Walking America: Indianapolis
Crossing the city on foot, from beltway to beltway
Despite ten years of driving around America, I knew little about Indianapolis, other than it was a city with a beltway of intersecting highways to navigate.
I even stayed a few nights just off the beltway, in one of those clusters of strip malls built for people passing through, with their forest of ads on sticks, cheap motels, and over-engineered parking lots. I don’t remember much from those nights, beyond grabbing a quick meal, collapsing in my room, and then prepping to drive more the next day.
Indianapolis stayed a blank slate, although I am pretty sure subconsciously I bought into the stereotype of it being just another middle-America city filled with closed-minded normies living in blegh. A place, despite all my claims to being open-minded, I would never want to live in.
Spending three days walking around and across Indianapolis made me realize just how wrong I was, and how happy I would be to live there.
Within the first minute of my first walk I knew I had been wrong. I started in a massive strip mall near the western side of the beltway, filled with stores for recent immigrants from Mexico, the Middle East, Africa, Vietnam, and even Myanmar.
It wasn’t one strip mall. Walking east I passed mall after mall filled with shops for Mexicans, Middle Easterners, Africans, Jamaicans, Vietnamese, and Burmese. These weren’t the type of shops you find in the upscale parts of bigger cities, that sell watered down ethnic stuff to a mostly educated, wealthy, and white crowd looking for a new experience, but shops run by immigrants for immigrants. Basic needs of life shops. Food, clothing, auto insurance, legal services, and venues to throw a big bash when your daughter graduates from high school or an uncle gets married.
This level of diversity isn’t what I had thought of Indianapolis, or what I suspect most well-educated North Easterners think of it.
What was striking about the diversity, and what became clearer as I walked more, talked with people, and spent evenings in bars, restaurants, and hanging in McDonald’s, was how interwoven it was at a personal level. It wasn’t just statistical. Everyone in Indianapolis seemed pretty much the same, at a lived reality way. They all worked hard at the same type of jobs, all shopped in the same type of stores, all ate in and drank in the same type of bars.
People intermingled because they were not all that different. Not to always pick on New York City (which I love), but that isn’t the case there. New York City, which is extremely diverse by statistics, is more defined by its massive inequality. The mostly white Upper East Side is very different from the mostly immigrant Jackson Heights. The rare mingling that happens between the two is almost always transactional, not about shared personal values, and rarely begins or ends in true friendships. Relationships in New York often come with big power differences.
While there are certainly big gaps in wealth in Indianapolis, nice neighborhoods filled with mostly white lawyers, doctors, and financiers, it isn’t what dominates the personality of the city, isn’t what most people experience, at least at the street level.
The neighborhoods I walked through as I headed downtown, were all pretty much the same. Some where mostly white, some mostly black, some mostly Latino, many mixed, but all were slight variations of each. Mostly middle to low income neighborhoods of small, well-tended, box-like homes. Nothing fancy, but nothing in complete disrepair either. Functional communities focused on being functional communities.
The other feeling that dominates the first part of the walk is of a relaxed practicality. Everything is focused on getting stuff done on a small budget, without a lot of stress. Simple, practical, and focused, yet low key. Sure there are affectations and aesthetic flairs — murals, cars decked out to look cool, work trucks without a scratch, silly this and that meant to elevate life — but they are secondary to stuff getting done.
The vibe changes as you cross the river into downtown, but only a little. There are upscale bars with absurdly large drinks, fashionable restaurants with tall food, and places meant to entertain tourists, but they are places for an once a month splurge. A Times Square for people who can’t afford Times Square.
Practicality and work still dominate. Massive hospitals and huge government buildings far outnumber the few shiny towers. Maybe it is because of the wide streets, maybe COVID, but whatever reason, Indianapolis’s downtown is very chill for a downtown.
The rest of my walk is a six mile straight shot east along Washington. The practical, low-key vibe continues, although it is now mixed with visible human despair. Boarded-up buildings, pawn shops, clusters of old men panhandling while chugging bottles of liquor or pop, couples passed out on lawns, a man tweaking in a piss-smelling bus stop.
It is both commercial and residential, with many of the homes on the road, and just off it, displaying the usual signs of poverty — Blue tarps covering massive holes, piles of stuff on the curb from the evicted, mailboxes stuff full of wet and rotting flyers and letters.
Almost every house, from the functional to the falling apart, is festooned with various and aggressive signs all effectively saying, “If you come onto this property, you are going to be bit, shot, or both.” One house, owned by an older black man who was fixing a hole on the roof, has the usual array of signs, coupled with two printed pages attached to the front porch. It is the text of the Castle Doctrine, with the relevant parts about justified use of deadly force highlighted in yellow.
This continues for six miles, with a brief break for a small stretch of historical district. It is a nice break. A sweet community, one that clearly has worked at maintaining a link to the best part of Indianapolis’s past, that nonetheless feels more complicated by what comes before and after it.
I finally end in another nest of strip malls next to another beltway exit, an almost exact mirror reflection of where I started, although this one seems a tad more upscale, but only on a metric where Applebee’s is upscale.
I spend the rest of the evening relaxing in a Mexican restaurant drinking massive mugs of Dos Equis watching the scene.
The restaurant is constantly busy, filling and emptying with young couples holding hands across the table, guys still dirty from work, and big parties celebrating birthdays and promotions. Many customers are still wearing their yellow work safety vests. Like everything else in Indianapolis, the restaurant is diverse, with Black, Hispanic, White, and Asian customers, all mixing and all going about their days without a lot of fanfare.
I like it so much I come back the next two nights after taking shorter walks to drink, think, and watch the scene: Just normies being normies, unconcerned about me and whatever I am thinking about them, their place in it, and mine.
There is a huge government building in downtown Indianapolis with the massive slogan on it, “Indiana: A State that Works.” When I first saw it I literally rolled my eyes, despite there being nobody to see me do it. It was that hokey.
But it is right, at the street level. Both literally and figuratively. That is what comes off from being in Indianapolis. In all my time there I hardly saw any political signs, any bumper stickers, or yard signs saying, vote for this or that, or hate this or that.
What I did see was lot of trucks with rolls of wire in them, or ladders, or cars loaded with lumber in the trunk. Or Accords, Fusions, and Caravans filled with kids seats, boxes of clothes, bright yellow safety vest and white hardhats. Or practical homes, with small yards, filled with practical cars.
People in Indianapolis work, building tangible things, that often get them dirty by the end of the day, and they do it without a lot of hype. They have real skills, and they can point to a physical thing they accomplished from work. Unlike me, or the others who spend ours days behind computers. They also do this without a lot of the Front Row’s concern for the discourse, political and cultural. Whatever that is.
Other cities have lots of that as well. New York City has huge numbers of people who build physical stuff and simply want to get by the best they can, but they no longer define the city. Instead the feel of the city is set by those of us in the Front Row who spend our hours in an office, or at home, working on a computer, rarely getting dirty.
Being in Indianapolis, it is almost impossible to forget just how reliant we are on the vast majority of the country who make things and have tangible skills. How different and privileged it is to think for a living.
That is why Indianapolis is such a great town. Well, that and the restaurant with 32 ounce draft Dos Equis for five bucks.
Nice work. You’re mining a good groove. But it could be that making stuff for a living and getting dirty doing it may actually be a better way to live than it’s generally given credit for - even by you, who’ve gone out in search of it for observation’s sake. Ever notice how many people in the front rows are neurotic or otherwise messed up? We were meant to use our hands and bodies, like you do when you’re out snooping around. People who disdain that are just trapped in a retro way of associating lack of physical exertion with the trappings of status. Anyway, keep up the good work!
I appreciate your focus, observations and concise writing. You are dwelling on larger themes and policies but leave it to the reader/viewer to ponder. So this triggers pondering about morality and immigration and aged housing stock for folks yearning to move to America more fervently the the Bradfords, Brewsters and Standishes. And it looks like I missed you in Buffalo a second time. Hope the turtles are well.