Why you should care
Because the solutions America needs may be in these towns.
It’s by design that driving in Carmel feels less like a trip through Indiana and more like motoring in a European city with broad boulevards, sculpted roundabouts and haute architecture. North of here and just a half-hour from Chicago, a gutted Hoosier factory town named Gary is reducing blight by harnessing the culinary and visual arts as economic engines. And in South Bend, long second fiddle to collegiate neighbor Notre Dame, an ascendant mayor is leading the city’s largest growth in decades — with the help of a technologically savvy sewer system, of all things.
Such innovation may seem contrary to Midwest sensibilities long simmering in the Rust Belt. But the merging of pragmatism and opportunity has Indiana cities serving as models for municipal rebirth. Here, the problems of big cities play out on a small scale, and the effects can be seen rapidly, says Scott Ford, who helped lead community investment in South Bend. Across Indiana, state lawmakers are grappling with how to inject new spending into infrastructure at the same time that Donald Trump has announced his own $1 trillion plan from Washington. More than simply talk about rebuilding highways, bridges and airports, the infrastructure discussion here is about reimagining the type of communities residents want to live in — an issue being addressed in a distinct way by cities in the state that calls itself the “crossroads of America.”
I cried, because when I came back here, it was just like a desert, like a bomb had gone off. And now I feel like I had a small part in revitalizing this community.
Mary Ann Torian, business owner, Gary, Indiana
On a less positive note, it’s easiest to see the effect of reconstruction in areas of dire need. Exhibit A: “Gary, Indiana, is dying” began a recently published article in the Guardian. A toxic cocktail of rising crime rates and economic anxiety has eroded much of the city’s working tax base over the past three decades. Yet look beyond the carved-out buildings and you’ll happen upon a jarring contradiction amid the graying gloom: It’s called ArtHouse. Equal parts culinary school, art exhibit and community hub, the 15,000-square-foot space is a shimmering sea of blue-purple lights in the middle of an otherwise desolate downtown. “It’s activated the area,” says project manager Michele Larimer, noting increased foot traffic, interest from potential businesses nearby and grants won from the Knight Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. It’s part of a tonal shift toward emphasizing investments in lifestyle and quality of place over just attracting business, says Karen Freeman-Wilson, the city’s mayor: “One of the greatest assets you have in any community are the people. The question becomes: What are their interests? What drives them?”
As Gary was founded in 1906 by a corporation, U.S. Steel, the city’s residents weren’t exactly used to being asked what they wanted — and, perhaps surprisingly, it was art. Not just in the kitchen but also etched into the skeleton of the city itself. After deciding in 2013 that graffiti would turn blight into beauty, residents have asked street artists worldwide to come to Gary biennially and tag nearly two dozen walls. The murals depict steelworkers and cultural heroes like Muhammad Ali and the Jackson Five, who were born here. Because the effort is volunteer-driven, it’s cheap. And 18 new businesses have opened along the Miller Beach Arts District since organizers started bringing in pop-up galleries, documentary screenings and even a sand mandala led by Tibetan monks. “I cried,” says Adell’s Boutique owner Mary Ann Torian, a local who had left the city and later returned to take care of family, “because when I came back here, it was just like a desert, like a bomb had gone off. And now I feel like I had a small part in revitalizing this community.”
A region doesn’t have to start from a place so bleak to see groundbreaking rebirth. An hour east, the situation in South Bend never got as bad as it did in Gary, although it too suffered factory-job loss and a depressed reputation. The city’s solution, as of late? Turn to an entrepreneurial mayor — call it the Cory Booker effect.
Fresh off his run to chair the Democratic National Committee, Pete Buttigieg of South Bend believes innovation comes from rediscovering old strengths. The mayor has applied that mindset to policy: The former Studebaker auto-manufacturing complex, which closed in ’63, has been turned into Innovation Park, which makes use of fiber-optic broadband embedded along railroad lines to become a hub for data sharing and cloud technology. As many Midwest towns suffer brain drain, South Bend paid for a dozen Notre Dame graduates to stay in the city and innovate for a year. One fellow discovered how to save the fire department $3 million. Another developed sensors the city used to create one of the “smartest” sewer systems in the world, which the city says saved hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance and potential regulatory fees. Many fellows have stayed in town and started new businesses. The program is being expanded, says Ford, who notes that South Bend’s focus is also being retooled around quality of life, moving “past the spreadsheet.”
The future of Indiana’s small cities — and, perhaps, the nation’s — might be Carmel. The once quiet Indy suburb has been transformed by investments in ambitious arts projects, from the Palladium, a concert hall modeled after an Italian Renaissance villa, to the buzzing Arts and Design District. Last year the city celebrated the opening of its 100th roundabout, which studies showed were safer and more affordable, environmentally friendlier and more efficient than traffic lights.
Economic success allows cities to indulge in pie-in-the-sky infrastructure ambitions, which is what two-decade Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard is doing. A Republican who has been willing to accrue debt to manufacture change, Brainard imagines a European-style bullet train that would take Indianapolis-area residents to Chicago in less than an hour (the trip currently takes three by car). “We’ve got to fix what we’ve already built before we build new infrastructure,” Brainard admits, but why limit ourselves?
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