Monday, April 18, 2011

Some History with our Culture?

 [An interurban ran right along Virginia Avenue. The track has been severed in the demolition of the street for the Cultural Trail]
[The cut for the Virginia Avenue leg of the Cultural Trail -- click images to enlarge]

A few years back Indianapolis began construction of a "Cultural Trail."  This trail links the "Cultural Districts" that the city's marketers thought up a few years before that.  The Cultural Districts include Mass Ave, Broad Ripple, Fountain Square, the Wholesale District, and the Canal District, and probably some other place I've forgotten.  Some of these places definitely have pizzazz  and all have some version of culture.  Anyplace where humans hang out probably has culture.  But a big part of capital-C "Culture," the stuff that defines and is defined by specific places, people and events, is history.  Arguably a shared history is the biggest factor in creating culture, in fact.

I like the Cultural Trail for bike riding. It's wide and smooth and safe.  And I love the natural landscaping used in swales beside the trail.  But I have a big gripe with the Cultural Trail's impact.   In the process of creating a wide, paved sidewalk with a lot of lights and way too many bollards and signs, the city is distracting from and even destroying parts of our history, which are probably more worthy of remembrance and reverence than anything the trail offers.   The trail is so distracting, with all its tchotchkes, that it becomes the focus of the view in the areas it travels through.  You might once have noticed the old commercial buildings on Mass Ave or the old residences on Walnut Street.  Now, you'll be noticing the Ikea style light fixtures and way too many silly metal bollards.

This year, my neighborhood of Fountain Square gets its leg of the trail.  I've been sure to walk along the construction/destruction zone often to gaze into the big dig as they tear up the street down to about 2 feet deep.  What can currently be seen on Virginia Avenue under the layers of modern concrete and asphalt pavement is the old big-bricks street and old interurban tracks still laid on their wooden ties.

[A clean cut shows the old brick street beneath the many layers of modern pavement]

There's a view at our culture!  This pavement and these tracks harken to the days when Virginia Avenue was a happening hub of German retail businesses, theaters showing silent films, grocery stores and artisans shops and traveling dramatic troupes.  A time when you could get on the interurban in Franklin and quickly arrive to spend the day in Fountain Square, maybe stopping at the farmer's market that used to be on South Street, or going on to downtown to shop at Ayres. The days before the interstate severed Fletcher Place and Fountain Square, before Fletcher Place even had a separate name, back to the time when Woodlawn Street might still be remembered as a reference to the Calvin Fletcher farm, Woodlawn, which he platted into building sites to create this entire area.

[more of the old Interurban line not yet yanked out and discarded] 

Today Fountain Square lays some legitimate claim to being an arts district.  There are a few galleries and there are lots of artists living and working here.  There's definitely culinary craft in our great locally owned restaurants and cool stuff in our handful of funky shops.  We're worthy of being a leg on a trail to connect up the downtown Indianapolis interesting spots.  But an even deeper view into our culture is briefly revealed now by construction  of the trail that will soon rip it from our past.

I think it would be great if the movers in this trail idea would take a step back from creating a uniform, generic sidewalk with a few bits of art installed along it and the occasional marker to SAY something historic happened here, to somehow preserving and revealing a small portion of the actual link to our history and formative culture, which they are currently digging up and destroying in order to install their cute pavers.

[See the old railroad ties beneath the brick street?]

I know that isn't likely to happen. Our history is being destroyed every day by the city and private interests.  And the Cultural Trail is a fun idea so it's not popular to dislike it.  Still,  it could be a truly great idea if it also preserved our culture in the process of marketing it.  Any chance you're listening, Brian Payne?


  1. Given that this infrastructure has been hidden beneath asphalt for generations, this is possibly a trivial charge. However, I do think it would be good for us to display our city's transportation past if possible. I wonder if it may be too late for this particular project. Hopefully we can apply this ethic for a future project if it is.

    I was unsure about the lighting myself until one morning it hit me like a brick on my bus ride downtown before the sun came up. The symmetry of modern fixtures coming in at odd angles was stunning and inspirational. It made the city feel alive and forward-thinking.

    The signs might be a bit too much, that I can agree with. But on the whole, even Portland admires the Cultural Trail. How many other projects can we say that about here?

  2. Kevin, archaeologists find artifacts hidden beneath asphalt and other layers all the time. The National Historic Preservation Act even requires them to sometimes preserve those artifacts in situ so they remain where they were originally even if no one can see them. I think the project is fine. I like some aspects of it and wish others were different, particularly the way historic areas are treated. It's great that Portland likes us, but I bet we'd be just as likeable if we didn't continue to destroy our heritage--even more so perhaps.

  3. Thanks for the reply. I appreciate the food for thought.

    One more comment I'd like to add about the bollards. Bollards like this are in place everywhere in Europe for a similar purpose, and they haven't made these cities any less charming. If they do indeed detract attention, I believe our focus should be on improving the street presence of our buildings instead.

    I appreciate the protection that the bollards provide for the biker or pedestrian. If there is a better way to achieve this protection, I'd be curious to hear it.

  4. Kevin, thanks for the comments. I agree there is a practical use for the bollards. Wouldn't it be great if we could get a big bunch of money to improve the street presence of our buildings?

  5. Ms. Connie:
    As much as I respect your opinion here, I simply cannot agree. I'm a pretty old fashioned gal reluctant to change. I really like the way things 'used to be' in terms of City living and accessibility to amenities as well as the things we need in our daily lives. While I certainly love the brick sidewalks and streets, when I drive or ride my bike through Lockerbie, I'm reminded why is simply isn't a reasonable option. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the Cultural Trail for the freedom it has given me for riding to the library, Ansel's school, to Mass for dinner or shopping, to the canal, and soon to Fountain Square. While I feel sad that urban transportation has moved so far away from mass transit options like were once available in Indy and really want to see more mass transit options in the future here in Indy, I see my ability to cycle and walk in my neighborhood, to do errands and more, is even more critically important. I see mass transit as the answer for moving suburbanites into downtown - not for me to get to the suburbs. So, my solution for staying out of my car, reducing air pollution, avoiding congestion and parking, getting some exercise, is a safe and enjoyable trail such as we have in the Cultural Trail. Too many signs and such along the trail? Maybe, but as we work to educate folks on the proper use of these amenities, I see them as critical. Certainly, a way to integrate art and history and culture along the trail could be another phase that would further enhance the trail experience....but, we have to get the trail first. And, finally, yes, we do live in a world of infinite resources and yet only so many of them are dedicate to projects that we find important and meaningful. I'm personally just really pleased in the vision, willingness and financial wherewithal that the Glicks, the City and other private partners had for getting the Cultural Trail accomplished.

  6. Ms Julie, thanks for the comment. I don't really think we disagree about much. As I said, I like the trail for the service it provides, but in my opinion it could and should do a better job honoring historic areas by eliminating some of the vast array of stuff that's on it and it would be a much cooler trail if it included a glimpse into our past--via a small portion of "see-through" paving to show the old layers beneath. As for having to "get on with the trail first," this is a way of looking at things that I disagree with. I think Indianapolis leaders have taken this approach far too often. That's why we have suburban-style developments downtown rather than waiting for projects of the proper scale and design, and why people want to tear down empty houses. Sometimes waiting for the right opportunity is better than being grateful and getting on with the first proposals. So much money went into this trail to make it nice, which it is. But I think it could and should do more. I bet it's not too late for the trail folks to reconsider a small section of trail, I think I'll ask for that.

  7. There is a display of our City's transportation history underneath an overpass on the Canal Walk, complete with sounds and lights. I think it is under St. Claire St. Just sayin'.

  8. I think that installation is cool. But how much cooler to show the real thing? Great opportunity to do that now in this road cut.

  9. I quite agree that showing the actual infrastructure of the Interurban as it ran along Virginia Ave. would be instructive about how all change is not for the good. I support the Cultural Trail especially for the safety it affords bike riders. Yet the real value of Fountain Square is all of the fun things (restaurants, bars, and entertainment) that takes place in historic buildings. In the mid 1970's there was still an Alley just off of Meridian in the 1000 block that still had the old wooden block pavers. I wonder if there are any of those wooden pavers left anywhere in Indianapolis.