Flooded roller coaster in Riverside Park, 1913
Its nicknames include Indy, Circle City, Crossroads of America, Naptown, Racing Capital of the World, and Amateur Sports Capital of the World. Somebody tells me the motto of Indianapolis is “good enough.” Another resident describes Indiana as the “middle finger of the south” and the next day I hear that it’s the most polite state in the union. The truth likely lies someplace in the middle because Indianapolis is fixated on centeredness: its pride in being the nation’s crossroads, its location in the center of the state, and its circle of monuments in the exact middle of the city and state.
Q. What strikes you about Indianapolis?
A. Nothing and everything.
At first glance, downtown Indianapolis appears to be constructed from war memorials, banks, and insurance companies, which seems like neat shorthand for modern American life. And so many war memorials! Gold eagles perched atop black granite monoliths, a shrine modeled on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, scrolling columns of neoclassical limestone. Spend a few minutes walking among the engraved dates and body counts, and you’d think Indianapolis itself had been shelled and invaded.
Dig a little deeper and you begin to hear things: there’s an old baseball stadium that’s being converted into condominiums and a sealed-off Civil War tunnel that people fear is filled with toxic gas. That Jim Jones sold monkeys door-to-door to raise money for his church before heading west to make a cult in San Francisco and some Kool-Aid in Guyana. That the gorgeous Beaux Arts theater where the symphony performs today used to show porn in the 1970s. That Indianapolis once had the most extensive urban rail system in the nation and today these tracks are buried beneath pavement and interstate, although they occasionally peek through the potholes. That John Dillinger was born in Indianapolis and residents like to say he robbed several of its banks and drugstores, although this has not been confirmed. Dillinger was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery on West 38th Street during a storm that The Indianapolis Star described as “blinding flashes of lighting and deafening fusillades of thunder.” That the Ku Klux Klan maintained a stronghold in the city, where its newspaper The Fiery Cross was published and its Grand Dragon resided until he was convicted for raping Madge Oberholtzer, a young schoolteacher dedicated to improving adult literacy. Madge committed suicide in 1925. Some say there’s a very good restaurant on the north side of town that’s owned by a feared mobster. Others say there was a time when you could walk across the White River on pig carcasses. Many residents have warm feelings for their current mayor, a Republican who supports bike lanes, mass transit, and gay marriage.
They say that Indianapolis doesn’t do a good job at plowing snow and this commitment to low taxes, sparse services, and conservative thinking stems from an ambitious canal project in the 1830s that would have connected the city to the Eerie Canal, transforming it into a shipping hub. Unfortunately, only eight miles of the canal were completed when the state lost its shirt following the Panic of 1837, casting a long shadow over the average citizen’s faith in public works and introducing a particularly strong strain of American self-reliance into its politics. Riverside Amusement Park was a top-shelf playground for white people, although once a year it offered ‘Colored Frolic Day’ aka ‘Milk Cap Day’, when black people were allowed to enter the park upon presentation of milk bottle caps. They say these milk caps are being excavated on the grounds of the university, where an old African-American neighborhood once stood. Across town, the Wonderland Amusement park was built in 1906 and gave Riverside a run for its money, offering speakeasies, cigarette-smoking bears, and Filipinos. On August 27, 1911, Wonderland announced it would be “open exclusively for colored people.” Later that night, the park was burned to the ground.
At least one Indianapolis resident attended several Def Leppard conventions in which Def Leppard was not present, and there’s a strong internet fan club called DefNet. Indianapolis is one of the fastest growing cities in America. There are sandpaper factories, elaborate pubs, Vietnamese restaurants, brand new luxury apartments, beautiful Brutalist buildings, Indian strip malls, and people making terrific art and noise. And there’s a recent story about a husband and wife who intentionally blew up their home to collect the insurance money and killed their neighbors in the process, although some residents believe this was a cover-up for a botched missile test by the defense department.