, and its proponents would be left with egg on their faces.

    Call me paranoid, but I think there will be plenty of high level skeptics in a city like Indianapolis perfectly happy to make political hay out of a concept like this if it doesn’t bring meaningful returns in a very short time.

  17. Anonymous says:


    Great post. I just read it to my partner and we found ourselves in interesting conversation regarding what we enjoy about living in Los Angeles versus the Midwest cities we grew up in.

    One thing to keep in mind – don’t be too quick to discount those with connections to the Midwest. We are often the biggest boosters of our Midwest city roots and help dispel the commonly perceived notion that Midwest cities are 20th century cities that are no longer viable cities.

    Midwest cities could really help themselves by figuring out how to harness the knowledge/creativity/connections of those with Midwest ties living elsewhere. I have met many Midwest expats that long to have some sort of connection again, but can’t seem to find the right outlet.

  18. Mike Doyle says:

    I think part of the problem lies in storytelling–or the lack of it.

    Mention iconic cities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston–the list obviously goes on–and invariably you’ll conjure up images of people, places, and things that are associated with them.

    Chicago has its fire, world’s fairs, Michael Jordan, and Nobel laureates. NYC has its sold by the Indians for $24, my grandma passed through Ellis Island, and ingenue coming to make it big on Broadway. San Francisco has its earthquake, cable cars, and nonconformist populace.

    This is a laughably simplistic list, but my point is mention Indianapolis and aside from the Speedway, most people will return a blank stare. I don’t think a lack of topography, or year-round summer, or hipster coolness is the central problem here. I think it’s simply that outside the Midwest, no one really knows the story of Indianapolis. Why it’s there, what struggles brought it into being, and what local legends spark pride in the hearts of the Hoosiers who call it home.

    I’m a native New Yorker who’s lived in Chicago for the past six years, very happily. It’s not the amenities, or culture, or hipness that keeps me here–God knows I could find all that back in NYC. It’s that early on I learned the story of the city, its historic moments, the things that move my now-fellow Chicagoans to pride and pathos. I came here for intellectual reasons (it seemed like a good thing to do at the time). I remain for emotional ones.

    Without pitching a heartfelt story about Indianapolis, how can you expect people unfamiliar with the city to identify with the place–much less be motivated enough to settle there?

    Such lack of storytelling is not an uncommon thing. Recently on my blog, I criticized the Art Institute of Chicago for rejecting informational wall texts as part of the ongoing sweeping re-installation of its galleries. What good is it to freshen up the place if visitors still aren’t being told why the art on view is special?

    In response to my post, management at the Detroit Institute of Arts emailed me to say that in their recent renovation, they took a different tack. They decided to go all out to tell the story of their art treasures: why the different works came to be; what they represented at the time they were made; why they’re important now. In other words, they decided to give their patrons a motivation to care. Their efforts apparently have been successful.

    People connect from the heart, whether with other people or places or things. Sounds to me like Indianapolis (and perhaps some other Midwestern cities) need to talk a little bit less about their all-too-common amenities and crow a little–well, a lot–more about their truly unique aspects.

    God knows, I live not that far away, I’ve been through Indy a few times in the past six years, and for about a year I received the city’s visitor’s information in the mail, and I still didn’t get the point of the place.

    That’s a shame. If I knew why I should care about Indianapolis, you know what? I probably would. It’s hard to not be touched by a good story.

  19. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for more excellent and thoughtful comments.

    anon 10:57, I agree completely. Colleges like Harvard and companies like McKinsey recognize the value of a robust and engaged alumni network. The economies of places like China and India have been powered in part by their diaspora networks.

    This seems pretty obvious. I posted earlier that Boston is doing something with it. There are a few other examples out there as well. The blog of Jim Russell, Burgh Diaspora, which I’ve liked to before, was dedicated to this very prospect with regards to Pittsburgh:

    You might also find the Manifest for a New Pittsburgh interesting.

    I’ve written the start of an alumni network proposal for Indianapolis. The challenge is, who would be interested in sponsoring it? This sort of program is the sort of thing that falls into what I called “fertilizing the soil”. It isn’t a splashy project. Nor is it likely to lead to hard dollar ROI in the very short term. It’s about changing the game long term.

    Another challenge is that the Brain Drain meme treats people who move as a loss to the city, instead of treating them as a powerful distributed network of ambassadors for the cities. Even more reason to want at least some level of out-migration if you ask me.

  20. The Urbanophile says:

    Mike, Chicago Carless is very nice, btw.

    You make some overall excellent points.

    Smaller cities do have stories, they just don’t tell them enough. Also, they don’t carry the sort of national resonance that the stories of bigger cities do. Some of those stories – e.g., Ellis Island – are of national importance and so have more prominence. But for a lot of them, I wonder which came first. Did the story make the city or did the city make the story? Someone made a great point here a couple weeks ago. Great cultural institutions are a lagging, not a leading indicator of a city’s success. You only establish them once you’ve acquired the ambition and the financial means to do so. I wonder if it similar with stories?

    To me, a place like Indy without those stories of the past has to turn that into an asset. In Chicago, New York, etc., it is easy to get crushed under the weight of all that history. And you know what, even in Chicago, the future of that city will never be as bright as its past, when it legitimately dreamed of being the world’s largest and most important city.

    The beauty of Indy and these smaller cities is that their greatest days are still ahead of them. The stories have yet to be written. You can help create that history. That’s part of the brand promise they need to make.

    I split my time about 50/50 between Chicago and Indy so I see up close and in detail the differences between them, the pluses and the minuses of each. I’ll keep saying it. Indianapolis will never be Chicago, and shouldn’t try to emulate that city. That would be a fool’s errand. But Chicago will never be Indianapolis either. Don’t try to beat the bigger places at their game. Try to make them beat you at yours. I think there’s room in a land of opportunity like America for multiple models of successful, thriving, ambitious cities.

  21. Mike Doyle says:

    Thanks for the kind words about Chicago Carless. I think the reason Chicago has thrived in the past couple of decades is that it finally shrugged off its outdated desire to be the biggest and (as my NYC hometown alleges itself to be) best. Being the best Chicago that Chicago can be has done wonders for this, my beloved adopted Midwestern home.

    For my money you hit it on the head about boosterism: both Chicago and New York have been tireless tellers of their civic stories. Not for nothing, that’s where our “Windy City” monicker came from.

    I think it’s fruitless to worry that Alpha cities have more powerful stories to tell. As long a a city like Indy is striving to be the best (non-Alpha) Indy it can be, those other cities and their stories shouldn’t matter.

    The power and resonance to attract attention (and emotional identification) comes from the integrity of the story told, not the size of the tale. In my experience, sometimes the most modest tales have the greatest power.

    Or to put it all more succinctly, in the words of the inimitable Cher: Snap out of it! NYC doesn’t matter. Chicago doesn’t matter. Indy planners just need to figure out what’s motivating about Indy–and then stay tirelessly and repeatedly on message.

    My addition 2 cents :-)

  22. Lord Peter says:

    I think that the “stories” idea is absolutely critical to building a city’s brand. But the does not have to be actual civic history, or even be actually true. What the story has to do is establish a narrative in which people considering moving to the city can see themselves. The story is about people who live there and what it’s like to live there. If you don’t have a mental image of a place, it’s pretty hard to move there.

    The hard part is that the story needs to be disseminated through the media in some way.

    This is easy for NY, Chicago, or LA – movies, TV, newspapers, magazines, etc. are all filled with people living in these places. It is easy to imagine yourself in one of these places if you are thinking of moving there – you know what the streets look like, the buildings, the weather, the stores, etc. This makes it much easier for people interested in moving to actually move there.

    Not that these are necessarily realistic portrayals – you won’t be living like the characters in “Friends” right out of college – but they at least give you some image of the place.

    Seattle also has a narrative (or two narratives) – there is the grunge/slacker/musician narrative, and there is the high-tech mecca narrative. Plus coffee and brewpubs. All of this provides enough information to allow people to envision themselves in Seattle, even though, typically, the only recurring Seattle landmark is the space needle, which is generally despised by Seattleites.

    Off the top of my head, the only place near here with a similar widely known narrative is Bloomington, thanks to “Breaking Away.” Bicycles, IU, quarries, town/gown, etc. – not the whole story, but enough to create a viable narrative. Again, this is enough so that when you mention to people from distant states that you went to school in Bloomington, they have some image of the place…something more than a name.

    Unfortunately, you can’t buy this kind of branding. You have to already have an interesting story and then get someone to talk about it.

  23. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks again – great stuff.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Give it a rest when it comes to “tax and spend republics.” That is utter nonsense- and is evidenced by the fact that you mention these very cities as places where people want to move and are highly regarded precisely because of their support for critical quality of life issues such as mass transit and cultural institutions.

    All of these well established and growing cities are very open-minded tolerant places, that understand the value of public investment. The Midwest is falling behind because it clings to outdated social norms and cynical view of government. It lacks any desire to make progressive change to improve their communities. The mindset is one of “stay out of my pocket and business” and it is not appealing to business or prospective new residents.

  25. Alon Levy says:

    I’m going to disagree with everyone here and say stories are overrated. New York didn’t become New York because it told an interesting story, but because it had a good port, thriving manufacturing, and a history of multiculturalism. Los Angeles didn’t become Los Angeles because it invited movie stars, but because it was far away from New York where Edison demanded royalties from filmmakers, and had oil and a very good Pacific port.

  26. Deuteronomy says:

    An excellent, thoroughly argued post.

    Coming from the perspective of a Midwesterner who has lived in three East Coast cities (currently Boston) and the Deep South, I hope I can at least convince you to be a bit more sanguine about the Midwest. As far as I’m concerned, Anonymous 9:06 PM’s comment is precisely why I can’t wait to leave the East Coast–it is so reflective of the attitudes there and repels those of us who aren’t turned on to such self-righteousness masquerading as “progressiveness”, with sneering condescension coming from people who pride themselves in being “open-minded and tolerant”.

    Perhaps the Midwesterners are a bit more in touch with the decline that surrounds them than the East Coast, but virtually every economic studies continues to show that the Northeast is the most financially stagnant region in the country. Yes, Boston is booming by empirical observation, but virtually every other city is Massachusetts (New Bedford, Worcester, Lawrence, Springfield) is struggling deeply. Like Ohio, Connecticut has no vibrant big-city downtowns; New Haven enjoys residual benefit from Yale just as Columbus does with Ohio State, but the downtowns are struggling. Same can be said for New Jersey, every other city in New York State, most of Pennsylvania. Rhode Island has troubles comparable to Michigan. Yet, the people who live in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, even Providence still seem to be huge boosters for their cities–almost oblivious to the disinvestment and decay that surrounds them.

    The same could be said with much of the South: despite all the hoopla about Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, and Dallas, many other cities are floundering. Birmingham’s downtown was empty when I was there 4 years ago–unattended dogs were walking in the street. Memphis has wonderfully maintained architecture but is moribund. Jackson MS and Columbia SC are government centers and little else after 5 pm. Virtually every smaller city in Georgia is growing slowly or declining; yes that includes Savannah. San Antonio has virtually no downtown residential population, and the street level is bleak if you emerge from the Paseo del Rio. And, in spite of Anonymous 9:06 comments, people aren’t moving to these cities, if the census is an objective indicator (and it certainly is more objective than the observations of a person living in West Village or Back Bay whose only connection to Flyover Country is this blog). New York City is growing just slightly enough to balance the hemorrhaging in the rest of the state; Philadelphia and Baltimore are still shrinking, as is Washington DC. Boston is flat, with the growth taking place only in the New Hampshire suburbs–Massachusetts has lost population in some of the ACS Reports from Census over the past few decade. The fact is, these places have high opinions of themselves despite profound evidence of stagnance or decline; places like Indianapolis have a mediocre self-image despite much evidence of prosperity. (I also disagree that much of the area surrounding the Mile Square looks bad. I know you aren’t big on comparisons with lesser places, but I’ve seen far worse inner cities in both the Northeast and the South. One has to consider what else is out there, bad and good.)

    Your Kotkin/Florida observation was pithy as well–I agree with you that they are both right. They end up seeming like yammering heads for their respective ideologies, but the dialogue they generate is far more telling about economic development than anything either of them has to say in isolation.

    Lastly, your comment on Indianapolis’ “discreet charms” cannot help but recall Kazuo Ishiguro’s rationale in “Remains of the Day”, in which his first-person narrator defends British country side against more spectacular places with mountains and deserts and beaches by being “humble, modest, unpretentious, and all the more lovely because it is not making a big display of itself”. Obviously not an exact quote, but perhaps you’re right that the Midwest’s tendency toward extreme humility borders on self-abnegation; do they need some of that Southern swagger or Northeast pretension? I’m not sure: the very absence of it is why I like the Midwest so much, and fully intend to return someday.

  27. The Urbanophile says:

    Deuteronomy, thanks for the thoughtful post. Clearly, much of the northeast and the south is struggling. Most of the growth is in the few boomtowns, much as almost all of Indiana’s growth is in Indianapolis.

    Regarding the physical appearance of downtown, I’m sure there are worse places out there. But I don’t want to compare myself against the worst, I want to compare myself against the best. Of the cities bigger than Indy I’ve been to, only a handful I would rate comparable in the degree of negative first visual impression left on a casual visit.

  28. rrjs says:

    The Urbanophile, I’ve read as much as your stuff as I can get my hands on. Your content is exactly what I’ve been looking for and saying to myself and others for the past 4 years of college. As a student at Indiana University and a lifelong resident of Indiana, I want the best for my home state. However, until more progressive politicians take over, we will always have the terrible designation of IndiaNOplace.

    The reasons, which are numerous, that this will continue, are because the students that do move here to go to college, still see this as no mans land. Unfortunately, these people rarely travel to downtown Indy and see what it has to offer. After 23 years of living within 50 miles of Indianapolis, it offers a lot more than some cities of equal comparison. As you were pointing out, Indy is dependent on the brains from other states, but until more of those people see what Indy has to offer, instead of staying in their own bubbles in Bloomington or West Lafayette, they will continue to tell others of how desolate of a place Indy and Indiana is (I don’t agree with this notion, by the way).

    The stuff you do is what I want to do for a living. If I could be Indianapolis’ Design Czar, I would eat it up. I’ve had a vision of what I want Indianapolis to look like since I was little. However, I also want to be a people mover one day and run for Congress and such. But in a place like Indiana, it’s hard for those that identify as GLBT, such as myself, to get positions of high prominence and move forward. The only reason that I want to move to Chicago eventually (don’t laugh… the city/state of political corruptness, I know), is because I think that can be my spring board into the prime time light. I would much rather give back to the state that raised me for sure, but not positive in my heart that it can work in this political climate (on another front, I do plan to stick around Bloomington for awhile after graduation in May… sometimes I think that can be the in that I’m looking for, who knows?).

    On the other hand, as for national and international presence, I believe that the Superbowl is one of the best things to happen to Indy, hands down. I think that the exposure that this will bring to the city will bring businesses, residents and visitors who see what Indy is, a small, beautiful, clean metropolitan area, and it will be exponentially prosperous. I think you will see a few more skyscrapers creep up before and afterwords (not only the Marriott hotel), which will just increase the stage presence two fold. I have always said that if we had a larger skyline, when travelers drive through the city on I-65/70, they would report back that Indy isn’t so small after all. It’s an image problem that needs to be addressed, and you, for one, have done so. I wish there were more out there like you! Thanks for all your content!

  29. The Urbanophile says:

    rrjs, thanks so much for the kind words. I appreciate them and your enthusiasm.

    This is not what I “do” in that my profession has nothing to do with this blog. The city doesn’t ask my advice on design, nor, unfortunately, can I point to anything that has changed from a design standpoint because I wrote something here or gave input.

    I too think the city has come a long way but still has a way to go. Part of what I’d like to see happen with an aspirational vision is that it helps motivate the community to get there.

    There’s nothing wrong with moving to Chicago. There’s a fantastic gay scene there as you well know. Leaving the city and state can be a great move for many people. I did it. I can tell you this, if I hadn’t left Indiana and lived, worked, and traveled to the places I’ve been, I wouldn’t be the Urbanophile today. So don’t feel bad in the least about doing what you think is best for you. As my alumni association idea says, it’s often a good thing when people leave, not a bad one.

    I don’t want to sound like your old man or something, but if you are young and passionate about wanting your city to be the progressive place you think it can and should be, Indy can be a frustrating place to live. I used to ask people how they could stand living there with all the problems. Yes, the city has changed. But I’ve changed too. After years of living in Chicago and working in many other elite cities, their ability to enchant is less than it was. And I’m a lot more willing to accept imperfection, and realize that progress is a journey.

    So while I wouldn’t discourage you from staying in Indy after graduation, it could be a good thing to get out and enjoy the rest of the world a bit.

  30. rrjs says:

    Urban, I know this is not what you do for a living. But it’s your insights and wisdom on the subject area that inspire me. Thanks again.

  31. The Urbanophile says:

    Thank you, rrjs. The future of Indiana depends on people like you.

  32. thundermutt says:

    Urbanophile, you give yourself too little credit. You have unquestionably influenced the urban design wars in Indianapolis: designers read your blogs, and if Randall Tobias is quoting you, people are paying attention.

    I sincerely believe it will not be long before you see some of your ideas represented in the built environment. (But “not long” to an old guy like me would seem a whole lot longer to young up-and-comers.)

  33. Jeffrey Cufaude says:

    I know you somewhat dismissed the “So Easy to Do So Much,” but it’s actually part of the story I tell others about why I still live in Indy.

    It is easier to do more than in would be in Chicago, NYC, or larger cities … starting with the sheer cost of living differences.

    Do we need better aspiration, design, branding, and all the other areas you outline? Absolutely, but part of good positioning (drawing on the Ries and Trout marketing theory) is taking the position you own and then twisting it to your aspiration.

    People don’t think there is anything to do in Naptown, so that’s why the So Easy to Do So Much Slogan” resonates with me somewhat. Also, it is particularly appropriate for the meeting planners it targeted as they judge prospective convention sites based on that very criteria.

  34. The Urbanophile says:

    Jeffrey, thanks for the thoughtful contribution.

    I think that, intuitively, people from bigger cities understand the tradeoffs and the relative advantages of Indianapolis. When you talk to people in other cities, do you talk specifically about what you can do here, or only that it is an easier quality of life with some amenities? I’m legitimately curious as to the sales job, how you approach it, and what the results were.

    I definitely agree that the ease of getting around and the amenities the city does have relative to its cost and other measures of quality of life is a big part of the sales case. Indy simply can’t give that up to try to ape the bigger cities. However, I do think it needs to sharpen its focus and competitively differentiate itself.

    Lastly, you raise an excellent point about the ICVA. Most cities seem to outsource their tourism promotion to the CVB. But the mission of the CVB is often focused around conventions, hotel bookings, and its direct customer base, so to speak. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there could be a sort of conflict of goals between CVB type optimization and general promotion of the city and its brand.

  35. Pat says:

    I started the community blog called “I Choose Indy,” secretely hoping that the city would adopt it as the tag line. What could more emotionally impactful that a concious choice to live your life in a particular place? Sadly, it never saw the light of day…but the blog lives on :-)

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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