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.”
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?”
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