Monday, May 25th, 2009

A Crisis of Values

The LORD is long-suffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” – Numbers 14:18

For the apparel oft proclaims the man.” – Hamlet, Act I, Scene III

John Stuart Mill said that “opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence.” I’ve tried to live that credo in my blog, but at no small risk to myself, I’m putting aside my standard garb for today, and taking up the long black cloak and broad brimmed hat of the itinerant preacher, calling the people forth to repentance.

The city of Indianapolis is replacing sewer inlets in the downtown area. But instead of replacing them with new inlets that are laid flush with the existing sidewalk, it’s installing them at a higher grade, leaving major bumps in sidewalks all over downtown. These photos illustrate.

In a downtown which has seen billions invested in improvements, how is it that something so casually unsightly, lazy, and anti-functional could get built in the present day?

It’s tempting to want to pin the blame on the engineers at places like DPW when we see things like this. But as someone who has studied the public works sector extensively for years, I’ve met many engineers at these agencies and haven’t met any of them who are either malicious or stupid. Not even one. To the contrary, I’m always impressed with how generally sharp they are, and with their desire to make their communities better places. That’s only logical. They live there too. In fact, they are the kind of guys you wouldn’t mind kicking back and having beer with. They’re not all that different from you and me.

Which is exactly the problem. The problem isn’t them, it’s us. They are an all too accurate reflection of the values of the people who live in the cities of the Midwest. Rather than engage in difficult self-reflection about our own roles in the communities where we live, it’s easier to just externalize problems by blaming them on some Other.

Our engineers are a mirror held up to ourselves. They aren’t imposing something on the unwilling. Rather, they are giving our communities exactly what they want. Consider: has anyone complained about these sewer inlets? With outrageous examples of this installation dotting prominent corners all over downtown, I think it is fair to say that every community leader has seen one at some point, as well as huge numbers of ordinary citizens. But has anyone done anything? It is debatable whether or not most people even notice them. Things like this are so normal, so expected in this city that they have become as invisible as the air we breathe. When they are pointed out, people shrug and wonder why anyone thinks it worth remarking upon.

What’s the big deal about a few sewer grates? you might ask. Keeping in mind that these are but the smallest example of the design mentality that permeates the city, I’ll explain. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the unemployment problems that have hit places like Portland, Oregon. You see, despite the economy, young, educated people are continuing to flock there and to places like Austin and Seattle. They want to live there so badly that they are willing to put up with months of unemployment and menial jobs in order to stay in a place they consider so personally attractive.

When’s the last time you heard of a Midwest city having that problem? Even Indianapolis, one of the best performing, barely hits the national average for college degree attainment. It has a downtown that, after 30 years of investment, still requires major subsidies for virtually every development. That downtown is surrounded by miles of decaying, blighted neighborhoods, abandoned homes, vacant lots, empty factories and brownfields, severe depopulation, limited retail options and poverty in all directions. Only a narrow corridor to the north is healthy. Most cities have a so-called “favored quarter”. Indianapolis has a “favored sliver”.

I said there were two challenges for the city in attracting talent: getting an audition in the first place, and closing the deal afterward. But building a city that looks this way is like the smartest kid in the class showing up to an interview in ripped jeans and stained t-shirt. No matter how good you are, you’re not getting the job. That’s why the educated are streaming to Portland and Seattle even though there’s no room at the inn, but Indy is barely treading water and the rest of the Midwest is on the verge of drowning.

In case you didn’t get the memo, don’t expect anyone who visits to tell you this. When you visit someone’s house, do you draw conclusions about them from the way they decorate and keep the place up? Darn right, you do. Especially if it is someone you barely know otherwise. Do you tell them any bad conclusions you draw to their face? Of course not.

Do we really think any prospective resident is going to confine their survey of the city to only the few manicured blocks in the Wholesale District and a handful other “approved” zones? What do we think will happen when people see the physical face the city all too often puts forward, one that is actively repellent to much of its target demographic? Is it likely that anyone with even modest standards and ambitions for themselves will want to live in a place with such apparently low standards? If a city looks like it doesn’t care about itself, why should it expect anyone to care to live there?

When a prospective resident or business owner sees something like these sewer inlets, what conclusions are they likely to draw about the type of city they are in and the people who live there? Pretty darn accurate ones. What do these pictures tell us about why the Midwest has failed? My friends, everything we need to know.

The problem facing the Midwest isn’t an economic crisis, it’s a spiritual crisis. I say values because let’s not pretend there are true moral issues at stake. People can make legitimately different choices about how they want to live. The problem of the Midwest is that there is a contradiction between the values of the people and their cherished ways of life, and the economic results they want and believe they are entitled to expect.

Many Midwesterners hold values that are no longer compatible with economic growth in the 21st century, don’t recognize that, and probably wouldn’t change if they did. Then when their cities, towns, and rural areas sink into the mire they rage against the forces they believe are conspiring against them: NAFTA, foreigners, corrupt politicians, greedy corporate executives, unions, you name it. And while there is no doubt that the Midwest has been heavily hit by economic forces beyond its control, it’s equally true that the people themselves were willing accomplices in their own demise.

If Indianapolis really does implode, it will be not just a leadership failure of the highest order, but also an indictment of those who follow. Until there is public demand for something different from the status quo, it will take extraordinary leadership to change the present course, and that is a commodity which is, alas, in all too short a supply.

Sadly, this way of thinking seems deeply entrenched, passed down from generation to generation like a treasured inheritance. We celebrate that families bring their children downtown to eat, shop, and play. But what are they learning while they are there? People usually talk about the “values of the street” as a way of talking about peer pressure. But in the Midwest it is literally the street. The values of the community are embodied in the very concrete on which we drive, and, on rare occasions walk. Our children are learning what is normal in this place. The very streets of the city are teaching it to them all too well.

Is there any value so cherished that we think we deserve this? I hope not. It is critical that our communities engage in deep soul-searching and reflection about what their values really are, what’s important to them, and what’s not. Some things are legitimately worth holding despite a high cost. On this Memorial Day we remember those who gave their lives in the service of our country. That’s a value worth cherishing and holding to no matter what.

But most of our values aren’t like that. Many of them aren’t even consciously considered. For those that were products of and specific to a time and place that no longer exists, it’s time to grow up and grow beyond them, to create and take on new thinking better suited to today’s world and tomorrow’s. The alternative is to retreat into nostalgia and bitterness, to cling to the some imagined, sanitized good old days, and watch our cities disintegrate around us.

For some places, it’s too late. There is no easy road back for them. But for a lot of the Midwest there is still time to rise up and meet the challenge. If we don’t, then we don’t have far to look to see what fate has in store for us.

The longest journey begins with a step, but you have to take it. We need to decide right now, today, that things like these sewer inlets are no longer acceptable, and that another one will never be installed. Our leaders, political, cultural, business, and otherwise, need to make it their personal business to ensure that we embrace creating quality of space. And our citizens need to be there supporting, encouraging, and demanding the same. Otherwise, while the region may soldier on, for the city, it’s game over.

Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

48 Responses to “A Crisis of Values”

  1. Steve says:

    As a native New Englander living in the Midwest for about a year now, I’ve got to say, you’ve hit the nail on the head. While Southern and Western cities can often afford to be somewhat careless due to favorable conditions, in the increasingly post-industrial parts of the country success necessitates paying attention to details. Sadly, it seems that Midwestern cities often think that big projects will save the day, as if an arena or a convention center will make a decaying industrial city more attractive than Seattle or San Francisco.

    Perhaps the spatial dimensions of Midwestern cities have something to do with this tendency; as long as you can build nicer suburbs further and further out, why not just neglect the urban core? Coastal cities such as Boston and hilly regions like Pittsburg and Atlanta naturally focus on the city center even as they grow outward; when confined to a relatively small space such as Manhattan one is obliged to attend to details.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It may very well be functional. The drainage capacity of this drain is determined by the area opened by the five holes in the drain. If they installed this drain so it was flush with the sideride it would be necessary to lower the level of the street pavement to get the same drainage capability. That would put a bump in the street that I would not want to hit riding my bike. If I ride on the sideride true there is a bump but it is more visible and it is about as bad as the curb cuts which are part and parcel of using the siderides anyway.

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 1:15,

    Functionality is a design constraint, not the design driver.

    If the city thinks this is the most convenient way to solve their functionality problems, that’s their choice. But the city should keep in mind that other people have choices too. The city’s makes its choices, other people make their’s. Look where that’s gotten us.

  4. Nick says:

    In this case function is the design driver. They had to design a drain here. Otherwise you could go water skiing in front of Acupulco Joe’s.

  5. JG says:

    URBANO: You have made similar arguements regarding street lights, overpasses, and signage to name ones off the top of my head. These are civic features handled by differnt groups in INDY: Dept Public Works, IN Dept Transportation, Dept Metro Development, etc. Possibly these Departments are in need of a unifying office that deals with city asthetics to serve as CONSULTANTS on projects (not as oversight); particular for the projects who reside in the land of “misfit toys” (i.e. sidewalks, curbs, and street lights) and might get approval without serious thought and debate on their impacts.

    I know many take objection to creating MORE government – but I wonder if folks working those DEPTs mentioned above would welcome the extra creative eyes to look over their designs prior to presentation for approval. (Does this already exist?)

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    It seems like there are a lot of engineering experts who study downtown drainage issues who read my blog. Unless you were part of designing this solution, any statement about functionality is speculation.

    My general experience has been that most sewer inlet replacements are actually done to restrict inflow to prevent basement backups and mitigate CSO issues. The idea is that it is better to flood the street than to have untreated sewage end up in people’s basements or a local waterway.

    Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter. Most cities in America have drainage to consider. Few of them elected a solution like this.

    Again, drainage is a functional constraint. It’s only a design driver of the solution if you let it be. This is the solution the city chose to whatever problem it was trying to address, nothing more, nothing less. And the solutions we choose to address our problems says something powerful about what we are all about as people.

  7. chuckswitzer says:

    Exactly. Every city faces drainage issues. Few would tolerate this.

    When I interned last summer in Indy I ate lunch a few times at Acupulco Joe’s. It was a friend’s favorite restaurant. She used a wheelchair to get around and I was amazed at how difficult it is to get around. There was no construction on the block, just poorly designed sidewalks (not to mention all the cars that park – and are permitted to park – on the sidewalk north of the Athletic Club condos). This drainage solution is both ugly and an impediment to functionality.

  8. Alon Levy says:

    The Wall Street Journal article talks a lot about people moving to jobless Portland, but brushes aside the fact that Dallas, Houston, and Austin get just as many people moving in, and have much lower unemployment. The reason Portland has very high unemployment, higher than every major Midwestern metro area except Detroit, is that the crisis has destroyed the West Coast. Apart from Detroit the Midwest is actually in a pretty good relative position now.

    It’s not an issue of values. New York has ugly elevated grates too (see here and here), used to protect the subway from flooding. They take up sidewalk space, and I’d much rather bike on bumpy sidewalks than on narrow sidewalks. Elsewhere, the city is busy destroying Broadway; it’s pedestrianizing it block and block, over the objections of the local business community, with the intention to turn it into a linear park. Elsewhere, San Francisco and San Jose are making plans for grandiose, expensive train stations, over the objections of nobody except a couple of engineers who nobody listens to. If cities like this can thrive, so can Indy.

  9. The Urbanophile says:

    Alon, I won’t pretend that aesthetics are the only force in a city. Clearly, there are many complex forces that contribute to urban success or failure. The typical city of the South is not going to win any awards for aesthetics.

    But with NYC and San Francisco and places like that, I think we need to be careful. When you’re in a place as generally great as SF, bad design can be absorbed. Massive forces of many varieties sustain Alpha cities like SF and New York.

    But virtually nothing sustains the urban core of Indianapolis or most other Midwest cities. Every choice counts. Every precious dollar that is spent has to be spent wisely, not poorly. Attention to detail matters.

  10. Sid Burgess says:

    I am quite confused to hear the “this is the only choice they had” argument coming from some of those commenting. How hard would it be to simply spread the height out over several more feet, ergo eliminating the “bump”?

    As a city councilman, my first project I pushed for was to replace our aging sidewalks downtown and ensure that the space was free and open and pedestrian friendly. I can’t imagine a more unfriendly obstacle than this huge bump in the sidewalk. Ok, perhaps a “sidewalk closed” sign would be a little more annoying.

    I applaud you for continuing to beat this drum. We American’s really are going to have to start grasping the concept that we, as inhabitants of our cities and towns, have a responsibility to ensure our cities are built in a way that are as sustainable as is reasonable and aesthetic enough to ensure our children and grandchildren are not always looking for the door as they grow up.

    That is the only way to stop the crime of continuing to pass on to the next generation our horrible, largely nonfunctional cities.

    Keep it up my friend. I don’t comment much but I am an avid reader.

  11. joe shoemaker says:

    Superb observations and conversations. My wait for the next installment of the blog was well rewarded. Thanks.

  12. Donna says:

    To those saying this decision was acceptable based on function, understand that GOOD design solves all the problems: functional, aesthetic, and economic.

    If we distill the design ethos of other places to a few simple words, compare:

    Italian design: First it must be beautiful, then it must function.

    German design: Once it functions flawlessly, its beauty will be integral.

    American design: If it’s ugly and barely functional, we’ll still pay too much *provided* it’s on the taxpayer dime.

    Downtown Indy is a horrid example of “good enough”. Accepting something terribly ugly and only marginally functional (would a wheelchair user appreciate having to go over that bump?) seems to be status quo for downtown. In today’s world good design has become status quo to most consumers – when will downtown Naptown harness that outlook and start demanding more?

    (As an aside, examples like this make the Cultural Trail all the more of a stunningly awesome achievement.)

  13. The Urbanophile says:

    Donna, while I truly love the Cultural Trail, it, unfortunately, falls prey to that local pattern of thought that suggests that if we but produce a handful of truly wonderful special places, they somehow will make up for the ocean of mediocrity in which they are embedded. If the Cultural Trail does not inspire a greater re-imagining of the urban space in Indy, it is fundamentally a failure no matter what it achieves.

  14. hharrington says:

    This sounds like an argument we had in Louisville a couple of years ago. We were adding sidewalks to our west Main street corridor and the city opted to go with the much more expensive granite curbs instead of concrete.

    We had several council-persons upset over the extra expense of granite and the fact that the city plans to replace most of the curbs in the central business district with granite. The mayor and crew finally won out and granite is going in. Their argument was pretty simple. Granite looks much better, and it last about 4-5X as long as a typical concrete curb.

  15. Ironwood says:

    I’m about to throw Chicago in Indy’s face. Apologies in advance, and stipulations galore that Chicago is by no means the gold standard. We can all point to major design mistakes by the dozens in Chicago along the lines of Urbo’s sewer grates.

    BUT, to Urbo’s point about leadership, I can tell you, as someone who spent five years inside the Chicago city administration and several years afterwards as a consultant to the City, that no one involved in public works during that period would have let the sewer grate mistake happen for one simple reason: “What Would The Mayor Think?”

    Some of you may recall that in the 90s Daley travelled extensively to various European cities, and was especially taken by Paris. He took his aides with him. He was constantly pointing out things, little things, like mailboxes, trash cans, bike racks, etc., constantly asking “Why can’t Chicago have these?” “Why can’t Chicago look like this?”

    That was the origin of the new streetlights, the new newspaper vending racks, new trash cans, miles of wrought iron fencing, ubiquitous flowers, the medians down LaSalle St., LSD, the replication of Upper Wacker Dr. (instead of a much cheaper contemporary version), the new bus shelters, street art, new sculpture in the parks, etc.

    Now, many have taken issue from a design standpoint with the actual design of some of these components, and, Chicago being Chicago, the fencing contract was awarded to a friend of the mayor’s, who took his job so seriously that a lot of things got fenced that probably shouldn’t have. But many, many more have embraced the changes. And the changes, some small but all cumulative, have been a factor in increasing tourism, civic pride and, I believe, actually changing Chicagoans’ vision of their home town.

    But the point is, one guy at the top really can instill a design sensibility throughout an administration. Nobody working for the city wanted to procure something that would incur the wrath of the mayor. Conversely, if you could come up with a component that caught his eye and his approval, you were going to get points.

    The mayor was not a one-man-show. He tapped into a deep vein of civic pride, and garnered instant support from business, citizens, etc. This support showed itself in the year of the cow street art, the competition along Michigan Ave. among merchants to plant their parkways, etc.

    At least in the case of Chicago, I think you can point to leadership. Daley’s vision and follow-through was really all it took to tap into something in the business community and citizenship that until then was dormant.

    Last thought: Daley also pulled this off during a time of sustained prosperity and a pretty solid (comparatively speaking) tax stream. Would he be able to do the same thing if he were starting in this economy? Hard to say.

  16. j . j . says:

    Nice point Ironwood. No offense to Ballard particularly (because the same goes pretty much for Peterson), but the point that being completely immersed in the community, to include having so much blinding pride that desire always outweighs reality, could really garner some movement around here. Our leaders really must lay their own faith on the line for what is right and stop running everything by committee. The vision must be a singular one that sythesizes and embodies the community at large — not an easy task for sure!

    Can I point out the new radiused, sloped curbs going in around town…ever notice that not but a few months after installation the knobs on the concrete pavers and simply disappearing? Think these will ever get replaced? The knobs are supposed to be textural, for those either disabled or in an afternoon haze, to indicate to the walker that something important is coming. They won’t do theri job if they’ve all rubbed off. Less than a year in service seems pretty darn inadequate to me.

    I took pictures 2 years ago, but never submitted them to INDOT or the city, originally thinking that this would suggest that these elements be constructed out of something else, perhaps more permanent. And these knobby concrete pavers are still going in at every new intersection curb. Not to mention that many of these low spots (particularly in Fountain Square) still fill up with water when the rains come. Maybe the drainage should have been addressed when the City spent $15,000 on the new sidewalks?

    I do believe that this mentality IS what keeps people from wanting to be more involved, and it’s a viscous circle of blame that will never be broken without the vision of our mayor or a strong community leader.

  17. JG says:

    SID: I am glad to see a city council man reads this BLOG. I have been a fan and silent reader for about 2 years but began participating in discussioins as an avenue to reach those with influence in the city (and region), either directly or indirectly.

    HHARINGTON: That’s an interesting dilema regarding the granite sidewalks. Personally I civic groups should build for the future. There is something special about a granite sidewalk that will be around 75 to 100 years from now. My question is whether this is truly economical over that period of time? Did the numbers add up to a long term cost savings or a nearly cost neutral figure? If so its worth it if the city could issue bonds at good interest rates.

  18. William says:

    Design Matters…bottom line.

    This guy here is more interesting to me than the building on Senate the Cosmopolitan or the screw up with the street drainage. (not architecture) like the un-Cosmopolitan and the drainage are metaphors that describe directly our attitude and moreover our professional organizations attitude on expectations, and lack of.

    This guy in this story has guts…he is thinking about space…its limitations…its potential…its challenges…its sustainability. We can learn from him and the billions of others who live in this condition. Our CONDITION.

    We in our privilege have lost sight of what is important. We’ve lost vision of the potential of our environments. We have become content to choose profit over ingenuity. cost over character. We love in Indianapolis to REVOLVE versus EVOLVE, which is why our city looks straight out of the movies…a film. A production. A reproduction.

    We have a lot to learn about design culture in this city.

    It takes more than just putting savvy buildings up. A culture means we dialog about it. That we are open to critique intelligibly without penalty. That our news papers and magazines write on it…and maybe hurt a few feelings. Life is tough. Not everyone’s shit is good and it sometimes needs to be talked about (Way to go Aaron).

    When dialog extends itself to words like, “I like it” or “it is nice” or “it’s not traditional” This type of dialog is empty. Its void of productive exchange. It is average. It is us.

    We have a lot of work to do…it starts with people who choose substance over image…character over price tag…dialog over politics. Future over past.

    It starts with the Councilman reading this blog…NICE!

    -social agent of change

  19. Trueblood says:

    The problem, as always, with politicians is they have no incentive to plan for the future. Politicians need votes, and they need them now. Saving a million dollars in today’s budget is much more valuable than saving 10 million dollars over the course of 100 years. It is nice to see that some mayors (like the example provided by Hharionton) care about the future of their cities more than winning votes for the here and now.

  20. Anonymous says:

    What about the American’s with Disabilities Act?

    How are people on wheelchairs supposed to navigate sidewalks with these large bumps on them?

    My hunch is that after the lawyers get finished with this project, what ever cost savings was created by this design will be more than made up by the costs of litigation.

  21. j . j . says:

    As long as the new paving doesn’t exceed 1″ rise in 12′ of run, and doesn’t make a change in elevation (such as a threshold) of more than 1/4″, there’s no real concern about lawyers and ADA — well, other than the horrible design and implementation of the inlets.

  22. John says:

    I think this is reflective of two common problems with engineers. I am a traffic engineer myself, so I have no problem saying this.

    1. Engineers pick the cheapest solution that will solve the stated problem with little regard to the aesthetics.
    2. Engineers too often address the supply side of the problem and not the demand side. This applies to traffic as much as sewers. Too many cars? Make the road bigger. Too much water flow? Make the sewer or inlet bigger. Instead, what if we found a way to reduce the amount of water running into the sewers. Cities should adopt comprehensive stormwater management policies that encourage less impermeable surfaces. Maybe the parking lanes could be permeable pavement? Maybe there could be more green roofs? How about some rain garden bump-outs?

  23. Anonymous says:

    So, Urbanophile, what values do you think are holding back the Midwest?

  24. Ironwood says:

    What values are holding back the midwest? I know you’re asking Urb, not me, and I, too, will be interested in hearing his response, but I can’t resist this short answer: It’s all catalogued by Garrison Keiler over the last umpteen years in his reports from Lake Woebegone.

  25. E. says:

    If the core (and rest) of Indianapolis is in such “horrible” condition for pedestrians and the handicapped, how on earth did it win the best city for disabled accessibility a month ago?

  26. The Urbanophile says:

    ironwood, great comment about Daley. I’ll also repeat what I told Alon earlier. Every city has examples of truly horrible design. You could probably find something like this or worse. But in cities like Chicago, New York, SF, etc there is so much else going right that they overcome things like this.

    The problem in Indianapolis is that this design is basically the default level of quality for all too much of the city. There’s very little good design to prop it up, only legacy items like Kessler’s boulevard system that are now falling apart.

    E. – Not sure how Indy won that award when in most of the county there aren’t even sidewalks on the street – just drainage ditches.

  27. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 1:55, taking your question seriously, one example is in not caring about the physical appearance of our cities. Another is believing that minimum effort and levels of service is good enough for us.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Great post and thoughtful commentary.

    Most every Midwestern city faces the same issues (crisis?) described in Urbanophile’s post. This is mostly observable in the commercial corridors that include downtowns and the routes leading to them. Awful, terrible. But, often lauded by locals because of their tax benefits and the goods and services they provide.

    Engaged communities that care have some control, and companies like Walgreen’s have responded. I’ve read they have a three-tier level of quality for their stores that they apply depending on how demanding the community is regarding design. I’m not picking on Walgreen’s. They’re smart and shareholder benefit. They’re going to be there whether or not a community, overall, is able to create the curb appeal (literally) for their community that helps enable a sustainable pattern of investment.

    I recently picked up a copy of Midwest Living’s “Best of the Midwest” magazine. There you have it in a nutshell. The distilled essence of the Midwest’s best. Initially, the reading is encouraging. Then, about midway through comes the realization that many places outside the major cities are depending on the same things, and lot of those things revolve around reviving what’s was done over a hundred years ago. That’s great, even essential, but where’s the imagination beyond the new family friendly waterpark?

    For every dot on the map in the “Best of the Midwest” there are 30-50 communities that are going to barely hang in the next several decades… and may not at all unless someone figures out how to make gasoline out of seawater.

  29. Ken says:

    I think the real issue is that New York, San Francisco, LA, Portland etc. are full of the really smart kids who didn’t fit in in their conformist Midwestern high schools and decided to go someplace where intelligence, creativity, ambition, and self-expression are valued, and being different than the mainstream is at least acceptable. And those that don’t want to leave the Midwest altogether end up in Chicago.

  30. Alon Levy says:

    Ken: New York and Los Angeles are fully of conformity – it’s just not the same kind of conformity that you encounter in small town America. Worshiping at the altars of The Wire, The West Wing, and Battlestar Galactica doesn’t mean you’re any more of an individual than the people who worship American Idol.

  31. pete-rock says:

    Urbanophile, what an excellent and piercing commentary on Midwestern cities. You were writing about Indy, but I could’ve sworn you were writing about the very town I work in.

    I agree that what plagues Midwestern cities is that 1) we don’t really care about the appearance of our cities, and 2) minimal levels of effort and service are OK with the general public. I’d add that Midwesterners have never really challenged ourselves to be innovative in responding to our problems.

    If I were to develop a guess as to how this kind of thinking emerged in the Midwest, I would say it’s a legacy of industrial paternalism. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, city fathers didn’t have to care about the appearance of their cities, because big industrialists were willing to build in your town just to have access to your cheap labor. Furthermore, local governments didn’t really have to invest a lot in intrastructure and aesthetics; they just had to do enough to make the big industrialists happy.

    As for where this “Crisis of Values” is taking us, I think the Midwest has already entered a period similar to what much of the South experienced between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Those 100 years between 1865 and 1965 saw the collapse of the slavery-based plantation economy, and it hurt all the cities and towns that were dependent on it. That period also saw the rise of mechanized agriculture that eliminated the need for even dirt-cheap labor.

    In my opinion, the South only came back once several things happened. One, its cheap labor became an asset when compared to higher Northern wages. Two, government investment in things like the TVA and military bases began to pay off, thus providing even more jobs. Three, the Interstate Highway System made the trip from north to south much easier, whether for visiting or moving. And fourth and most importantly, the South had to deal with its legacy of slavery and Jim Crow discrimination.

    I think the Midwest is facing the same type of challenges that the South had in the late ’20s and early ’30s. Can we develop the same kind of responses?

  32. Anonymous says:

    Many people do value good design in and of itself, but you say that Midwestern cities must pay attention to design if they are not to implode. This does mean like they need to change their _values_ (which will still be economic growth) simply a change their methods to attract the Portland “good design” set.

  33. thundermutt says:

    Always look at the simple answer: this sewer inlet grate is probably used in 1000 cities in the US and is undoubtedly the cheapest. Alas, our curb height is lower than in many cities, so there is a mismatch.

    You’ll notice that where complete street rebuilds happen (for instance, Maple Road/38th), the same sewer grate is integrated seamlessly.

    As an American of German heritage, I appreciate both standardization and thrift. In the frame provided by The Urbanophile, the intrepid reader will recognize that I’m suggesting a conflict of values exists, in this case, perceived thrift vs. appearance.

    I know the value that Indy chooses: Woe be to the person who authorizes a PO for the “right” sized (but custom) grate, as bloggers and the IndyStar will be all over “government waste” when Indy’s downtown replacement sewer inlets cost twice as much as Dallas’.

  34. Alon Levy says:

    Pete-rock: the South never really responded to the challenge. It was made to respond because of civil rights activism. Since the Rust Belt’s problems don’t have the same social justice flavor, it’s unlikely they can be solved through the same kind of direct action.

  35. pete-rock says:

    Alon: I would actually agree that the “Old South” political/cultural/social leadership really didn’t initiate the Civil Rights Movement. It was indeed civil rights activists, North and South, black, white and otherwise. It was a change that was forced on most Southerners.

    But I would still say that possibly one unintended impact of the Civil Rights Movement was that it made it easier for Northern businesses to pull up stakes and move southward, especially with all the public investment that had already taken place.

    In 1949 or ’59, many Northern manufacturers would likely have been jeered if they considered relocating from, say, Indiana to Alabama. By 1969, they’re open to it; by ’79, they’re actively doing it; by ’89, they’re thought to be crazy if they don’t.

    Of course, by 1999 those same manufacturers are looking at cheap labor overseas.

  36. pete-rock says:

    I don’t quite know how to frame this, but it seems like some of the comments here react to the symptom rather than the problem.

    To me, the sewer intake grate in Indy is the symptom. Simply saying that “better” design will attract “better” people is just like Michigan saying its cities are “cool” will attract “cool” people. How’d that work out?

    The bigger problem the Midwest faces is its “good enough” ethos. Once we get past that, symptoms like these disappear.

  37. thundermutt says:

    pete-rock, sometimes “good enough” is a lifestyle choice that allows other possibilities.

    If I buy the “best house money can buy”, maybe I can’t also afford the “best” car or “best” vacation.

    But if I change my POV to “the best I can afford”, then perhaps less than “the best money can buy” is acceptable.

    Undoubtedly the same mindset takes its place in municipal staff decision-making. And as a self-described “radical moderate”, I do not find anything inherently wrong with tradeoffs that entail accepting less than the best of some things.

    There is no doubt in my mind that every single thing in life can be improved. The real question is always whether it’s worth the cost.

  38. The Urbanophile says:

    pete-rock, re: your 2:11 post – I could not agree more.

    Thunder, you are right that we can’t always afford Cadillac. But choices to accept less should be deliberately made, not made by default.

    Your logic also misses a key point. The world has more people in it than just those who decide what is the best amount to spend for them. Cities make their decisions about what service level constitutes acceptable, then current and prospective residents and businesses make their decisions about whether or not that is an environment they want to be part of. Given the condition of central Indianapolis, and the fact that 46,000 voted with their feet to leave Marion County since 2000 (net domestic out-migration), looks like it’s two thumbs down on the choices the city is making.

    As for those people who would complain about spending more than Dallas, that’s exactly the point of this article.

  39. j . j . says:

    Urb — Bigger question to me, attempting to avoid complete speculation, is why 46k left? I personally hesitate to speculate, especially here, except to say that my wife is ready to go. And that says a lot, because it doesn’t have to do with curbs (well, sort of it does because our neighborhood sidewalks suck, and I notice the additional details), it has to do with the bigger picture, which is certainly impacted by the mindset of those you speak of that allow mediocrity to govern our city.

    Love the direction this is going.

  40. Anonymous says:

    I like the drains. It creates an authentic sense of place. When you see them, you know exactly where you are.

    They have that cool authentic urban gritty feel. When you see that, you know you aren't in some generic boring suburb where you are looking at drains that look like a million other drains in a million other places.

    The problem with a lot of the suggestions that I have read in this thread is that most of the people want to grind the life out of the place and make every place reminicent of the Truman Show or some sort of Disnified simulacrum of an urban experience. But who would want to live in that?

    Real urban areas have reak urban artifacts. They have power lines, and smokestacks. Why does every space need to be made neat and tidy? What is wrong with the spontaneous creation of something that is a little different, a little odd a little unusual?

    Stewart Brand has an interesting piece on what he calls low road buildings. He argues that these are the types of places that most of the worlds creative work gets done. Why are you trying to stomp out these types of places instead of embracing them?

  41. Alon Levy says:

    Almost every city core in the US has net domestic outmigration – even in Texas, Dallas and Houston are massive exporters of people. Dallas County actually has a higher net outmigration rate than Marion County.

  42. thundermutt says:

    Aaron, I get your point.

    I didn’t make my point very well earlier: The values of workmanlike design/engineering/function and thrift often come into conflict. This leads to the Midwestern American solution: the best we can do with what we have.

    Part of the problem is that governments don’t account for capex and opex in the same way that businesses do, and sometimes fund accumulated opex deficits with bonds, a tool which should be reserved for capex. (See: pensions.) This is a problem with municipal finance everywhere, not just the Midwest.

    THERE is the real problem. Just this week the WSJ has featured California cities considering bankruptcy and disincorporation because they can’t afford to provide their “normal” municipal services. Does this mean that their “normal” LOS is illusory and can’t be maintained without mortgaging the future extensively? Does that mean that their LOS expectations and delivery are both too high to be sustainable?

  43. Anonymous says:

    So answer your own question: did you complain to the appropriate sources or just blog about it?

    And if you did, what was their response?

  44. JC says:

    “If the Cultural Trail does not inspire a greater re-imagining of the urban space in Indy, it is fundamentally a failure no matter what it achieves.”

    What a ridiculous assertion. So if any new development in the urban core doesn’t inspire a fundamental re-imagining is it also a failure? or do you just have something against the Cultural Trail?

    Why should it alone be saddled with the burden of the future of the urban core, something it never laid claim to nor should be held accountable for.

  45. Anonymous says:

    I, too, am curious whether this was brought to the attention of those at DPW, and what the response was (if any).

    This issue really frustrates me. I get the point about design being important and what it says about us as a city. But I’m also a government worker who understands the financial reality of such issues. These inlets were probably collapsed before they were replaced. The choice probably wasn’t a good one–replace it with what they have in stock or leave it for some future (meaning “unknown date”) redesign.

    I’m sure there are lots of DPW folks who’d love to design fabulous alternatives (natural stormwater filtration, permeable pavement, etc.) but those are pie in the sky alternatives without funding behind them. Meanwhile the inlet might otherwise go unrepaired.

    People in this city and state have long histories of little willingness to pay for their expectations. You generally get the services you pay for, so perhaps it’s good that folks tend to keep their expectations sort of low.

    The result is inlets that serve their function, but not an aesthetic. I guess that’s your overall point, but I don’t see a better alternative without a higher cost to taxpayers. It’s certainly not going to happen in the current atmosphere.

  46. The Urbanophile says:

    thunder, California has the opposite problem. Plus they have a large civil service there with gold plated pay and benefits packages. Pensions are killing them. Vallejo (which filed Chapter 9), reportedly had police officers making $300,000 a year. Indiana pays its public employees an extremely low rate, but Cali seems off the chart.

    There is clearly the other problem of spending too much money and creating unsustainable burdens for yourself as well as rendering your community business hostile through high taxes. There’s clearly an art and balancing act involved.

  47. The Urbanophile says:

    JC: One problem locally is an excessive focus on “special places”. Monument Circle, the Cultural Trail, etc. But the mark of a great city is how it treats its ordinary spaces, not its special ones. Every own in America makes its Main St. looks good. The average street is much more important. That’s where real livability comes into play.

    If the Cultural Trail ends up as yet another “special place”, then it will not have achieved what I believe is a key objective of its backers which is to create a demand for more inspiring spaces generally.

  48. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 8:03, if I blogged it, it got delivered to the right people.

    anon 4:04, you are making my point. The residents themselves prefer this type of decisioning. A culture of valuing low cost, low tax solutions (in the immediate term, though certainly not over the long term), as well as a lack of ambition or commitment to excellent result in spaces like this. Then the environment that this creates is not attractive to businesses or residents in the modern economy, hence the long term rise in taxes and other struggles the city faces. The assessed valuation of 3 of the 4 largest townships in Marion County are declining.

    As for the DPW employees, they are, as you note, probably not even empowered to make a better choice. My whole point is not to put too much blame on them. Rather, the blame is on all of us for, in effect, asking for this, as well as a lack of leadership willing to take a chance by making the case for change.

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