Monday, July 21st, 2014
I was briefly back on the homefront earlier this month to check out the now fully opened Big Four Bridge pedestrian path across the Ohio River in Louisville. While there I spent some time in NuLu, a retail and restaurant district centered on Market St. just east of downtown, and had dinner at a French bistro type place called La Coop. This place focuses on what I’d call the basics – it’s not trying to be a super high end kind of place. But I’m not going to lie, the undistinguished frites aside, the meal was spectacular front to back, and my date agreed.
Louisville is known for its many high quality restaurants. I doubt La Coop is tops on many people’s list, nor does it aspire to be. Yet preparing to drive back to Indy I was struck that La Coop is better than any restaurant in Indianapolis. My meal at La Coop was probably better than any one I’d had in Indy since L’Explorateur closed in 2009. And that’s a not uncommon occurrence when dining in Louisville. What’s more, La Coop was bustling by 8pm on a Tuesday night. While tables were certainly available, you can’t assume you can just walk in to a top restaurant there without a reservation, even on a weeknight.
Louisville clearly values fine dining in a way that Indianapolis doesn’t. Metro Indy is larger, better educated, richer, and much less provincial. Given that amenities generally fall along a size-wealth slope, by default you’d think Indy would do better on the restaurant front. But it doesn’t. Why is this?
Louisville clearly punches above its weight on restaurants. Part of this is due to the presence of a major culinary school. But that doesn’t explain the demand side of the equation. What does?
I see this as resulting at least in part from a cultural divide between the Midwest and the South, which seems to fall somewhere between these two cities. I argue the stronger aristocratic heritage of the South creates the conditions in which excellence is encouraged (or at least respected), versus the leveling democratic social state of the Midwest that anathematizes any distinctions between high and low and thus creates a climate in which excellence is disparaged (or distrusted at best).
Tocqueville is of course the best writer on the differences between aristocracy and democracy. Of aristocratic heritage himself, he recognized the overall superiority of the democratic state in uplifting the common man. The average condition in a democratic social state he would note, is higher than that of an aristocracy. He also saw clearly the many flaws of the aristocratic state. Yet he also realized that with the passing of aristocracy, things would be lost, especially in the realm of fine arts and refinement more broadly construed.
Tocqueville (among others) noted that the South was the most aristocratic region of the United States. That doesn’t mean he approved. In fact, he was not a fan of the US South, and wrote of its many manifest flaws, including the injustice of slavery and the many pernicious effects it had on the character of whites as well.
One of traits of aristocracy that seems to remain present in the South is the existence and embrace of an aristocratic class or caste. In many cases this is family based, such that, for example, you could never become fully part of the elite of Charleston as an outsider no matter how much money, talent, or class you have. But carpetbaggers and the nouveau riche are able to assimilate to some degree.
As with a feudal landholding, this aristocratic class exists as part of an integrated system with the lower classes. Thus the lower classes not only recognize the rights of aristocratic class to homage and such, the elites can even be a source of pride to ordinary residents of the community.
In this system, the upper class can cultivate high end tastes without incurring the opprobrium of the community. They are literally a class apart and are expected to depart from the average resident in terms of tastes and manners.
We see this clearly in the case of the so-called “Millionaire’s Row” at the Kentucky Derby. Actually, many Louisville locals never even attend the Kentucky Derby, instead attending the Kentucky Oaks, which is held the day before and is known as the race for the locals. (The Oaks itself attracts over 100,000 attendees). Most of them will certainly never visit the Derby’s more elite precincts. Yet, seeing the presence of celebrities and local elites in their finery on TV doesn’t produce resentment, but rather pride. The conspicuous consumption and lavish traditions of elite Louisville are something the average resident sees as reflecting well on their community as a whole, and hence to some extent even on themselves.
In terms of how this affects restaurants, Louisville’s elite can patronize high quality, high status establishments without shame. There is nothing seen as wrong in the community with them pursuing aristocratic tastes. Again, the high quality of Louisville’s restaurants can be a source of pride even to those who don’t patronize them. There are, of course, class tensions in Louisville such as the East End-South End divide. But class conflict itself implies multiple classes of people.
The situation is totally different in Indianapolis. In Indiana, the idea of an aristocratic type class would be viewed with hostility. There’s a democratic social state norm in which anyone who is viewed as too uppity is seen as having a moral defect. There’s only supposed to be one class of people. This has its virtues, but has debilitating effects as well. Take for example the classic line “He might have book learning but he doesn’t have any common sense.” You literally hear this in Indiana. Admittedly, in my case it may have been true. But the moral system underpinning it clearly explains why education is held in such low regard in the Midwest. It’s not just that education as such is viewed as not worth it; the pursuit of education indicates a type of moral deficiency.
So take a look at the traditions of the Indianapolis 500. Obviously US auto racing has a different culture than horse racing. But it still aligns with the social state. The 500 is a classic everyman’s type event, with a blue collar ethos, in which actual attendance by locals plays a major role. There are some celebrities of course, but celebrity/elite culture plays a very limited role there in contrast to the Kentucky Derby and certainly than international auto racing such as Formula 1. (The biggest personalities at the 500 are those with a particularly local traditional appeal – like Jim Nabors and Florence Henderson – versus contemporary celebrity star power).
This bleeds through into nearly every aspect of the civic culture in the state. I’ve long noted that there’s no culture of connoisseurship in Indianapolis. This is true for pretty much everything. Restaurants are but one example. While much better on average than they used to be, and certainly not bad by any means, Indy’s restaurants don’t measure up to Louisville’s with the notable exception of breakfast places. As the case with the aforementioned L’Exporateur shows, when Indy chefs do decide to put out a world class product, it isn’t patronized because it isn’t valued. It’s not about culinary talent, it’s about the customer base or lack thereof. The chef behind L’Ex opened a pizza place next. It should be no surprise that Indianapolis Monthly once had a cover story dubbing the city “Chain City, USA.”
My understanding is that there is a group of hardcore food and wine folks in Indy, but they do most of their consumption at private dinners and out of their private cellars. Public displays of refinement or luxurious consumption in Indianapolis are simply not acceptable.
This is but one example of how the pursuit of excellence in all varieties is disparaged and subject to active suppression in the state. This is hardly limited to Indiana and is a near universal Midwestern trait from what I’ve seen. Chicago offers the major exception, and I’ll exclude Minnesota as well for now since I don’t fully grok the culture there.
It’s been said pejoratively that “Indiana is the ‘middle finger of the South’ sticking into the Midwest.” And while it’s true that parts of Southern Indiana such as my hometown, being in Louisville’s orbit, have a heavy Southern influence, the state is not Southern in my view. It’s very different culturally and here we have one example. I easily see the same dynamic that exists in Indiana to various degrees in Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
That this is a cultural value is most clearly seen in the exceptions that prove the rule, like Columbus, Indiana. Columbus is by far the most successful small industrial city in the state, and home to a world-renowned collection of modern architecture among other distinctives. In a major essay on that city, I noted that “in Columbus, excellence is not a byword.” This was perhaps imposed externally by local business magnate J. Irwin Miller, but appears to have been stamped to some degree on the character of the community. As local business owner Tony Moravec put it, “We do things first class here.” Whether the value will be retained or dissipate now that Miller is dead remains to be seen, but it’s still there for now.
But in a state replete with struggling communities, has anyplace ever looked to imitate Columbus? Has it been held up as a model? No. Why not? It’s because Indiana as a whole rejects the values that made Columbus successful. J. Irwin Miller famously said that “a mediocrity is expensive.” True, but that misses the point re:Indiana. Mediocrity isn’t an economic value in the state. It’s a moral value. People aren’t choosing mediocrity in the mistaken belief that it’s cheap. They think aspiring to better is a character defect. That sacralization of average is why many of its communities are willing to martyr themselves in its honor. And if a place tries to aspire to better, don’t worry. The General Assembly will soon be introducing legislation to make sure that doesn’t spread.
This produces an enormous cultural headwind that is an impediment to even the cultural elite in their attempts to create high quality things, from good architecture to good restaurants. The attempts are compromised both via the internalization of this value, and external forces expressing it. As Paul Graham put it:
How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that.
The restaurants of Indianapolis are well beyond mediocre, but they have clearly been affected by this characteristic of the social state in which they are operating.
One exception to this rule about the pursuit of excellence is in sports, and it’s a telling one. Hoosiers and Midwesterners want to see their teams win, but they want to see them win the right way and with the right kind of people that reflect the character of the state’s residents. In the South they just want wins and they don’t care how they get them.
Do you think anybody in Kentucky cares about the Calipari Way as long as UK is racking up wins and championships? Is it any surprise that it’s North Carolina where athletes get A’s in fake classes? Nobody cares in the South as long the wins come and behavior doesn’t get so bad it brings national publicity.
By contrast, Big Ten schools by and large expect their players to get an education and graduate, to demonstrate good character, and there’s a lifelong commitment and bond between coaches, fans, and players. When IU tried to import a UK style into its program with the Kelvin Sampson hire, the fanbase rejected it almost immediately. (By the way, I’ll never consider Penn State a Big Ten school, and Pennsylvania is not the Midwest). It’s similar in the way that the brawl era Pacers saw their fan support vaporize.
In Indiana particularly, from Milan High School to Steve Alford’s Indiana Hoosiers, the self-effacing, fundamentally sound, clean cut, small town type of player and team had big success. (Oscar Robertson was a player in the same mold. Though he never got his due at the time thanks to racism, he shows that even black Indiana players exhibited the same character traits). This perhaps convinced Hoosiers that their preferred style of doing things would bring success as well.
Unfortunately that hasn’t played out much recently, either in sports or economically. This produces cognitive dissonance and a sense of bitterness about a world that seems to have gone wrong. As I wrote re:Columbus and about how that city’s embrace of excellence paid economic rewards in a world where cheap places to do business are a dime a dozen:
It isn’t just something that affects architecture….This is a place with high standards for itself. This pays huge dividends in the economic development sphere. In a competitive world, only firms that deliver excellence can survive the brutal global competition. Which workers are more likely to produce excellent products, ones that demand excellence in their own communities, or ones who disparage it? How can any investor believe that residents who tolerate a run down, mediocre community for their own family to live in will suddenly start taking pride in the products coming off their employers’ production lines? It makes no sense at all.
I’m not sure the Midwest understands this lesson, or would take heed of it if it did. Rather there is, I detect, a martyrdom complex. People in the Midwest believe they are entitled to success the way they used to enjoy it because they live the right way. But if they don’t get it, at least their communities can die with their values intact. If this is in fact the case, it’s impossible to gainsay the decision. It’s even admirable in a sense. I myself would never adopt the values of UK basketball no matter how many championships it would bring. But then again I’m a Hoosier so of course I feel that way.
In any case, as Richard Longworth put it in his book about the failures of the Midwest in the age of globalization, “The first task is to tell the truth.” Simply stating the obvious truth that Louisville has better restaurants than Indy may generate blowback. But the larger and more painful truth is that Indiana and the Midwest have embraced mediocrity as a value in a way that hobbles the pursuit of excellence there, and has terrible economic and other consequences that go far beyond restaurants. Unless and until that truth is faced and things change, which may require something like an influx of outsiders not wedded to the status quo, the enormous potential of this region and its people will continue to be squandered.