Responding to the Urbanophile & why I live in Indianapolis

The Urbanophile has a post today explaining why blogger Aaron Renn doesn’t live in Indianapolis anymore. He makes some good points:

The city recently announced a plan to subsidize a mixed used development on a parcel in the core of downtown, a project called “Block 400.” It would include apartments, retail, etc – all good. While the concept is great, the design is another matter. I could go into depth on the monotony of the structure and other matters, but what I want to show you instead is a [bland] parking garage that will house employees from One America insurance. 

and

…this is standard operating procedure for Indianapolis. This is par for the course. This is just what Indianapolis builds. I cannot name another major city in the United where the city’s own developer community (including Flaherty and Collins, the developer of this property), own architectural firms (including CSO Architects, who designed this) and own city government so consistently produce subpar development.

and

Indianapolis is the place where, as a rule, not good enough is more than good enough for most people, even community leadership.

and

Alas, it seems lots of people agree with me – on the actions if not the reasons – as Center Township (the urban core) lost another 24,000 people in the 2000s. They voted with their feet – just like tens of thousands of others have been continuously voting with their feet since 1950 – to go build a better life for themselves somewhere else.

The gist, if I may attempt to summarize Mr. Renn’s words, is, “Indianapolis is ass backwards compared to the rest of the country and things aren’t good enough for me.”

First of all, people are leaving Center Township because poor people can’t afford to live there anymore. There are only two kinds of people that want to live in the city center: students going to school (IUPUI) who are subsequently poor, and poor adults, because they can’t afford to sell their houses and move somewhere else. People living Center Township is just indicative of rising housing costs that push people out. Keep the rent low and people will flood back in.

Indeed, I don’t like Indianapolis either. The city is just a squat little farm of houses and businesses with little to no infrastructure. Mr. Renn makes note that Indianapolis, and by extension, Indiana, is really good at sports complexes and the like “because sports is consistent with the state of mind in Indiana.” Sometimes I think that Indianapolis would be a really great city if it weren’t for all this Indiana. An Indiana that consistently takes money from Indianapolis (25% of all sales tax revenue in Indiana comes from Downtown Indy), and hamstrings us in every other way (see: transit, biomedical funding, social issues legislation).

But I think Mr. Renn misses some points here. While I don’t like living in Indianapolis, it’s the best for me in a lot of ways, and in enough ways that it’s hard to imagine anyplace else that better suits my needs.

See, people don’t care about “mixed use developments”, sports complexes, culture, or urban development. People have a very clear hierarchy of things: food, water, shelter, clothing. That’s it. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

Food in Indianapolis is cheap because it comes from so many nearby sources. Water is pretty cheap, but it probably is most everywhere else, too. Shelter is a big one, and housing prices in Indianapolis are the most affordable in the country — unless you want to be somewhere really crummy, like Alabama or Arkansas. By extension of our modest financial abilities, clothing is affordable, too.

No average citizen in Indianapolis — no one — ever woke up and said, “I sure wish Indianapolis would tear down that RCA Dome and build a new, bigger stadium.” No one in Indianapolis wakes up and says, “I sure wish our culture around here were more vibrant.” No one does that, because no one cares. And that’s not an Indianapolis thing, that’s a “mere mortal living on planet earth” thing. Go find a guy living in Harlem and ask him if he wants New York City to build him some “mixed use developments with boutique shops and outdoor seating areas.”

When people wake up in the morning they want the water to come on and be clean, clear, and aroma-free. They want the roads in good shape and they want the busses on time and with good service so they can get to work. They want the schools to be functioning at 100% so they know their kids are in good hands, and they want to know they can afford to pay their bills.

When I read about this proposed parking garage to be used primarily for OneAmerica employees, my first question is, “Why is the City of Indianapolis spending public money to build a parking garage for an insurance company?” First, that shouldn’t happen. And second, if it does happen, you don’t get to be upset that the government built something that looks ugly. Tradeoffs are made, and those are the tradeoffs.

Indeed, the city has a need and a duty to build infrastructure for people. Which is why I don’t get too irritated at the $40 million parking garage the city is building in Broad Ripple so drunk people can have a place to store their car. At least then the city is building something anyone can reasonably use. Things like the stadiums, convention center, and now this Block 400 parking garage for OneAmerica is just the city throwing money at something normal people won’t ever use or care about. So in that case, yes, I would prefer the city be as absolutely frugal and stingy with money as possible. I do not ever want to see my city building anything for millions of dollars only for the use by a small, small, subset of people. I don’t care if it does look like an ugly block. If they’re going to spend the money to build something for a few hundred people, I’d rather it be done frugally than exorbitantly.

You might argue that the stadium is a good example of public funding considering anyone can go there (assuming you can afford the thousands of dollars for Colts season tickets or other events). Until you realize that the stadium only holds 3.5% of the entire metro area population at any one time. No one but a few select people with time on their hands in the City-County Building sat around wondering how to get a Super Bowl here. Just like no one in Indianapolis is sitting at their desk wishing the Olympics would be held here. No one needs their city to be popular. With popularity comes crime, hard drugs, drunks, traffic, and strain on basic utilities.

I still live in Indianapolis because it’s affordable — I can actually own a house here. The things I need are affordable. The services I need aren’t great, but no one ever thinks their city is that great. No one ever says, “My city’s water is great!” It doesn’t happen, because it sucks everywhere. That’s what government does. Everyone knows how things turn out when you set a committee to do anything, and then we question why things suck when government — a collection of committees — can’t turn out anything useful. Of course the water sucks, we only paid $25 a month for a water bill for years and years. Now my bill is $40 and the water still sucks to the point I’m afraid to drink it.

I can’t go to New York and afford to live there like I do here. Sure, I can go to New York City, live in a tiny box and never have any savings or retirement funds or the ability to afford to go anywhere else, or I can stay here and pay off my house (and then never pay rent for a roof again), save for retirement, and save for a rainy day. Something I’ve been able to do here since I was 17 years old.

I could go to Chicago and get a better transit system, but I’ll pay twice as much in taxes and rent and never be able to save anything because they’ve built a system they can’t support.

People don’t want cities that are built to the gills with “developments”. If that’s the case, Georgia Street would be packed every night, but it’s not, because it’s just a street. Just like Monument Circle is just a big rock stuck in the middle of a brick alleyway. There’s nothing useful about that to anyone. It doesn’t make my life easier, it doesn’t pay my bills, it doesn’t help me better my life. It could fall down tonight and no one’s life in Indianapolis would be changed at all.

People need cities that are smart. People need governments that are smart (as an aside, this is why people are inherently anti-tax: because years of seeing money wasted leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths to the point of last resort, which is to demand to stop paying entirely, like withholding candy from a bratty kid). Indianapolis government is starting to become ignorant. City leaders are forgetting what people want and need in a city. It’s not parking garages, no matter how pretty they are, for a small subset of people. It’s not lavish stadiums to keep a football team everyone watches on TV anyway to stay in town. What we need is well-spent, well-served, utilitarian services that benefit everyone. That means the trash is always picked up. The streets are in good shape. The water’s clean. The busses run. We save money. We downsize when we need to. We grow when we need to. Common sense rules. Not blind pandering to private companies with lavish buildings or blank checks to sports teams.

Right now, our priorities are backwards. The streets aren’t in good shape. The water isn’t clean. The busses don’t run. We don’t ever downsize. No one listens. But I’m here, because there isn’t anyplace else that much better. It’s just six of one and half a dozen of another.

3 Comments

  1. “No one ever says, “My city’s water is great!” It doesn’t happen, because it sucks everywhere. ”
    I hate to be one of these “hurr portland rules!” people, but seriously, people say this in Portland (and, I imagine, Seattle) all the time. The stuff flowing from the tap tastes like bottled water. Sadly, now I live in San Diego where it tastes like cancer.

    And I feel like you’re missing the point about the ugly parking garage; if I recall, he was wondering why there weren’t commercial storefronts there? Wouldn’t that (a) lower the cost of doing business in the city by decreasing rent (at least, increasing supply) while (b) fulfilling the needs of the people who live there (they’re closer to the barber/bank/whatever business is put in there)?

  2. “Shelter is a big one, and housing prices in Indianapolis are the most affordable in the country — unless you want to be somewhere really crummy, like Alabama or Arkansas”.

    I don’t really see the difference between Indianapolis and Arkansas or Alabama, based on what you’ve written. (Admittedly, I’ve only lived in one of the three- and it isn’t Indianapolis!)

  3. I read your piece because I live in Indy and am leaving. I grew up Hoosier, moved away for 30 years, came back and almost immediately realized I made a mistake. Five years have passed and I’m gone…destination a medium sized city in the Rocky Mountain West. I’d rather not say specifically where. I don’t need the “We Love Indy and You Should Too” vitriol directed at me.

    The reasons you say you stay are of interest to me. For one thing, my new city is less expensive than Indy and offers more opportunity. When you consider all costs and not just housing, it’s significantly less expensive. I’m talking healthcare, utilities, transportation, groceries, the whole enchilada. My new home is about 8-10% cheaper.

    Quality of life is much better, too. The people are kind and decent, not constantly raging as so many in Indy are. There’s transit…really good, safe, reliable transit. Healthcare is world class and the state encourages healthy behavior. Outdoor opportunities abound. Indy? Watching sports on TV while getting blitzed seems to be the norm.

    This is just an observation, but I’ve lived in more than a handful of states in all regions of the country and I am now ashamed to be from the Midwest. It is the most segregated, angriest part of America. I wish it was different. Indy could be so much, but Renn is right. People settle for whatever scraps they are tossed here. They let corrupt leaders run roughshod over them. They brag about affordability as if it’s a virtue. Anyplace where nobody wants to be is affordable. Death Valley is affordable. So is Chad.

    I’ve had enough. I want to live a full life. Indy has this bad habit of chasing off the people who could make it better. Read Renn’s “Is this hell or Indianapolis?” It is spot on.

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