Sunday, May 5th, 2013
This post originally ran on November 11, 2009.
Until recently I had an apartment in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis. Fountain Square is a small commercial node surrounded by houses on the near southeast side of the city that has long been my favorite ‘hood in the city. I’ve been hanging out in the area for over 15 years.
Fountain Square was a sort of lower working class neighborhood. The South Side of Indianapolis is notably more Southern in character than the north. In fact, some have said that Washington St. (or I-70) is the real Mason-Dixon Line. In the case of Fountain Square, it is literally Southern. A good chunk of the population is from Appalachia. This has been true a long time. Back in the 1960′s, then Mayor (now Senator) Richard Lugar commissioned a study called “The Appalachian in Indianapolis” to study the question of whether or not the city’s Appalachian community needed special help like other minority populations. The epicenter of Appalachian Indianapolis is Fountain Square. Even today, many people are new arrivals from places like West Virginia. There’s a lot of circulation back and forth. Sometimes kids who get in trouble in Indy get sent back home to West Virginia to stay with relatives there, for example. In effect, Fountain Square is an ethnic immigrant neighborhood, but instead of traditional immigrants from places like Poland, Italy, or Mexico, it is made up of domestic migrants from a particular region and with a distinct culture. New arrivals are, in effect, straight off the boat. As with waves of immigrants from elsewhere, they are seeking better opportunities. Fountain Square is the traditional port of entry for people from West Virginia and similar places to Indianapolis.
The area is about a mile and a half from the center of downtown, and is one of the few intact commercial nodes left in the city. So it was long targeted for development. A few enterprising people bought and refurbished the Fountain Square Theater Building, which now houses restaurants, a duckpin bowling alley, and a boutique hotel. A former department store was converted into cutting edge art galleries and studios. An indie rock club has opened. Many restaurants dot the area and it is really a destination dining district in some ways. (Santorini on Prospect is the best Greek restaurant I’ve ever eaten at). A lot of artists and culturally inclined types have moved in. My apartment was previously occupied by an assistant curator of contemporary art the Indianapolis Museum of Art, for example.
When the artists started moving in I was originally very worried about gentrification and the area becoming unaffordable to anyone without lots of money, like Lockerbie Square or Chatham-Arch, displacing all the original residents. But that didn’t happen. Housing remains extremely affordable and despite the influx of newcomers, they are still a minority.
What’s notable about Fountain Square, and similar areas in other Midwest cities, is that a lot of these artists are able to buy homes. This means they are likely here to stay even if prices go up. That’s in contrast to NYC, SF, or Chicago, where the artists rent.
In any case, while Fountain Square may go upscale, wholesale remaking of large chunks of the city a la Chicago is not likely to happen. Despite the increase in demand for urban living, there is not enough demand to materially increase prices outside of selected district because of the vast acreage of land that has fallen to nearly zero in value. It is a huge overhang. Also, the type of wage inflation and resulting salary gap that you see in bigger cities, which I’ll argue in a future piece is a big driver of their two-tier societies, didn’t happen in Indianapolis. For example, a partner in a major local law firm told me that a few years ago the salary difference for new associates between Indianapolis and Chicago was 30%. Now it is 100%.
So unlike in so many other cities, in Indianapolis yuppies and artists can live side by side with traditional neighborhood residents for a long time. When I lived in West Town in Chicago, my area was probably 30% Mexican, 30% Puerto Rican, 30% yuppie, and 10% other white ethnic. But that was only a transitional period presaging a yuppie takeover. In Fountain Square though, I expect the Appalachians aren’t going anywhere for quite some time, even if the core area around the commercial district does gentrify. (Perhaps the arrival of a spur of the Indy Cultural Trail may by a catalyst for that – we’ll see). I often describe the demographic of the neighborhood as “Artists and Appalachians”, though that doesn’t do it justice since artists are a minority of the new arrivals, who are often professionals, especially those who merely patronize businesses in the area, and there is by my eyeball estimate a 10% or so African American population.
But just because two groups of people live side by side doesn’t mean they interact socially. With some exceptions, I rarely observed much in the way of interaction between them. The upscale restaurants and art galleries are not affordable or perhaps even of interest to West Virginia refugees. Similarly the rent to own stores for yuppies or arts crowd.
There are some older institutions that are, however, used by everyone. One of them is a greasy diner called Peppy’s Grill. If ever a place deserved an exemption from the smoking ban, this is it. The place just hasn’t been the same. Good burgers, great atmosphere. But not a lot of conversation between the two sets of customers.
Another is the Liquor Cabinet, the neighborhood package liquor store. They carry a large inventory of 40′s along with a cooler of top end microbrews from the likes of Three Floyds – all behind a bulletproof glass shield. There’s a drink for every taste and budget.
As an aside, is there any better example to show why, despite what one may think, Indianapolis is not an overgrown small town? I mean, physically, it basically is one. I’ve long noted that a residential street in Indianapolis is not that different from one in the first state capital of Corydon, population 3,000. Heck, Fountain Square is like a literal small town, with its fading Main St. shops along Virginia Ave., the Theater Building and its surrounding streets the courthouse square, and the tidy rows of small, single family homes that have seen better days around it.
But appearances can be deceiving. Function does not always follow form. How many Indiana small towns have a liquor store like that? Or a piece of contemporary architecture like the Craig McCormick designed Ragsdale House on Pleasant St.? Or several edgy contemporary art studios? Or an indie rock club?
Need more proof? Just look at the city’s blogosphere. One of America’s leading LGBT blogs is based in Indy. The leading Republican blogger in the city is gay. A hardcore libertarian anti-tax activist is a former professional dominatrix. And a prominent political pundit is a cigar smoking, whiskey sipping Black Muslim stand-up comedian – and Republican.
No, my friends, this is no small town. And it has a lot more character – and characters – than you might think.
Back at the Liquor Cabinet, a variety of people come together to buy their nightly libations – but I don’t see any real conversation or interaction. Only occasional light banter of the type one might make with strangers – because that’s what we are. There’s no connection or bond that has been built between the different groups, with some limited exceptions such as at the Community Development Corporation.
Long time readers know I care a lot about the notion of a “commonwealth”. That is, a city and region where people feel that their fates are linked together, where they rise an fall together, where they feel like they have a stake in the system and in a shared prosperity for everyone.
I think it is harder to view ourselves as sharing a common destiny with people who are very different from ourselves. But if we get to know them personally at some level, there is generally some base commonality there. How do we foster that type of connection, not just of the “Isn’t this weather nice?” variety but some type of real relationship?
I’ve thought about this a bit and it often seems to require some type of pivot point or area of mutual concern people can connect around. I think about, for example, how back in the early 90′s a lot of heavy metal bands and gangster rappers started hanging out together and promoting each other’s stuff. They saw the marketing possibilities yes, but also a way to tap into the common alienation and marginalization their respective audiences felt from the mainstream.
Because each pivot point is likely to involve a subset of people, it is best to have multiple of them. Then you start creating all sorts of cross-network pathways. I thought about this with regards to Fountain Square and came up with a few ideas.
- The obvious neighborhood institutions: neighborhood associations, local schools (such as the area charter school), the library branch, the CDC, etc.
- Back to our musical example, a shared sense of being marginalized in a community felt by both artists and Appalachians. Certainly both of those groups have a shared interest in not seeing runaway real estate prices. The artists already had a scare recently when the Murphy Building which houses many of their studios and such was put up for sale.
- Bicycling. Fountain Square is the heart of Indy’s bike culture. One of the people behind the Indy Cog blog lives there and is brave enough to live in Indy with only his feet and bike for transportation. Joe’s Cycles on Virginia is a local gathering place. But in Fountain Square, lots of people ride. It’s not just hipsters or people making an alternative transportation statement, it’s kids and regular neighbors, people black and white, a true neighborhood cross-section. Seems like an opportunity.
These are a few examples in only one neighborhood. The bigger point is that a big part of what makes a city is its social infrastructure. It’s not just bike lanes and buildings. It’s people and relationships and networks. Especially where there is so much traditional distrust between groups who have often had big differences in interests, finding ways to bring people together across those boundaries, at least at some level, is a way to help strengthen civic social capital. A mixed neighborhood is of limited benefit if people do not, in fact, mix. We should be looking for ways to break down barriers that too often create parallel societies.