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.

Today's neighborhood of Fountain Square is named after Fountain Square, the physical place: that same intersection which contained that early streetcar loop and fountain. By its very nature the square generates a sense of centrality: all of the area's major streets converge axially at its center. Each approach ends in a pleasingly terminated vista of brick and billboard. What's more, these views are framed by corridors of decidedly urban-looking buildings, which stand a few stories taller than most surrounding structures. As a result, your eyes are irresistibly drawn towards the center, as if each of the streets were punctuated by a shared exclamation point. The square visibly announces itself as a place, and beckons you inwards.

In that center, at the base of metaphorical punctuation mark, lies the namesake fountain, surrounded by a low, limestone parapet. Copper cast into an ornate female form, this is actually the fountain's second incarnation, built in 1924 some six years after its predecessor was destroyed under murky, probably accidental circumstances. The fountain is a true landmark, not only in the traditional sense, but in a technical one as well. According to the ontology of urban theorist Kevin Lynch, a landmark is a memorable, highly visible object or building that plays a significant a role in shaping our mental maps of an urban place. The Lady Spray Fountain, as she is sometimes known, is a textbook example, and it is no wonder the neighborhood is named after her.

Given that major role, however, the actual physical location of the fountain within the square is a bit of a shame. For one thing, its base is more traffic divider than public square, with only a handful of paths to approach. There is an open space across the street, but it is far less visible and far less notable. Far worse, however, is how the fountain is pushed off to one side, away from the intersection's center. This was almost certainly a decision made by traffic engineers: it allows cars on the busiest roads to speed through the square unimpeded. To prioritize the movement of traffic, however, is to miss the point of this space entirely. Fountain Square may no longer be The End, but it is still very much a definitive place—a destination, not a thoroughfare. The intersection already encourages you to slow and linger, and the fountain should reinforce that natural inclination. It deserves pride of place at the heart of the square, an anchor visible from every direction.

With all that said however, from an urban design perspective, the actual streetscapes of Fountain Square are exemplary. Each major street entering the square is flanked by buildings two to five stories tall, creating the comfy, room-like sense of enclosure that makes urban space so comfortable and comprehensible. Sidewalks are wide but not too wide, and are lined with an unbroken wall of retail. Even though the square has some longer buildings, encompassing the better part of a city block, they do not dull the experience at street level. Instead, they are designed such that every storefront is distinctly delineated, creating an engaging visual texture which makes walking feel effortless. What's more, many of these storefronts have recessed entryways, creating deeply functional nucleation points for moments of urban life, whether to tie a shoelace, to window shop, to have a conversation, or anything else. Meanwhile, shops and cafes spill freely out onto the sidewalk, infusing the streets with life and creating even more points of visual interest. The physical layout of Fountain Square simply encourages you to slow and spend time in its cozy confines, observing and participating in the rhythms of everyday urban life.

What's more, while much of the building stock is older, not all of the successful urban design elements are a product of age: there are also numerous new urban niceties which make the neighborhood both more accessible and more human-friendly. Perhaps the most visible of these is a fully protected, two-way bike lane which cuts through the heart of the square—part of Indianapolis's "Cultural Trail." There is also a new Red Line station, one block north of the fountain. It may not be in the exact center of the neighborhood, but it is close enough, and it provides fast, frequent transport to much of the rest of urban Indianapolis, much like the streetcar that preceded it. On the ground, curb bulbs, leafy green swales, and outdoor furniture combine to help make the street a more comfortable place. The local Business Improvement District has clearly been busy as well, putting up unified signage on everything from light poles to trash cans. Whether or not that is a good thing is an open question, of course, but on a beautiful late-summer day, I was more than willing to let it slide.

In cultural terms, Fountain Square has a great deal in common with Broad Ripple. If the latter is the hot, young neighborhood which has come to dominate the urban imagination of Indy's northern reaches, then Fountain Square is its older, more established sibling, which has ruled the south side of the city for decades. Its stores alone paint a picture of what the neighborhood is—or at least, what it wants to be. One of the main reasons I had come to the neighborhood (beyond exploring) was to visit a bar that specializes solely in craft mead and cider—and it would be hard to imagine a better symbol of the specialized consumption that defines so much of modern American urbanism. As I exited the car (sadly still the most practical way to travel as of my visit), the first thing I encountered was a cat cafe, where human and feline intermingled behind an entrance proudly flying the rainbow flag. Walking, you encounter numerous small restaurants, bars, and cafes, as well as a vintage clothing shop, a fancy chocolatier, a comic book shop, and numerous other small boutiques. Fountain Square even possesses Indianapolis's best-known vinyl emporium, which includes not only a built in coffee shop but a well curated collection of both used discs and new releases. On the street outside its doors, a band was performing inside one of the Red Line's new electric buses surrounded by cameras and equipment, perhaps filming a music video or an advertisement for the service. In the most quippish way I can manage, Fountain Square sometimes feels like a postcard of modern Brooklyn brought to life—and I have no idea whether I mean that as a cutting remark or as a sign of honest appreciation. Something about it may bring out a bit of my cynicism, but I can't deny that I enjoyed the place all the same.

Still, Fountain Square is most definitely an urban fragment, and you feel it on the ground. While the square itself may be a cozy urban space, travel one block in almost any direction and the urban streetscape comes to a screeching halt. Shelby Avenue to the south stands out in particular. While the street remains commercial in nature, it quickly turns wider and more suburban—even feeling strangely rural in some ways, save for the protected bike lane—lined by as many parking lots and empty grass patches as it is stores and structures. In most other directions, the streetscape immediately dissolves into endless rows of detached single-family houses. While the stock is typical of older Midwestern cities—modest and built on small lots—it is still distinctly suburban in form and function. The worst, however, may be to the north. Virginia Avenue—by far the most urban street leaving the square—was a once trail of unbroken urban texture that linked neighborhood to core. Sadly, this connecting fabric, was obliterated by Interstates 65 and 70, replacing it with a wall of noise, pollution, and asphalt.

Things are not all bad: there are a handful of new apartment buildings around the square, either recently opened or under construction—undoubtedly a good sign for the future. Still, it's clear that most of Fountain Square's businesses survive on people traveling to them, rather than on those living nearby. As a result, the neighborhood sometimes feels like a lonely, isolated oasis. Looking down the roads out of its urban heart, Fountain Square can once again seem like The End: the last fragment of a once-thriving, pedestrian-oriented city, now left adrift in a lonely sea of auto-centric sprawl and urban disinvestment.

To truly understand Fountain Square today, however, we have to take a more detailed look at its history. Luckily, it is an engaging topic: in many ways, Fountain Square is a microcosm of Midwestern urban development, decline, and partial rebirth, all in one neat little package.

Fountain Square's history can roughly be divided into five phases: two distinct periods of growth, a period of tumultuous decline, followed by a period of fumbling attempts to halt it, all culminating in the decidedly mixed present. As was and is so often the case, Fountain Square was born in a flurry of explosive growth. Fueled by the larger city's expanding industrial economy, the construction and operation of the streetcar, and a wave of German immigration, the neighborhood all but appeared overnight, going from bare fields to thriving community in only a few short decades.

Slowly however, as the neighborhood's general outlines solidified, growth would begin to take on a different character: more mature and more capital intensive. Indeed, in the decades following the turn of the 20th Century, Fountain Square would cement itself as the outlying business district of Indianapolis's south side. Once again, the streetcar played a major role. New, electrified lines were built branching off from the original, transforming the square into a commercial hub closer to new suburban homes than the central city. This spurred commercial development, including neighborhood banks and large department stores—the bones of which still define the square today. The theater also took hold: following the opening of the first playhouse in 1909, Fountain Square would begin an over forty year run as the capital of the city's stage culture. This growth reached its zenith in the boom years of the 1920s, and perhaps nothing symbolized it better than the construction of the today's ornate fountain. Commissioned by local merchants in 1924, it epitomized the seemingly endless growth, boundless commerce, and civic capitalism that defined the pre-Depression American business district.

Fountain Square, however—like almost all American urban neighborhoods—was in for a rude shock following the tumults of the Great Depression and the Second World War. The story of American urban decline has been told countless times before, and it was little different here. Suburban home loans were subsidized, while redlining and other practices all but froze the flow of capital into mixed-race, urban places like Fountain Square. Auto infrastructure both enabled and further subsidized suburban flight, devastating traditional shopping streets. The streetcar, the original lifeblood of the neighborhood, ceased operating in 1955. Worse, in 1957 the first Interstate highway plans for the neighborhood were unveiled. While construction only started in 1970, later than many urban highways, the results were exactly the same. By the time they opened in 1976, most of the pre-1910 building stock had been demolished. As middle class residents fled, either in search of better pastures or to preserve their own home equity, poorer residents moved in—in particular, in a distinctive turn, poor whites from rural Appalachia. With fewer and fewer resources, businesses shuttered and theaters closed. Perhaps the ultimate insult, however, came early: in 1954, the neighborhood's namesake fountain was relocated to somewhat nearby Garfield Park in order to "protect" it. All in all, between 1950 and 1980, Fountain Square lost more than half of its population, much of its wealth, and a good chunk of its building stock.

The neighborhood did, however, have one trick left up its sleeve: the social, cultural, and human capital it had built up during its time as a center for the arts. It began with something relatively common for the era: the remaining middle class population banding together and forming grassroots organizations dedicated to protecting the neighborhood and restarting its economy. One of their first moves was a clever one: they opened a service center for residents, which not only offered lessons on how to repair homes, but provided a place to share information on how to obtain scarce loans. Early success was hard won, but in 1969 theses groups scored a massive symbolic victory: the restoration of the fountain to its rightful place at the heart of the neighborhood.

This era of attempted regeneration did not really hit its stride, however, until the early 1980s, when the resources, energy, and talent developed by the grassroots organizations were transformed into full-blooded community development corporations. These non-profits began a thirty year period of what might best be described as "cultural regeneration urbanism." Scraping together capital from private donors, from other non-profits, and from a cavalcade of city, state, and federal programs for restarting moribund urban economies, they invested heavily in arts communities, cultural institutions, street festivals, and the like. The results of these projects were decidedly mixed, as they were in many cities. A cynical eye might see these as an attempt to jumpstart a boutique economy in the vein of New York's SoHo, while a sympathetic observer might point out how these programs not only supported local artists, but offered a rare influx of capital during decades of disinvestment. Either way, while success was decidedly mixed, the work of the CDCs kept Fountain Square in the public consciousness—something which would make it ripe for revival when the time came.

And as the urban renaissance has taken hold in Indianapolis, growth in Fountain Square has finally taken off of its own volition, and these efforts have finally begun to bear fruit. Many of the earlier non-profit organizations have been absorbed into today's Fountain Square Business Improvement District—perhaps a logical end to their economic and cultural development dreams. The cultural focus of the BID continues: during my Friday evening visit, for instance, a band began a free, sponsored outdoor concert in a dedicated performing arts space across from the fountain. There are other cultural amenities, too, including an arts center inside a converted department store, and a public library built into a prominent storefront right on the square—a nice touch. That said, there is a potential dark side to this BID-driven history—a term I use quite literally, given that the organization commissioned much of the neighborhood's public history. Its unified signage, outdoor concerts, and other cultural advertisements can sometimes make Fountain Square feel like it is trying to be a consumption-oriented theme park, not a slice of urban life. Coupled with the neighborhood's isolated, fragmentary feeling, the neighborhood can almost feel fleeting and artificial, like a more down-to-Earth festival marketplace for the modern era.

That assessment is almost certainly unfair, and I'm not fully sure why part of me is drawn to cynicism. The line between a functional urban economy and a cynical entertainment district can often be a fuzzy one. True, the urban renaissance here—like in almost every other city across the country—is not only piecemeal, but distributed in a deeply inequitable way. But it is a real revival nonetheless, powered by local businesses and residents, old and new. Fountain Square today may not exactly match the bustle of its years as a commercial hub, but neither is it the place without hope as it seemed in the era of urban renewal. It is a growing, truly urban place in what has been a predominantly auto-centric city. Only time will tell whether this growth will be deep and lasting, or if the neighborhood will shake its occasional sense of fleeting artifice. But there are strong reasons to be hopeful: physically, Fountain Square offers some of the best traditional urban landscape in Indianapolis. Hopefully, the city and the neighborhood can translate that into true reurbanization, so that Fountain Square can be as important for Indianapolis's future as it was for its past.

Coming soon: Zionsville, IN, the final part of this Indianapolis trip.
This photo essay is also being published, piecemeal, on Instagram.