Sunday, February 7th, 2010
Indianapolis arts and culture maven David Hoppe is a columnist and editor at Nuvo Newsweekly, the city’s alt-weekly paper. I sat down with him for nearly three hours in December for a free-ranging discussion about the city that was turned into a three page interview in this week’s paper. I’ll let you read it there for yourself, but will share some highlights below.
One of the things we can do – and that we did in the past – is innovation in an urban context. If you go back to the Lugar and Hudnut administrations, we did some innovative things. Unigov was way ahead of its time. The amateur sports strategy – using sports to renew a city – nobody had thought of that. The Circle Centre Mall: we did retail in a downtown context right.
We need to bring back innovation. I think the Cultural Trail is one example of that. If we’re just going to import ideas like bike lanes and light rail, then we’re perpetually going to be playing catch-up. Cliques are, by definition, exclusive. So places like Chicago and New York and Portland are going to define themselves as cool in opposition to places like Indianapolis. It’s like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football. The minute you think you’ve got it, they’ve moved on to something else.
With something like the Cultural Trail, other cities will say, “Why can’t we have one of those?” I think our challenge is trying to figure out how to be innovative in a low-cost manner; to do it a lot faster and a lot cheaper and execute rapidly.
NUVO: It sounds like the challenge is reconciling suburbia with an urban idea.
Renn: One of the things we need to do as a city is realize we cannot compete with the collar counties head-on. When we build things like strip malls downtown, or you put Arby’s, Subway, and White Castle right there on South St., you’re basically saying we’re going to compete with the suburbs on their terms. If you give people a choice between a real suburb and a city trying to act like one – but with all those cost and infrastructure issues – you’re going to lose most of the time.
We have to have a different product. It’s going to take courageous leadership to articulate a more urban vision for Indianapolis that people will buy into.
We don’t need to Manhattanize this city. If we just changed our zoning so that anywhere you have a single family home you could build a double with a carriage house in back, you would triple the effective residential density of Indianapolis without any change to the visual scale of the city. Moderate densification is what we need.
We have had a very powerful civic sector. Business and community leaders coming together to get things done in a way that doesn’t happen anywhere else. That leadership culture has served us very well.
The challenges we face today, though, are different. That leadership culture is perfect for projects. But what we need to do is lay up a new vision and make the case for change in public policy and planning, land use, zoning and public transportation in a way that’s probably not going to be popular initially. That requires someone to make the case in the political realm. Somebody has to have democratic legitimacy in saying, “This is where we’re going.” I know everyone hates Carmel, but [Mayor] Brainard in Carmel has done that. We have to have someone to stand in the kitchen and take the heat for a new vision of the central city.
The thing about urban visions being pushed right now is that they’re updated versions of Jane Jacobs’ ideas from the 1950’s. But we have a radically different world today. What should cities look like now? I think we could be the innovators in defining what it means to be a city.
We can own what it means to have sustainable agriculture. Given the size of Indianapolis and ease of getting out of town, we could build linkages between our urban and rural areas that are difficult to do in much, much larger cities. I think that’s one of the imperatives for us in bringing Indiana along on the journey.
If you set out an agenda, you can rally people by the promise of what is to be. To some extent, all of Christianity was built on that: the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven that we’ll never see here.