Indy Restores White River To Revive City

Indianapolis, growing faster than Chicago, emerges as marquee Midwest metropolis.

From a gracefully renovated bridge on the White River, a swath of green sweeps like a carpet to the doorstep of downtown Indianapolis, lending unexpected grandeur to a city once disparaged as "India-No-Place."

The impressive vista of river and parkland flowing toward silver domes and skyscrapers is surprising, even to natives.

"We're in amazement that this is all here," says resident Nancy Jurgen as she pushes her 16-month-old son, Jake, in a stroller over the broad new pedestrian bridge.

The metamorphosis of industrial waste canals into glistening stretches of waterfront is part of Indianapolis's long-sought transformation. This Corn Belt capital known as "Nap Town" is emerging from Midwest anonymity into a vibrant, marquee metropolis. It already boasts a population larger than that of San Francisco, Boston, or Washington. Now it seeks an image to match.

That's ambitious - especially for a city that in the 1970s had no image at all, according to a national survey.

"[Chamber of commerce officials] asked people about their perception of Indianapolis, and they just found nothing," says James Grass of the Indianapolis Project, which promotes the city. "The only thing people knew was that there was some sort of [auto] race here. That was when the city realized it had a serious image problem."

Back then, the city's urban core was also on the skids. Retail stores and factories were shutting down or moving out. The White River and its canals were little more than polluted ditches hemmed in by concrete floodwalls. Downtown was dull. "Why would you go downtown? There was nothing to do," says Indianapolis homemaker Dessa Crane, recalling an attitude common among residents.

The catalyst for change can be traced to 1970 when Indianapolis merged with surrounding Marion County. By greatly increasing the population base, the merger drew new political talent to the city. "It created a pool of very vibrant people who could dream bigger dreams," says Mark Rosentraub of the school of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University in Indianapolis.

One of those talents, William Hudnut, became mayor in 1976 and pledged to put Indianapolis on the map. Over an unprecedented 16-year tenure, Mayor Hudnut aggressively hawked the city as a corporate-friendly sports capital. He helped secure professional and amateur sports teams, landed the Pan American games in 1987, and even marched as a leprechaun in the St. Patrick's Day parade.

Following an influx of more than $3 billion in public and private investment, downtown Indianapolis is now taking some checkered flags. Several multi-million-dollar sports arenas and convention centers have sprung up. Corporations have moved their headquarters here. As a result, from 1980 to 1990 local growth in jobs and population outpaced that of Chicago, Cleveland, and other nearby cities.

Today, downtown office space is enjoying its highest occupancy rate in eight years; new homes are cropping up downtown at their fastest pace in a decade; and unemployment is below 3 percent. Attendance at sporting events, museums, theaters and other attractions is hitting record highs. A giant, $319-million mall and entertainment complex opened downtown in 1995 and is drawing 12 million people a year.

"We even have some reverse commuters who live downtown and work in the suburbs," says Tamara Zahn of Indianapolis Downtown Inc., a public-private partnership.

A vital, natural link between these downtown attractions and residential neighborhoods and parks is the city's long-neglected waterways, which have been rediscovered.

Since the early 1900s, the slow-moving White River and its canal, hidden by levees and the backsides of buildings, served as little more than conduits for sewage and industrial waste. According to police, "the only thing the canal was good for was finding bodies," recalls John Kish head of the White River State Park Development Commission.

NOW, a short walk from the center of downtown, the White River State Park is a hub of urban recreation. It's home to the Indianapolis Zoo, a new ballpark, an IMAX 3-D theater, and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians, which will host the Midwest's largest chili cook-off later this month. An award-winning, half-mile-long promenade of Indiana limestone runs along the river's upper bank.

Rebuilt sections of the canal wind from the river through city plazas and past popular new condominiums, offering rare waterfront for Indy's landlocked residents. "This provides downtown with recreation that it didn't have before," says Dan Clark, a contractor, as he in-line skates with his wife and five children beside the canal.

Despite Indy's clear successes, however, critics note that the city's emphasis on image-building and downtown megaprojects has left few resources to combat creeping blight in inner-ring neighborhoods. "Neighborhoods have suffered," says Mr. Rosentraub. "We have ... all the things you see in cities where the focus is more on downtown and the suburbs than on the aging communities."

Recognizing these problems, Mayor Steve Goldsmith launched a $500 million program to target the city's most neglected neighborhoods after replacing Hudnut in 1992. "I made an effort to greatly change the priorities," he says. "A strong downtown core doesn't help much when the next ring out is deteriorated."

Olgen Williams of the Westside Cooperative Organization, says his economically depressed neighborhood has better streets and community policing, new employers, and a health clinic now.

Still, other districts have suffered what Mayor Goldsmith calls "a string of failures." A new multi-million grocery store in northeastern Indianapolis, for example, folded after just a few months. "We are starting over there," Goldsmith says.

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