Why I Do Live in Indianapolis


When a friend constantly tells you how much he or she likes you and then one day says, “But I’d never live with you,” the predictable reaction is to feel hurt and angry. That’s how I felt when The Urbanophile posted “Why I Don’t Live in Indianapolis.”

But last night, while riding my bike on one of Indianapolis’ many bike trails (yes, we have them), I started thinking about why I do live in Indianapolis. The answer surprised me.

While I honestly buy into the quality-of-life, amenity-based strategies that are all the rage these days, that’s not how I arrived here. I live in Indianapolis because I grew up in the Indiana part of Chicago and my late wife grew up near Fort Wayne. We chose Indianapolis because it was close to our families and we had job offers – simple as that. This decision is even more stunning because just a few years earlier, I’d visited Indianapolis for the first time and went home convinced that I would never live in a city that only had one tall building and appeared to be virtually empty at night.

When I moved to Indianapolis, I had no idea that the new mayor had a vision that Indianapolis could rebuild its downtown, obtain an NFL team and one day host a Super Bowl. I had no idea whether the city wanted to be great or accepted mediocrity. And I certainly didn’t base my decision on the architectural design of a parking garage.

I also didn’t grow up dreaming of life in a specific city. When I asked some friends (admittedly not a big or random sample), I found only one who dreamt of living in a specific place. That place: New York City. That friend’s current residence: Nashville, Tenn. Turns out my friend lives in Nashville because it’s reasonably close to family and he had a job offer. Most everyone I talked with told me the same story. Maybe this is because we grew up Midwesterners—and as ESRI’s human tapestry data tells us, we are more likely than those who live elsewhere to value family, tradition and stability. But the key point is our choices weren’t predicated on urban amenities or ambitions. They were all about location and employment. I’d wager that most of us – yes, even us pro-amenity types – are less idealistic in our choices than we profess to be.

This is not to argue that high-quality amenities and bold visions are unimportant. But for those who initially decide where to live based on more practical and personal considerations, it may mean that urban amenities and ambitions are more important to retention than they are to attraction. If so, then a key issue is what residents – rather than potential residents – value in a community. Prior to reading The Urbanophile post about Indianapolis, I wouldn’t have thought that.

Cities, in a way, are like households: What’s our priority? For most of us mortals (maybe not global cities or the “one percenters,”), the answer involves compromise. I might choose to buy a great TV and a nice driver for my golf game. A neighbor might choose a fast car. Another might choose to travel. What we choose doesn’t determine whether we’re striving. We might all be striving, yet we can’t have it all. The same holds true for a community.

So how did Indianapolis advance from that city with one tall building to a city able to dazzle and delight as Super Bowl host? Choices. Compromises. We chose to focus our ambitions and our resources on a sports-based, downtown-festival-marketplace strategy. It’s worked – repeatedly – with the Super Bowl being the latest and greatest sign of success.

Now it’s time to build on what’s working, and to turn our sights to what’s next. Part of moving on likely will be to sustain, enhance and further capitalize on a great downtown – one that’s more appealing to current and prospective urban dwellers. That’s where the new parking garage comes into play – the one the Urbanophile and others so dislike.

The garage, as best I understand, is being developed to rid us of three large asphalt surface lots in the heart of downtown. Good riddance! That, in turn, will clear space for an additional downtown grocery store and more downtown housing. Good additions!

I’m all for quality design. But given a choice – the kind of compromise required of cities and households – the developers of these three blocks chose to focus on the grocery store and the housing without stressing a world-class garage.

In a world of limited means and compromise, does the design or lack of design in a parking garage indicate an entire city’s failure to strive? Or does it reflect a practical desire to balance ambition, cost, and progress? Put another way: If the choice was a nicer garage and a less-grand grocery and housing development, would that be better? If some think the garage should have first-floor retail space, but there is already a glut of unused retail space nearby, should one include it in the design for design’s sake, knowing it likely would sit empty?

While most responses to The Urbanophile article were about design, another key point was urban aspiration. On that point, Indianapolis and many other Midwestern cities have reached a critical moment as they seek to balance the notion of striving with the realities of living within their means. As they choose and compromise, it doesn’t mean that Indianapolis and its counterparts are lacking in ambition any more than a family balancing the cost of a Caribbean cruise vs. sending the kids to college.

Sure, some in Indianapolis would let the lack of resources limit ambition. Others would have us aspire without considering cost. Still others will realize that finding the money – even in the toughest economies – is a measure of our city’s commitment to aspire.

In all likelihood, though, compromise will be necessary. While many look down on the notion of compromise, I think of it as the key component of incremental progress and the failure to compromise as the enabler of inaction. When choices must be made, it’s critical that incremental progress be viewed from two perspectives: How far have we come and how our progress compares with that of other communities.

In the final analysis, each city is likely to make different compromises. Ideally, those compromises reflect the current demands and long-term aspirations of their citizens and institutions. Some may choose well-designed parking garages. Others will focus on neighborhoods, parks, schools or some combination of services and amenities. Those with internal perspectives will view progress as change over time. Those who think more globally will choose to measure progress relative to other cities.

Is Indianapolis perfect? Nope. Could and should it try harder? Yes. Should it seek to get more people and, thus, more perspectives involved? Of course. Should, it keep in mind that it is competing globally for human capital and private investment? Yes again.

But like many, non-global Midwestern cities, Indianapolis will have to make choices and compromises. In so doing, it will pursue a strategy that’s different from other places, and those differences won’t appeal to all.

Ricky Nelson once sang, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.” I’m pleased to look at it this way: For some, Moby Dick was just a whale; for me, the parking garage is just a parking garage, but a new urban grocery and more downtown housing that is incremental progress.

Drew Klacik is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute.

This piece originally appeared at The Urbanophile. It is a response to "Why I Don't Live in Indianapolis" by Aaron M. Renn.

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