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Best of P-Mag: A Love Letter to Indianapolis: History (A City Guide)

Ah Indianapolis. Indianapolis is the city that brought Selena and me together. Do I need any other reason to pick this post as one of my favorites? -Sally J. 

In the upcoming days, my hometown (as well as Sally J’s adopted home and the former home of Sara B.) of Indianapolis will be opening her doors to visitors from all over the world. Sunday’s Super Bowl is the biggest thing to happen around here in a while, and our city is collectively excited to show ourselves off. For those of you who might be visiting for the first time, I thought I’d tell you a little bit more about the “Crossroads of America.” After my history lesson, in a post later today, Sally J. and I will share some of our favorite places around the city.

Indianapolis is the dorky little sister of the arguably cooler cities that connect to it, including Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Louisville. We’re not quite a big city, and on the surface Indy might seem bland, or indistinct from other Midwestern agricultural capitals. Like most dorky little sisters, there’s more to Indianapolis than meets the eye. We’re the hometown of Oscar Robinson, Kurt Vonnegut, David Letterman and the brunette on Three’s Company, Joyce DeWitt, for goodness’ sake.

Indianapolis is smack in the middle of Indiana, which is smack in the middle of the eastern half of the contiguous United States. We’re neither as flat as Kansas nor as hilly as Kentucky. We’re in the path of a lot of tornadoes. Driving 20 miles from downtown on the old National Road (US 40) in either direction will take you past urban, suburban, rural and industrial zones. You’d drive through at least five different school districts and a full spectrum of income levels. Your view would be similar if you drove north or south from downtown on Meridian Street, which bisects the city’s top and bottom halves. Indianapolis connects Interstates 65, 70, 74 and 69 with the highway loop, 465. We’d hoped to wow visitors with a complete overhaul of 465 in time for the Super Bowl, but we didn’t finish. Times are tough, and for a former railroad and industrial town, recessions hit us a little hard.

Around 820,445 people lived in Indianapolis at the time of the 2010 Census. Indy is 51% female (424,099) and 49% male (396,346). Slightly less than 10% of our population is Hispanic or Latino (77,352), and slightly more than 27% of our population is Black (225,355). We have the fewest 20- to 24-year-olds (8%, 63,652) and our largest population age group is under 18 (25%, 204,855).

View of Indiana's Capitol Building from a busy Indianapolis street. Text says "History."

Indiana Capitol Building in downtown Indianapolis

History of Indianapolis

Indianapolis was founded in 1820 to replace the former capital, Corydon, although the capital didn’t officially move until 1821. The city’s founders commissioned  Alexander Ralston and Elias Pym Fordham, city planners who had recently worked on Washington D.C., to design Indianapolis. Ralston and Fordham created a grid plan, much like D.C., exactly one mile square. (Wikipedia|History of Indianapolis) While most of central Indianapolis sticks to the square grid plan, the handful of streets that intersect at a diagonal are the home of some of Indianapolis’ most interesting destinations. Massachusetts Avenue, in particular, is like Indy’s own Diagon Alley, with less wizard.

The city founders hoped the White River would help Indianapolis become a hotbed of trade and commerce, but the river was too sandy for boats. In 1886, Indiana discovered huge deposits of both natural gas and oil, but they dried up. Hoosiers are nothing if not tenacious, so we shelved our dreams of becoming as hep as Chicago and set our sights on another form of transportation, the railroad. During the Civil War, the extensive railroad access to and from Indianapolis made it a critical asset to the Union. Indianapolis also served as a critical point for the underground railroad. (History of Indianapolis and Marion County, by B.R. Sulgrove, University of California, 1884)

From the mid- to late-nineteenth century, the Indiana Avenue community in downtown Indianapolis was home to a thriving middle-class Black community, including several notable Jazz musicians, such as Freddie Hubbard and Wes Montgomery. Indianapolis was home to the first illustrated Black newspaper with  national circulation, The Indianapolis Freeman, in 1888. (Dobson, Frank E. Jr.. “Indianapolis Freeman.” Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century, edited by PaulFinkelman. Oxford African American Studies Center,  (accessed Mon Jan 30 01:53:48 EST 2012).

We’re the chosen home of Madame CJ Walker, who brought her successful cosmetics business here in 1910. When Madame Walker was charged a higher price at a local theater because she was black, she used her fortune to commission her own theater, which remains an active part of Indianapolis culture today.

Exterior view of the Madame CJ Walker Theater building in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Exterior view of the Madame CJ Walker Theater building in Indianapolis, Indiana.

It’s hard to see the detail in the photo above, but the brickwork detail on this building is amazing.

Indianapolis has long been among the least segregated of the major Northern cities, but we have a complicated and sometimes quite ugly history with racial issues. In the 1920s, the Hoosier leader of the KKK, DC Stephensen, gained control of local government, and as many as 40% of young white males in Indianapolis in the early 20th Century were active in or had an affiliation with the Klan. In 1924, Klan member Edward L. Jackson was elected Governor of Indiana, combined with Stephensen’s influence, the increased power allowed other Klan members to be elected into control of the City Council, the County Board of Commissioners and the Board of School Commissioners.  When Stephensen was convicted of raping and murdering a young Indianapolis woman in 1925, Governor Jackson refused to pardon him, leading Stephensen to implicate all of the KKK members active in Indianapolis and Indiana government, including Jackson. The mayor and several other politicians were arrested and sent to jail, but Governor Jackson was indicted but then acquitted, because the statute of limitations was up. (Rob Shneider, Indianapolis Star, originally published December 23,1999 “Ku Klux Klan dominance marked an ugly era for city“) The Klan slowly began to break apart, before officially disbanding in 1944.

In the mid-century years following the Great Depression, Indianapolis became a center for automobile manufacturing, as well as the home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Technically, that’s in the town of Speedway, which is completely surrounded by the city of Indianapolis. In 1970, Indianapolis absorbed all but three of the towns in Marion county as part of the city, leading to fights in Masonic and Odd Fellows lodges that last to this day. The program was called Unigov, and it was quite an ambitious social experiment for the city. As Indianapolis spread, suburban communities popped up surrounding the center city, and was split into nine separate school districts including the original Indianapolis Public Schools and eight townships. Some city services remained under centralized control, but others were given to individual townships to manage. In recent years, Indianapolis has added several charter schools, and is currently participating in the largest school voucher program in the country.

Visitors usually come to Indy for the sports and the racing, but we’re also the home of Black Expo’s Summer Celebration, which brings more than 350,000 visitors to our city every June. We’re the also home of GenCon, when Washington Street is taken over by Stormtroopers. Indy has never been fantastic at marketing herself as a destination, but once we get you here for a sporting event or celebration, we’ll make sure you have a good time.

Residents in communities outside of the Indianapolis core are primarily Caucasian, but the suburbs are slowly becoming more diverse. Once home to many factories, a handful of publishing companies, technical companies and processing facilities, Indianapolis has struggled economically as outsourcing and automation have become more attainable and as white-collar employers have moved to areas with a larger number of qualified applicants. In spite of the excellent public and private Indiana colleges and universities within driving distance (Indiana University, Purdue University, Notre Dame, Ball State University and Butler University, for example) Indianapolis, and Indiana as a whole, suffer from “brain drain,” when our high-skill and advance degree holding grads move away to find more lucrative job prospects. (Ben Skirvin, Interactive Map: Where Are All Of The Graduates Going? Brain Drain In Indiana, originally published January 12, 2012.) Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lily is located in Indianapolis, as well as several tech companies from local start-up wünderkind Scott Jones, Interactive IntelligenceCha Cha the human search engine and Exact Target direct marketing. There are a handful of small technical, bio-medical and engineering companies, but the city and state’s largest employer is Wal*Mart.

Indianapolis has had its ups and downs, but we always seem to bounce back. Hoosiers know how to ride things out, whether it’s a blizzard, a tornado or a crushing economy.

Join us a little later on today for part two of our Indianapolis City Guide, where Sally J. and I will share all our favorite places in town, and maybe teach you the the proper Hoosier pronunciation of “whipped cream” and “milk.”

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

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