There’s no disputing it: the Mass Ave corridor in Indianapolis presents a de facto narrative of comeback urbanism: a cornucopia of pawn shops, liquor stores, and parking lots fought back to become a walkable district that city leaders and natives alike tout as sheer evidence of the city’s 21st century awakening.
Infrastructure improvements such as the world-famous Cultural Trail and parking lots eaten by over $500 million dollars of nearby real estate investment help to back up the narrative. Glimpses of Mass Ave pre-2010 testify to this overhaul. IFD headquarters on New Jersey/Mass has relocated to make way for a $50 million mixed-use structure and just this year ground broke on the district’s most ambitious project yet: The Bottleworks, a new sub-neighborhood re-purposing the old Coca-Cola facility and adjacent property featuring a boutique hotel, marketplace, and over 150,000 sq. ft. of retail options, thus creating into a bottle-cap* of sorts for the district. (*see what I did there?) To say Mass Ave has been a success would be a massive understatement.
One of my favorite places in Indianapolis to sit, a bench, is adjacent to the dancing lady (known as Ann Dancing) on the corner of Mass and Alabama on a weekend night. The culmination of drunken bachelorette parties, pandering homeless, and the occasional elderly couple out strolling gives Indy a distinctly urban feel. The smooth whisper of Chatterbox jazz emanates a few storefronts down, joining the cacophony of restless weekenders and panhandlers caressing Ann to her soft sway. During summertime, the lines awaiting frozen yogurt meet the smokers outside Old Point, a phantasmagoria of both young and old. This is Indy’s finest ballet.
But when it’s not a weekend night, I can’t help but feel a sense of emptiness on Mass Ave. It’s been hard to pin down, especially with the booming construction. Something not necessarily tangible, rather visceral. But it is there, lurking behind every new restaurant that opens. It was there when Verizon opened their doors next to the Musk (Kimbal!) brother and it was there yet again when Mass Ave Toys relocated to greener, kinder(garten) pastures. This sense is weird, considering the district continues to swell in on itself, each week seemingly brings another parking lot to its constructive end. Yeah, there’s still the local haunts such as Silver in the City and Indy Reads, but I sense this vague, vacuous, almost insipid sense of meaningless. Of a dead-eyed-blue. Almost poetic but without the romance. Like a post-bargain Faust that invariably lost his soul.
I think what set this off was the closing of Old Point Tavern. Rather, the closing of the real one and not the Stepford Wife that took its place. You know, the clone with eight-dollar beers and that double-dollar sign next to a salad menu.
And then read Po Boy’s was closing! Okay, I told myself. Change happens. Change is good.
Two totally different neighborhoods, two totally different places. Two casualties of the success of a city district. Wait…who bought Po Boy’s? The same Cunningham that rebooted Old Point’s Clone? The same one that owns about a zillion restaurants on Mass Ave alone? Like Bru, Union 50? The same ones that litter the heart of downtown?
Let me first say, I am in no way shape or form going to dismiss the efforts of Mr. Cunningham and argue he is shaping the city himself. Who does that? (*ahem Robert Moses*) There is a tendency for outstanding success in cities to destroy itself, in the words of the immortal Jane Jacobs.
Let’s use a chapter of ...Great American Cities as a quasi-VR headset on the environment and conditions we currently see in Mass Ave that could explain my seemingly inexplicable malaise.
Also, as a caveat, let’s just pronounce that Jane Jacobs is surely not the end-all, be-all for urbanism/city-planning. However, to dismiss the following conflation as an mid-century anachronism out of touch with current realities is a myopic view. There are too many parallels.
As Mark Twain once said, “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.
The self-destruction of diversity, chapter 13 – The Death and Life of Great American Cities
“The first of these powerful forces [that influence cities] is the tendency for outstanding success in cities to destroy itself.”
(all emphasis mine)
Firstly, let’s reassert that yes, Mass Ave has been a giant success. This success, brought on by a thriving theater and arts scene, has provided the impetus for a myriad of white-collared professionals to re-inhibit downtown. Give credit where credit is due. The city of Indianapolis along with colonizing artists helped to paint Mass Ave as an attractive district, a hotspot of culture, an area that people feel safe walking their dogs in. However, in the poignant words of the provocateur Axl Rose (an Indiana boy!), “nothing lasts forever”.
“Because of the location’s success, which is invariably based on flourishing and magnetic diversity, ardent competition for space in this locality develops. It is taken up in what amounts to the economic equivalent of a fad.”
The gist is this: a city district becomes popular and successful as a whole (paraphrasing), and because of the locale’s success, competition for space ensues. Mass Ave = successful, ergo the space around and adjacent to the district becomes valuable, thus setting into motion the forces of the free market. The free market, as any Econ 101 student will tell you, absolutely adores proven money-makers. And boy, do high-end restaurants catering to young professionals make money.
Cunningham Restaurant Group now claims ownership of 5 restaurants on or near Mass Ave: Bru, Mesh, Union 50, Tavern at the Point, Livery. Many of these are adjacent to or near other high-end eateries, offering much the same in terms of economic options. How’s that for economic diversity?
“Whichever one or few uses have emerged as the most profitable in the locality will be repeated and repeated, crowding out and overwhelming less profitable forms of use.”
Mass Ave’s resurgence began with an emphasis on art. The district’s motto basically heralds the area as the “new-fangled angle”. This is nice, but the forces of the market have long since priced out the very artists that helped to make the district an interesting enough place for white-collars to move in. (I mean, white collar, if you get my drift.)
This boom of young professionals into this area of the city has been great for increasing downtown density. INDYimby released a graph a few years back denoting just how much construction has actually taken place. However, walking along Mass Ave leaves one with the impression that the only things Hoosiers like to do is either a.) drink craft beer or b.) eat at high-end restaurants.
Alotta sugar, but where’s the salt?
Mr. Cunningham may have increased his yearly profits, but the district of Mass Ave loses a bit of its soul each time another one of his restaurants opens.
The increased competition due to the district’s success means that less profitable agencies, stores, and start-ups will either relinquish or never attempt to inhibit the ever-growing space of street-facing retail along Mass.
This means the very kinds of stores that make a city a city will find elsewhere to be, if at all. This means bookstores that encourage adult literacy, laundromats that are essential for residents, locally-owned cafes and coffee-shops. These places are the salt of the city.
All will have to find somewhere else to go once prices become prohibitive. More Starbucks lattes, Verizon cellphones, and high-end restaurants mean places like Henry’s on East no longer have a chance when confronted with stringent competition for space and a populace only concerned with whatever Kimbal Musk is opening next.
What then happens to the district?
“Thus, from this process, one or few dominating uses finally emerge triumphant…From this point on, the locality will gradually be deserted by people using it for purposes other than those that emerged triumphant from the competition – because the other purposes are no longer there.”
At this point, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Okay, I’ve read about gentrification a MILLION times and this is all nothing new under the sun.” Okay, got it.
But so often, the discussion around gentrification discusses only residents in particular, not necessarily the diversity of businesses that becomes a victim to the sterilization of market forces.
Mass Ave is slowly becoming the CBGB that turned into a Lower East Side Target
Much is spoken of the affordable housing crisis. What about the retail-death epidemic we are currently facing? With an influx of new construction comes the call for destruction of older buildings that would have provided cheaper rent for start-ups and locally-owned businesses. All while new construction demands instant returns on its investment, hence, becoming suitable only for market-rate housing and chain retail, or retail that can assuredly foot the bill.
But innovation does not come from security! It comes from those with ambition to take risks. It has suddenly become impossible to take risks when the developer needs to make a quick buck. Yeah, those mixed-users look nice with their added density, but without a diversity of business options they become a mound of sugar on a very stale cake.
The retail apocalypse does not portend that we are losing our ambitions and ideas – it is simply more symptomatic of an environment hostile to fomenting new ideas and progress.
Who truly benefits from TIF districts if the credits are only being used by multi-million dollar agencies looking for a spare buck to help further widen the gap between rich and poor? Not to demean nor criticize the influx of investment into previously uninvestable neighborhoods, however, there is something to be said for the city that no longer provides for those who that give the city its salt. Those who give the city its soul.
Hey, at least there’s still Mass Ave Pub.