When I grew up down in Franklin, we'd often drive up to Indy. I loved riding in the Ford Country Squire station wagon (sitting in the front seat, no seatbelts while my father smoked unfiltered Pall Malls).
When we went to see the Indianapolis Racers who had just acquired that young Canadian kid Wayne Gretzky, we'd enter the downtown via the glorious elevated expressway ramp that took us right under Market Square Arena. I hold that experience of journeying through that gateway into the "big city" very dear.
If my mom wanted to make back-to-school shopping extra special, we'd forego the outdoor Greenwood Shopping Center and drive all the way up to Lafayette Square Mall to search for shrill '70s fashions at places such as Sears, J.C. Penney, Block's Department Store, Lazarus or L.S. Ayres & Company.
Now they're gone.
In 2001, my buddy Matt Elliot and I watched them implode the arena where Elvis played his final concert. In 2009 the city had dismantled the Market Street ramp. And the now infamous "Lafayette Scare" has descended into a dinosaur mall amid a sea of desolate concrete and tarnished by a reputation of violence.
I thought about those places in light of the city's recent big announcement. Mayor Ballard has proclaimed the near, near east side of downtown a cultural district, affixing the moniker Market East to join the likes of Broad Ripple Village, the Canal & White River State Park, Fountain Square, Indiana Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue and the Wholesale District.
So on a sunny spring day last week, I walked to the City Market for lunch along where MSA once proudly stood, and I pondered the exact same thing as the Indianapolis Star's Erika D. Smith: What's so cultural about the 14-blocksof our newest cultural district? The current tally stands as such:
· The Old City Hall, or The Hall, finally functioning as an urban planning hub for the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development (DMD).
These stand as exciting transformations, but other than being kissed by the Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A Legacy of Gene and Marilyn Glick, I'm not seeing much culture there yet. Oh, wait, there is an art gallery in Artistry. Check.
To be fair, the designation comes hot on the heels of much anticipated development announcements that took so long that the city had to pave the MSA footprint. The long-awaited $81 million Market Square Tower should provide a nice bookend to the JW Marriott, but it drew a yawn from David Hoppe as losing "an opportunity for Indianapolis to make a major cultural statement." Then, there's the proposal for a $30 million global distribution HQ for Cummins. Maybe there's some potential there considering J. Irwin Miller's contributions to Columbus, Indiana, architecture. However, the jury's out on whether current Cummins' management shares the same artistic devotion.
There is, however, great hope that the City-County Council redesign competition from Sky Blue Window's engine, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, will add some much needed life to the footprint of the old Marion County Courthouse. Methinks this has cultural planners speculating on what Indy's equivalent of Chicago's Millennium Park and "silver bean" might look like.
So I caution city planners that if you're going to designate something a cultural district, make damn sure that you do a better job than you did with the Convention Center, which displays a startling lack of art or culture in its renovated halls.
I still find all this sad for the Lafayette Square Area, passed up once again in vying for its dream of rebranding itself the "International Market," which the city should have made a cultural district first.
Why? Because unlike Market East, which needs to manufacture culture, culture is already embedded in the LSA. Its residents speak more than 70 languages, and at least according to the New York Times it's "where the world comes to eat." I'll put up Saraga International Grocery against any chain they throw on the first floor of Market Tower, just for the exploration factor alone.
Credit Jim Walker and Big Car for making the move out there when everyone else had given up on the area. But even Big Car will have its last hurrah at its Service Center location, hosting the first 5x5 event of this season on May 8, before bugging out on June 1. The Service Center played host to so much culture, I'll be sad to see it leave. It was such a draw to explore those other aspects of Lafayette Square.
LSA was planning for and announced revitalization plans months before downtown's development announcements. If we get another Super Bowl, this is where Indy should work on its next Legacy Project. In the meantime, I guess LSA is a bridesmaid waiting for someone to throw it a bouquet.