Few people dream of visiting or moving to Indianapolis. At least not yet. But after a weeklong visit--zipping all over town from world-class arts institutions to world-class dive bars--I came away distinctly surprised.
I believe Indy can hold its own against other thriving urban centers from Seattle to Boston. And I'm not alone. Last year Metropolis design and architecture magazine ranked Indianapolis one of "The World's Most Livable Cities", and Huffington Post declared it one of seven "Most Underrated Cities for Millennials".
Many years had passed since my last visit, and I noticed a new sense of self-confidence surging through the heart of the city. Far from being "Naptown" or "Indy-no-place", as it was known in the 1980s, Indianapolis exudes an urbane energy that is attracting Millennials, young families, and baby boomers all looking for the right mix of "pizzazz" and "pleasant". Not to mention entrepreneurs and businesses looking for a creative environment, young talent, and moderate costs.
And Indianapolis' lingering reputation as socially "behind the times" was to put to rest last year thanks to a spirited citywide campaign that successfully changed a state law many thought sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians.
While Midwestern modesty squelches locals' urge to brag, I found plenty of reasons for them to be proud and upbeat about their city's future
1. Dynamic Downtown
Downtown Indy can stand tall against those of larger metropolitan regions. The sidewalks pulse with people headed to meetings, shopping, restaurants, shows, ballgames, museums, cafes, arts attractions, festivals, a thriving public market, and appealing historic districts all around it. That's why Livability.com ranked it #3 downtown among all mid-sized and small metropolitan regions in the US last year.
2. Lively Youthful Spirit
More than 40,000 students are enrolled at universities near the heart of the city, which helps explains the abundance of young people and the start-ups, funky boutiques, coffee shops patio dining, microbreweries and exuberant street life they foster. US News & World Report named Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis #7 on its list of "Up and Coming Schools" last year.
3. A Collaborative Instinct
The national organization CEOs for Cities honors Indianapolis "as a model of collaboration, inspiration and action." The knack of local leaders for putting their heads together has paid off many times through the years: revitalizing the downtown, attracting professional sports teams, establishing the city as America's unrivaled amateur sports capital by attracting the NCAA and other organizations. A recent triumph is the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, an 8-mile bicycle and pedestrian route that leaders from more than 200 cities around the world have come to study. "The trail is putting Indianapolis on the map as a place to see bold innovation," reported the New York Times when it opened in 2014.
Betsy McCaw, Chief Operating Officer at the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, observes, "One thing I found here after years in San Francisco and Chicago was the ease of learning what's going on around town. People here just naturally put you in touch with other people. Another asset is the ability to come here and make an impact. That's important for business."
4. A Creative Culture
A number of people confided to me that decades of indifference to Indianapolis by the national media (except Memorial Day weekend at the Speedway) leaves locals feeling insecure about their hometown. But I noticed this was less true for young people.
"Some folks, especially decision makers, ask me, 'Why are you here?'" notes Michael Bricker, an award-winning production designer on independent films, who lives in Indy when not on a film shoot. "We have to stop telling ourselves we're not good enough," adds Bricker. "I come back to Indianapolis because I like being in a city that's not finished---I think a lot of Millennials are drawn to that notion."
Bricker's also runs People United for Progress, a workshop where he and colleagues design and sell sturdy tote bags, bike bags and duffel bags made out of materials salvaged from the roof of the now-gone RCA Dome NFL stadium. Bricker launched the project to keep 13 acres of synthetics out of the landfill but much to his surprise it's turning into a thriving operation.
"I feel like every day I see some new shop or event happening," says entrepreneur Tiffany Benedict Browne, who grew up in Los Angeles and is still amazed at the low cost of living here. "The only thing that will keep you from doing what you want in Indianapolis is a lack of imagination and tenacity."
Scott Stulen, who recently moved from Minneapolis to become Curator of Audience Experiences and Performance at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, admitted Indianapolis was not on his radar until he came to do a TED talk a couple of years back. "I was really surprised by all the creative energy here--- each night there are multiple cool things happening. The young creative class stays here instead of fleeing someplace else. People are moving back into the city from the suburbs."
One of Indianapolis' community stars is Big Car, an arts organization dedicated to strengthening the links between creative work and community revitalization. Focusing on placemaking through pop-up creations, public art in public places and community building projects, the group participates in projects to help revitalize low-income neighborhoods as well as presenting gallery shows.
"The practice of engagement is central to us. It's not all about what you make, but what you make happen," says founder Jim Walker, who moved to Indy after growing up in Kokomo, Indiana.
5. World Class for Biking and Walking
Although synonymous with auto racing, Indianapolis is now gaining attention for bike riding and walking--which are essential to the young workforce creative companies want to hire. The major reason is the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which effortlessly connects with other biking and walking trails, allowing riders and hikers to cover much of the city unmolested by auto traffic.
6. Real-Life Authenticity & Diversity
Indianapolis can offer prospective residents a selection of housing stock right in the city that fits all lifestyles, architectural tastes and income brackets--from classic Victorians to midcentury split-levels to lofts. Downtown itself is a thriving residential neighborhood with 20,000 residents, inhabiting stylish condos, but also refurbished single family homes with front porches in historic center city neighborhoods.
Living in Indianapolis also offers the authentic experience of American life in the 21st Century. The city is about 38 percent people of color---almost exactly the percentage as the US as a whole. This includes longstanding African-American and Latino communities as well as recent immigrants from China, Myanmar, Nigeria, Latin America and India.
Mali Jeffers--a social entrepreneur and project manager whose initiatives involving race, arts, culture and civic pride earn her the tag "the Unsegregator" by the Indianapolis Star--enthuses about Indianapolis as a great place to raise a family. "There are so many cultural assets in the city, like the zoo and museums. There was also the matter of authenticity. If I take my daughters shopping downtown, they see a richness of people and places, the architecture, the farmer's market, events like a marathon, a car driving by playing cool music. The things you can learn just walking down the streets."