Friday, January 14, 2011

An open letter to Indianapolis

A Good Time to Take Stock?

   Look and you will see, traveling the streets and alleys and highways of Indianapolis, an 80 year old florist and bakery sits empty; a shuttered coffee shop remains where a bank once was; parking lots lie where former landmarks stood; and like a lone oak on a plain rests an old, empty baseball stadium.

   A lot has transpired in Indianapolis construction in the past 150 years. We have built and bulldozed, reveled and reviled, ignored and adored generations of buildings. Indianapolis supplanted many of the late 1800s and early 1900s works of Robert Frost Dagget, Adolf Scherrer, and Vonnegut and Bonn for the 1920s and 30s work of Rubbush and Hunter, Paul Cret, and Pierre and Wright.  Restless and expanding after WWII, Hoosiers hired scores of local and outside architects to reinvent our city: it was with Evans Woollen, Thomas E. Stanley, Nathaniel Owings, Lennox, Mathews, Simmons, and Ford, and the last version of the old Vonnegut firm, Wright, Porteus, and Lowe that we came to the modern world. During the last forty years, Indianapolis has seen a steady building boom.  Perhaps at this moment of recession and slow growth we might pause and take stock.

    Along the way sobering losses shocked us -like the razing of the old Court House or the late discovery that our city’s only Fredrick Law Olmsted garden had been cleared for the Children’s Museum. Searching for an identity, we went from the “The City of Homes” to “Home of the Indianapolis 500” and then the “Sports Capital of the World” and “Super Bowl Champions”; now we claim to be the “Convention Capital.”

   The endangered old Bush Stadium (originally Perry Stadium, then Victory Field, built in 1930 by local architects Pierre and Wright) was the home of early baseball, the great American sport.  Its walls tell the story of the Indians and the Negro league’s Indianapolis Clowns, and the surrounding neighborhood where the Ink Spots lived and played and Wes Montgomery cut his teeth. In most other cities this would already be a nationally recognized treasure or a museum. Why not here?

   Many of our most familiar downtown structures were recently altered or demolished. Most notable was the re-skinning of the Regions tower and the old Merchants Bank/Zipper building. I often wonder why we lost Market Square Arena. Was that the only way to get a new home for the Pacers?  I know a lot of us saw some of our most memorable performances and games at Market Square.  The Hoosier/RCA Dome was our “build it and they will come” story. We took our “new” team to the Super Bowl in that building. It barely lasted twenty years and I can’t recall a single protest to its demolition.

   100 years ago Indianapolis had streetcars (first mule-pulled in 1864 then electric until 1953!), Amtrak trains, the Interurban electric train system and bicycles. In 1893 so many bicycles were on the street the City Council passed a $1 license fee. The Monon Trail used to be a direct train passage from Fishers and Carmel, through Broad Ripple to downtown. The downtown field of tracks and changing works were all pulled up and the buildings leveled for Market Square Arena, an area that is now a parking lot.  Currently we are facing a proposition to put in a light rail system, reinstating lines our grandfathers built. Gone are the tracks for which we paid long ago that ran all over our city and state and beyond.

   So I ask the developers and the architects and the investors and the homeowners and the taxpayers: are we going too fast? Is growth and convenience the bottom line or is humanity? Perhaps the point of civilization should be that we are also striving to form a great culture. Our past is not so bad. Our buildings are not so humble. A lot of farmland has been cleared, lots of malls and coffee shops and drugstores and parking lots and garages have been erected suddenly over our old hand built Indianapolis. Perhaps chain stores and car parks are not a fitting legacy for our generation. This is not to blame those who make our city what it is but to encourage them, to encourage all of us, to want more for our humble metropolis.

   As I write this plans are temporarily on hold to demolish the old Crawford’s Bakery building at 16th and Capitol, The Pilgrim Lutheran Church at 96th and Meridian (a stunning edifice built in 1955 by Edward Stade) is scheduled to be razed for a highway onramp. Dozens of our terrific public school buildings are being wildly altered by window replacement (non-opening) and giant cooling units, a curious allocation of funds.   
   Perhaps we can look at our older buildings again in the morning light and try to see them as ours. Maybe one day we will take our kids to the Bush Stadium Baseball Museum to learn about the old baseball legends. Maybe we will take an electric train there.

Vessel von Ruhtenberg

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