Thursday, May 20th, 2010
I’m starting a new feature on the blog today in which I’ll periodically profile great examples of positive urban change coming from the new grass roots. Today I’m featuring People for Urban Progress (PUP) from Indianapolis. In case you don’t read this entire post, please be sure to click over to their Pepsi Refresh challenge page and vote for them to get a $250,000 grant.
One day back when I had an apartment in Indy’s Fountain Square neighborhood, I popped into the local bike shop, Joe’s Cycles, and saw two people having a conversation with Joe about a project they were working on to make bicycle bags out of reused fabric from the roof of the RCA Dome. I was intrigued and so introduced myself and asked about their project.
The two people turned out to be Maryanne O’Malley and Michael Bricker. They were unhappy that Indianapolis was nowhere on sustainability, had a lousy public transit system, and had a limited design consciousness. They had decided to do something about this by forming an organization called People for Urban Progress (a 501(c)3 non-profit) to try to make real change on all those fronts.
Their first project was super-ambitious. Indianapolis had built the RCA Dome stadium in 1983. Like several others from that era, including the Silverdome in Detroit and the Metrodome in Minneapolis, it featured an inflated roof made out of teflon fabric. The RCA Dome was going to be demolished after a new stadium was built and this roof fabric was destined for the landfill.
PUP saw the opportunity to do something better with this. The Indianapolis parks department had, and has, a nine figure backlog of unfunded maintenance and other capital needs. PUP’s idea was to take the roof fabric from the Dome and repurpose it for items such as shade umbrellas in the parks as low cost upgrades. They wrote up a nine page proposal and showed it to the parks department and others. Fortunately, it was accepted and the demolition contractor, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, and PUP saved the vast majority of the fabric for the parks department.
But PUP wasn’t done yet. They arranged to get some of the fabric for themselves. They cleaned it and worked with local artists in their studio to use the fabric to create super-cool design pursues, wallets, and messenger bags.
Not only are these absolutely first class in design, they are true art objects. Every one of them is hand made and features a totally unique design created by the artist who made it. They are all one of a kinds.
All of the net proceeds from the sale of these products are being used to help pay for repurposing the rescued fabric for parks purposes. This is an innovative way to use part of a reclaimed building to generate funds to reuse the rest of it. This is particularly needed in an era of ultra-tight funding. The bags proved extremely popular, and nearly 1,000 have been sold to date. PUP has used the money to produce a prototype lifeguard stand shade and are awaiting feedback from the parks department before moving forward on production of as much of this and other items as funds allow.
But there is still something more with this project – something important. The RCA Dome wasn’t just another building. It was the building that enabled the city to lure the Colts from Baltimore. It was a venue for gymnastics at more at the Pan Am Games. It played an integral role in the revitalization of downtown. That building meant something to Indianapolis. By buying a Dome wallet or purse, Indy residents can carry around a piece of that history with them. (I have one of the wallets in my pocket now). It’s a spiritual artifact. It’s a memento of that journey and in a very real sense represents the coming of age of the city. The parks part of the project will also spread these reminders throughout the city, almost like the relics of a saint.
So this Dome bag project is:
Cost effective capital improvements for the parks +
First rate design quality and uniqueness +
Innovative non-profit financing and a public-private partnership +
Creating objects with spiritual meaning
That’s called a Win-Win-Win-Win-Win. It doesn’t get much better than that. How often to you get to stack up that many wins at once? This is an all around incredible project.
If you didn’t know that PUP was the originator of the idea to recycle the Dome roof fabric, don’t feel bad. The city didn’t exactly go out of its way to give them credit for it. That’s disappointing.
What’s more, this should have been a big story. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Minneapolis or Vancouver had done a project like this they would have gotten national coverage for it, in sustainability or design publications if nowhere else.
With some limited exceptions like the art museum – which is run by a New Yorker who actually knows what he’s doing – Indianapolis doesn’t manage to pick up much favorable national coverage. But it’s not because they are Indianapolis and nobody likes them, or because they aren’t cool enough, or because they are located in the Midwest. It’s because the city’s PR is flat out terrible. It isn’t realistic to think a couple of grass roots advocates like Michael and Maryanne can conjure up national press, but the city is spending $275 million on the project of which the Dome replacement is part. You would think they’d make sure they got some nice coverage out of it at least.
Indianapolis has flubbed one opportunity after another to get a positive message out about itself, and this one’s no exception. Of course, it doesn’t help that the community itself far too often doesn’t even recognize the significance of what’s going on. Something important happen right under its nose and it didn’t even register. In this case, even the local media botched the story badly.
PUP has raised some money for the parks, but there’s still a lot more needed to put that fabric to work. In case you didn’t know, Pepsi is giving away a bunch of money every month to various urban projects based on a popular vote. PUP is seeking $250,000 to help with repurposing more of the Dome fabric for parks purposes. So go over to the site and vote for them now. Also, tell your friends. And if you run an Indianapolis based email distribution list, send out a note telling everyone on it to vote too. Ordinarily I wouldn’t pick favorites among my many acquaintances who are trying to get money for cool projects through this, but for my friends Maryanne and Michael, I’ll make an exception.
Here’s a cool video with more information about the project. (If it doesn’t display, click here).
PUP has got many more ideas too. They have been advocating for better public transit, such as by co-hosting an event in their studio with the folks from Indycog. Here’s a video from that event. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).
And they are talking with people about trying to get a car share program launched in Indy.
We’ll have to see what PUP thinks up next. Regardless, this small and young but bold organization has already had a major and tangible impact in Indianapolis – and likely beyond. They’ve talked to people in other cities with similar teflon roof domes, so when these stadiums are replaced, I’d be very surprised if the roof isn’t reused. You can thank PUP in Indianapolis for that.
If you are interested in purchasing one of PUP’s Dome products (and new ones like a notebook are on the way), please contact PUP at firstname.lastname@example.org. Their products are available in Indianapolis at Silver in the City, IndySwank, the Indiana State Museum, and at their Murphy Building studio on First Fridays.
Oh, and by the way, that meeting I had with the PUP folks at Joe’s Cycles? That’s one of those serendipitous encounters that supposedly don’t happen in cities like Indianapolis…..