Indianapolis

Urban Fragments in a Sea of Suburbs: Critical Impressions of Three Neighborhoods in Indianapolis

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Author's note: This is a collection of three articles already published, now in one place!

Overview and Broad Ripple Village

Indianapolis had, for quite some time, been one of those cities which stuck in the back of my mind: a place I had an interest in exploring, but could never quite pin a reason on why—a feeling I think may be very familiar to those who study cities. Over this past summer, thanks to a new local friend, I finally had the opportunity to indulge that interest, and visit parts of the city and its environs. My timing was far from perfect: not only was my trip brief, but it came only a little more than a month before the opening of the city's new bus rapid transit Red Line. Still, the city has a lot going for it, and hopefully someday soon I will have to opportunity to return and do some more in-depth study.

In physical terms, Indianapolis is a predominantly suburban, auto-focused city—even more so than many of its similar Midwestern siblings. Of course, like almost every older American city, it did once have a large, thriving streetcar network, but much of the region's physical growth seems to have come at the tail end of the streetcar era and at the dawn of the age of auto-dominance. As such, outside of the downtown—most of which I sadly did not have time to explore on this trip—there is sadly little traditional urban fabric. Worse still, outside of downtown's famous Mile Square, much of what once did exist has been razed, either for urban expressways or in the name of progress. Even in outlying neighborhoods that developed before the car, the rigid separation of commercial and residential buildings and the reification of the detached, single family home are paramount. As you research the city, you are told that, thanks to the absence of natural boundaries and ethnic enclaves, most neighborhoods have fuzzy boundaries—if they exist in more than name, at all. The city can seem a uniform tapestry of large roads and suburban houses, sprawling in every direction.

Urban Impressions: Zionsville, IN (Indianapolis Part 3)

Part 3 of Urban Impressions: Indianapolis. See also Part One and Part Two.

To be honest, Zionsville, IN is not the type of place I would normally explore, let alone analyze in depth. In fact, had I not been staying in this small, rural-turned-suburban town just northwest of Indianapolis, I might not have paid it a second thought. Sitting right outside Interstate 465—the gigantic, square beltway that surrounds the city—Zionsville is one of the epicenters of suburban growth in greater Indianapolis. Its population has been exploding, nearly doubling in the past ten years alone. But while the town is mainly suburban, what makes it truly unique—not to mention economically successful—is its quasi urban core. Zionsville is centered on a quaint, compact downtown full of quirky shops—all of which are supported by acre after acre of nigh-exurban single family housing developments and big box stores. It should, by all rights, be a place I loathe, one that sells itself on its small-town-America charm, its driving proximity to central Indianapolis, and its tourist friendly nature. And yet, as with anything related to cities—even small ones—nothing is so simple, nor so clear cut.

Of course, some of this may well be Stockholm syndrome. After a few days of suburban Indiana, downtown Zionsville's urban nature—no matter how kitschy or artificial—offered a welcome respite. Having somewhat likened parts of Indianapolis's Fountain Square neighborhood to a theme park, I am painfully aware of my own potential hypocrisy. After all, no matter how troubling I find some of that neighborhood's development trends, it is still a long-struggling urban neighborhood striving to be more—and that is something that should be commended. In contrast, a place like Zionsville exists upon far more artifice: a cynical mind would not be entirely wrong to see its cute downtown as little more than an artisanal mall for rich, white suburbanites. And yet, just as a large part of me was uncomfortable with a cynical characterization of Fountain Square, I cannot bring myself to be fully smug and dismissive of this town, either. Zionsville is a far harder circle to square than it may appear at first glance. On the one hand, it is a surprisingly functional, delightfully gorgeous, nearly urban place, full of interesting shops and interacting people. The town stands as a shining example of the quasi-urban desires of the suburban class: of just how many otherwise proud suburban- and exurbanites still often seek out urban-like forms, at least on their own terms. On the other hand, however, the town is also a place founded upon rural and suburban fantasies of town life, on boutique consumption, and exclusion. In other words, Zionsville is a product of inseparable contradictions—and that, perhaps more than anything else, makes it quintessentially American.

Urban Impressions: Fountain Square (Indianapolis Part 2)

Continued from Part One.

The other urban neighborhood in Indianapolis proper that I had chance to explore during my brief visit was Fountain Square. Like Broad Ripple, it is another newly thriving urban fragment firmly lodged in a predominantly suburban city. Unlike its northern sibling, however, it is, in typological terms, a far more traditionally urban-looking place—and given the neighborhood's location and history, perhaps that should not be surprising. Fountain Square is an inner-ring urban neighborhood that lies a mere mile and half southeast of the city's center. One of the earliest satellite neighborhoods of downtown, it sits at the end of Virginia Avenue, a major commercial street that carves a straight line across the city's grid and into its core. That link has defined Fountain Square, for better or for worse, for its entire history. Indeed, this urban fragment is a fascinating place, as it seems to have embodied the entire Midwestern urban experience of the last 150 years.

It is almost impossible to discuss today's neighborhood without discussing how it came to be. The history of Fountain Square as an urban place essentially begins in 1864, when a horse-drawn street railway line out of downtown opened along Virginia Avenue. As was so often the case in 19th Century American cities, new transportation infrastructure enabled physical expansion, pushing the city's built up area southwards. All along its path, the railway spurred commercial and residential development, and nowhere was this more true than at its terminus, a loop built into the irregular intersection at the very end of Virginia Avenue. The terminal made the area an early transportation node, and locals soon found a fitting nickname for the nascent neighborhood: "The End." The name would stick around for decades—at least until a fountain opened at the foot of Virginia Avenue in 1889.

Urban Impressions: Indianapolis Part 1—Broad Ripple Village

Author's note: This is a blog-style post, and as such—even though I do my best to avoid it—it may have research gaps, a lack of citations, and even (gasp!) typos. If you are looking for something a bit meaty more to sink your teeth into, you may consider a full article.

Indianapolis had, for quite some time, been one of those cities which stuck in the back of my mind: a place I had an interest in exploring, but could never quite pin a reason on why—a feeling I think may be very familiar to those who study cities. Over this past summer, thanks to a new local friend, I finally had the opportunity to indulge that interest, and visit parts of the city and its environs. My timing was far from perfect: not only was my trip brief, but it came only a little more than a month before the opening of the city's new bus rapid transit Red Line. Still, the city has a lot going for it, and hopefully someday soon I will have to opportunity to return and do some more in-depth study.

In physical terms, Indianapolis is a predominantly suburban, auto-focused city—even more so than many of its similar Midwestern siblings. Of course, like almost every older American city, it did once have a large, thriving streetcar network, but much of the region's physical growth seems to have come at the tail end of the streetcar era and at the dawn of the age of auto-dominance. As such, outside of the downtown—most of which I sadly did not have time to explore on this trip—there is sadly little traditional urban fabric. Worse still, outside of downtown's famous Mile Square, much of what once did exist has been razed, either for urban expressways or in the name of progress. Even in outlying neighborhoods that developed before the car, the rigid separation of commercial and residential buildings and the reification of the detached, single family home are paramount. As you research the city, you are told that, thanks to the absence of natural boundaries and ethnic enclaves, most neighborhoods have fuzzy boundaries—if they exist in more than name, at all. The city can seem a uniform tapestry of large roads and suburban houses, sprawling in every direction.

Still, like most any city with roots in the streetcar era, Indianapolis does have a handful of urban fragments: pockets of urbanity which now float disconnectedly in that seemingly endless sea of residential suburbs. In part, one can thank the city’s transportation history for their existence. If one mode of infrastructure defined the urban form of greater Indianapolis prior to the automobile, it was the interurban. The city and its surroundings were laced with these small, electric railways, which ran like a traditional passenger train between cities and villages, and then like a streetcar within them. As a result, the landscape is dotted with shards of urban life left where these systems deigned to stop, many of which were once towns and villages in their own right.

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