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.

Broad Ripple Village, one of these formerly independent towns, stands today as one of Indianapolis’s most significant urban fragments. Located on an oxbow bend along the city's White River, and named after a poem by local poet James Whitcomb Riley, Broad Ripple lies a little more than seven miles (11km) north of Indianapolis’s center. Primarily a shopping, entertainment, and residential district, the former village is now one of the city's hippest neighborhoods. And like so many fashionable urban quarters, it is chock full of small, unique restaurants, bars, independent stores, and the like—alongside the usual outposts of more well-known local and national chains.

One of the most interesting things about Broad Ripple is that, unlike many relatively isolated urban fragments, it spreads out in two dimensions instead of one. Urban life is not limited to a single strip of shops, but instead spreads out over a small pocked of interconnecting streetscapes. This makes the area feel vibrant and alive, and somehow also makes it feel simultaneously larger and smaller than it actually is. The interesting grid means that everything is a short walk from one another, while the vistas created by multiple interesting streets make walking more engaging and intriguing than it would be along an isolated strip.

The neighborhood’s buildings themselves mostly bear out the area’s small town roots, seemingly presaging the era of suburban zoning. One or two story "taxpayers"—wide, short buildings with street level retail and, if it exists, office space on the second floor—are the primary typology. Broad Ripple Avenue, arguably the neighborhood's primary shopping street, is largely single story, and there are no mixed-use residential buildings in the quarter at all save for what has been constructed in the past decade. In fact, except for that welcome spate of new construction, apartment-style housing is nowhere to be seen: this is the realm of the single family home. All the same, the buildings present a mélange of ages and styles, ranging from nigh-suburban mini-malls to metallic Art Deco storefronts to a gorgeous, tower-like Masonic Temple from the early 20th Century. It is interesting how scale and landscape shape perspective: in my memory, it was soaring, but in reality, it is only 3 or 4 (admittedly tall) stories high.

Broad Ripple has been expanding, and it is noticeable. Perhaps most interesting are the many former single family homes which have been allowed to convert to retail, permitting the neighborhood to grow. Walking through them is a unique experience. Unlike many districts which have transitioned into mixed use—those in Portland for example, where adaptively reused former homes sit next to more traditionally urban-looking buildings—here the urban texture seems to abruptly end. You feel as if you have hit the end of the mixed use core and are entering a residential enclave—until you see the small signs in front of a neat line of "homes." It is a tremendous way to allow to neighborhood to grow organically, allowing for small to businesses to thrive without a huge capital investment. It also encourages you to explore the cozy streets in a way that you might not otherwise have.

There is also a fair amount of new construction. Even in predominantly suburban Indianapolis, there is a resurgent demand for urban environments, and few of the city's existing urban fragments are as tempting as this one. A handful of new four to six story apartment buildings dot the landscape, each with retail space at the bottom. In a nice shift, there is even a short office building under construction, proudly advertising its future coworking space. For a city with so few urban fragments, mixed-use infill like this is a very welcome sign.

As a formerly independent village, Broad Ripple has a significant history all its own, much of which is centered on the Indiana Central Canal. Funded by the state of Indiana, the canal was one of many projects began in the rush to build internal improvements following the success of the Erie Canal. The waterway was planned to be 296 miles (476km) long, connecting the watershed of the Great Lakes to that of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The village, founded in the same year that construction began, 1837, sits at the northern mouth of the canal, where it is fed by water from the White River. Unfortunately, 1837 was as an inauspicious year to start an expensive project—to say the least. The ensuing financial panic would end the Central Canal almost as soon as it started. In the end, only 8 miles (13km) of the original course were built, all of them within the present city limits of Indianapolis.

Today, the canal has been almost entirely repurposed into a linear park and nature trail. In Broad Ripple, a pair of scenic, rainbow painted road bridges and a relatively new pedestrian and bicycle bridge beckon you to cross back and forth and explore the paths on both sides. Wildlife abounds, and waterfowl in particular are drawn to the murky, slow-moving water. Alongside the canal, a few businesses, restaurants, and a number of the new apartment buildings have taken advantage of the scenic setting and make the linear park almost function as a pedestrian-only street. While the canal was not the boon its promoters had hoped, the neighborhood today could have scarcely asked for a better amenity to develop itself around.

Even though the canal was not a success, the village of Broad Ripple continued to grow, especially once railroads, streetcars, and interurbans connected it to the surrounding towns and cities. Of particular note is the former Monon Railroad, which in the 1850s connected the town to the wider world: to Indianapolis and eventually the Ohio River to the south, and to Lafyatte, IN (the home of Purdue University) and Chicago to the north. As is so often the case, lying at the crossroads of local and regional transportation networks spurred growth, and the village quickly grew into the outlying commercial district and relatively walkable neighborhood it remains today.

In 1922, as the first waves auto-drive sprawl—accompanied by the last waves of streetcar-driven development—pushed Indianapolis northward, the village was annexed into the city. Car and car centric policies would, of course, spell the end for most streetcars and many railroads, and the Monon was no exception. The line ended all passenger trains but one in 1959, and after a series of merges, the tracks through the former town would carry their last train in 1987.

Thankfully, twelve years later, Indianapolis would step in and convert the former railroad’s right-of-way into a rail trail. Stretching across the city, it is a well-used link, carrying a plethora of bikers and walkers, while interfacing well with the local urbanity in the neighborhoods it touches. In Broad Ripple, the old railroad station has been adaptively reused, creating "BRICS"—the Broad Ripple Ice Cream Station. A sign of changing times and shifting economic priorities to be sure, the business is also a welcome piece of living history, and a physical connection to the neighborhood's past.

Sadly, Broad Ripple has its share of wrinkles, too, and as with so much of Indianapolis, the car is the biggest culprit. The neighborhood is wedged between two major north-south boulevards—wide, multilane highways that invite copious amounts of high-speed traffic. The loud noise, the barren vistas, and the long distances mean these are decidedly not human friendly spaces—no matter how many rentable electric scooters are deposited along them.

The center of Broad Ripple has warts, too. For one thing, parking and parking lots are plentiful—if thankfully not plentiful enough to fully interrupt the continuous urban texture. Far more problematically, the neighborhood's sidewalks are simply far too narrow. Pedestrians have clearly been given short shrift, with their space cut down to maximize road and parking space. As a result, even light posts and signs can end up as notable impediments, especially when two or more people attempt to pass one another. Perhaps because of this, a noticeable number of the storefronts along the major streets are vacant. It is not the most positive sign for the greater city's fledgling urban economy.

That said, things are looking up for Broad Ripple and for Indianapolis as a whole—and the recent opening of the Red Line has a lot to do with it. A full bus rapid transit line, it consists of electric buses, which run almost entirely in dedicated bus lanes, and which serves handsome, clearly delineated stations at frequent intervals. The line's current northern terminus is smack in the middle of Broad Ripple, and it runs south through Indianapolis's downtown, along the way connecting a number of the city's urban fragments with fast, reliable transit. It is an excellent start to the long, slow project of transitioning a mainly suburban city into a more urban one.

Here's hoping that Broad Ripple can continue its urban turn, and continue as one of Indianapolis’s core urban neighborhoods—the kind that every urban city needs.

Read Part Two on Fountain Square!. Coming soon: a look at suburban Zionsville, IN.
This photo essay is also being published, piecemeal, on Instagram.