Mayonnaise on White

“Mayonnaise on white bread.” That was what we called Indianapolis when I was growing up—when we weren’t calling it “India-no-place.”

“Mayonnaise on white bread.”
That was what we called Indianapolis when I was growing up—when we weren’t calling it “India-no-place.” The negative nicknames reflected the sameness of our neighborhoods, their lack of urban character and their almost total absence of visible ethnicity. It was boring, and the fact that young people—especially well-educated young people—were moving out at a rate that came to be called the “brain drain” was no surprise.

Preliminary figures from the 2000 census suggest that may be changing. Indianapolis has grown, and as it has grown it has become more diverse.  Latino, Asian and African-American populations have increased. Immigration has provided us with a new ethnic and cultural diversity that is reflected in our neighborhoods, our economy and our politics. 
I’m a city girl. To me, what makes a city exciting, its streets vibrant, its restaurants enticing, its business and arts communities vital, is the experience of interacting with people whose points of view have been shaped by a different history and culture, people who can help me see the world from a broader perspective. I want to live and work in a  city filled with ethnic restaurants, funky art galleries, provocative theatrical offerings and numerous religious traditions.
Evidently, I am not alone. A fascinating recent study by the Brookings Institution, “The Importance of Diversity to High-Technology Growth” concludes that social tolerance plays an important role in the development of local economies.  The researchers found that social and cultural diversity—the presence of foreign-born residents, the presence of artists, the size of the gay community—correlated significantly with business growth, particularly high-tech business growth. They speculated that creative and innovative people who make economies grow are “likely to be drawn to places known for diversity of thought and open-mindedness.” (Tell that to the 21 state legislators who joined a lawsuit to suppress “Corpus Christie,” a play that offended them. Indiana still has a long way to go.)
The 2000 census suggests that we are both more diverse and more integrated: 42% of African-Americans, for example, live in majority white neighborhoods. But the news is not all rosy. Indianapolis remains economically segregated. And the fact that a neighborhood is racially or ethnically diverse doesn’t mean much when neighbors rarely see—or even know—each other, as is the case in most suburban communities. Significant numbers of highly skilled foreign workers recruited by local business and industry, especially Eli Lilly, complain that they do not feel welcome here. There are reports of growing tensions between Hispanics and African-Americans. As Amos Brown recently noted, the news is not all “Kumbaya.”
One of the enduring tensions of civilized life is the conflict between the particular and the universal. We are all members of particular communities, just as we are all also members of the American nation and the human race. The challenge for Indianapolis is to forge a supportive and organic community—without eliminating cultural distinctiveness. A return to mayonnaise on white bread, fortunately, is not an option.