What Makes a Community?

Last night was the second in our three-part series “Electing Our Future.” The panelists were great, and I will post a link when WFYI uploads the video. In the meantime, here are my opening remarks introducing the panel:

What is the difference between cities that are collections of homes and businesses and cities that are genuine communities?

The last forum in this series described the systems we’ve developed—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not—to govern Indianapolis. That forum tried to answer the question: what does Indianapolis look like today? What’s its structure? How do we elect the people who manage the services we expect government to provide? How do we decide what those services are, and—not so incidentally—how do we pay for them?

Whatever we think about our city—what works well, what doesn’t, what isn’t getting done, what is getting done that perhaps shouldn’t be—one fact is inescapable: there aren’t enough resources to do everything that everyone would like to see our City do. Indeed, increasingly we find ourselves trying to stretch limited dollars just to do the very basic sorts of things that all citizens expect.

All cities have to set priorities, and we in Indianapolis are no different. Those priorities need to be informed by those of us who live here. And I want to suggest that those priorities tell the people who live here and the people who might want to start businesses here or live here or even visit, a great deal about us.

If we want Indianapolis to be a genuine, healthy community, rather than a collection of unrelated inhabitants—if we want to marshal the talents and goodwill of our neighbors in ways that will build on our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses—we need to consider what it takes to create that community, and we need to ask ourselves which of those tasks are properly the job of our municipal government.

Setting priorities requires us to agree on the elements that make for a good quality of urban life. In an era of scarce resources, that process also requires us to decide which services are essential, and which fall under the category of  “would be nice if we could  afford it.”

The process of setting priorities requires us to decide what trade-offs are worthwhile, and which ones shortchange us as a community.

Most of us want to feel safe in our homes and on our streets—but we don’t want that security to come at the cost of people’s civil liberties. 

We want to send our City’s children to schools that will prepare them for life in the 21st Century, that will give them critical thinking skills, because we know that great cities don’t exist without great schools and educated populations.

We all want a government that represents us, that is trustworthy and transparent and responsive to its constituents.

Most of us want to live in a city that is inclusive and welcoming, with a citizenry that sees diversity as an opportunity and difference as enriching, rather than a city that is a collection of separate communities walled off from and suspicious of each other.

And most of us want the amenities that make cities such wonderful places to live and work: parks and trails, libraries, museums, great public transportation, clean air and water, well-tended streets, roads and bridges—the social and public infrastructure that facilitates urban well-being.

The question is: how do we pay for all that? And if we can’t pay for it all, which of those public goods must take priority?

Our panelists have been selected because they are in positions that make them ideally suited to address those questions.

Julia Vaughn has been working with Common Cause to fight for good government for many years. She has been a voice for ethical governance and sanity at the Indiana Statehouse and in City Halls around the state.

Kelly Bentley, who is serving her 4th term as a member of the Board of Commissioners of IPS, has been a longtime ardent supporter of public education and educational reforms that serve our city’s children.

Judge David Shaheed recently retired from the bench; he has long been one of the most thoughtful observers of issues in the community involving re-entry,  disadvantaged populations, and diversity in general.

Troy Riggs recently left his position as Indianapolis’ Director of Public Safety, and has a uniquely informed perspective on the issue of crime in our city.

Through her work with Health by Design, Kim Irwin has come to understand that civic health involves far more than the physical health of its inhabitants, important as that is; healthy cities are cities with a great quality of life.

And finally, John Ketzenberger of Indiana’s Fiscal Policy Institute knows better than most of us the challenges we face in paying for our priorities and funding that good quality of life.


  1. Indianapolis never has been, is not and will never be a “community”. It is a conglomeration of separate groups with smaller individual groups within; the different ideologies, religions, races, and now primarily the economy, keeps us separate. It is a northern city with a deeply southern belief in separatism of races, creeds, colors, sex, beliefs, education advantages/disadvantages and ideologies that refuse to recognize or accept other than their own reality as reality. There is also so much infighting in the separate ideologies that it is becoming, “every man/woman for him/herself” to survive.

    Neighbors no longer know neighbors; many have no idea who their political rulers are even if they vote. They only know that they are unhappy, unfulfilled, over-taxed, under-served and are getting nowhere in life. No matter where you go in this city there is road/street construction that never seems to get done and doesn’t seem to be much improved when the barricades are finally removed. I have driven on east side streets in such deplorable condition I thought I was having car trouble; then drove onto a relatively smooth patch and resolved the problem. We are now fighting over trash collection, a vital issue to be sure, the powers-that-be seem to believe the bike lanes (poorly planned and unsafe in many areas) are touted to be improvements to Indianapolis. Improvements to the downtown area – with all of the sports arenas – appear to make Indianapolis a cosmopolitan city.
    When I moved back here from Florida in 2001, I asked a number of people which park was best to take my book, iced tea to enjoy the beauty of nature as I read. I was WARNED, do not go to any city park alone, they are too dangerous. Well; I learned to my dismay I also wasn’t safe on my own driveway at 11:00 in the morning the day I was mugged, injured and robbed – with IMPD undercover police following my muggers for four days prior to my attack. The murder rate is astounding, how many times have you seen on the news that our Fire Department has had problems finding a working fire hydrant to save a building…and lives? Traffic is congested no matter where you drive or what time of day.

    The problems appear to be insurmountable at this time; little bits of “improvement” are started, then halted to move on to another area to begin another bit of “improvement” to appear that city officials are “doing something”. Having sons in the construction business I know this is called “spiking the job”; do just enough to prevent stoppage of the contracted work. If my health and income allowed it; I would not live here, but…where is it any different somewhere else in this country?

    “Community” is a friendly word; Indianapolis is not a friendly city – even to it’s own residents of many years. Mayor Bill Hudnut knew the true meaning and value of moving this city ahead while improving the “community” atmosphere by bringing us together. He was a highly visible member of the community; if everyone could see the video shown as his Roast before he left office at the end of 1991, you would see a true leader, member of this community and the heart of this city. Is improving the “quality of life” possible here; I have serious doubts.

  2. Seems like a good selection of representatives. How does the general public get its dissatisfaction and outrage represented in a forum like this? As I read the daily blog here, I sense that many of the participants harbor a lot of anger at the way politics operate in the state and city i.e. the exclusion of public priorities and needs in lieu of the interests of a few big dogs. Is that too embarrassing or controversial to be discussed in a setting like this? Would the Simons and Irsays be angered?

  3. The conference last night was very informative and covered a multiplicity of issues throughout our city. The panel members all addressed their areas with insightful and expert knowledge.
    There were two things that stood out across the spectrum.

    The first was the importance of education. Whether it was our children, ourselves as voters, those who are looking at our city as a possible relocation site for business or residence, re-entering convicts or public safety personnel trying to keep everyone safer, all of us need to be as well educated as possible. We need to become knowledgeable not only about those things that affect us at home but, also, those things that impact the city’s quality of life.

    Second was communication. Seldom do we get to have a forum like this one to hear from various members of our community who have access to the big picture such as the program’s panelists. Certainly, our city’s dismal public media, print, radio and TV, seldom contribute to the necessary discussion unless in 30 second sound bites, candidate commercials or puff pieces provided by the political parties. BUT, we, as citizens, contribute to the problem with our indifference, cynicism, and willful ignorance. I have tried for the last two years to get my neighbors to join a block discussion about public safety to no avail. Seldom do my invitations even get acknowledged. Our neighborhood association meetings and social events are poorly attended with the same core group of folks almost every time. If we cannot communicate on a personal level with our immediate neighbors, the greater community issue is mute.
    JoAnn is right. People are angry at the way things are done and how little the powers-that-be care to inform and educate the individual community members. But I see indifference and sometimes outright hostility to any attempt by our political representatives to meet and talk about issues.
    We need one another to make things better. That is how things get done. Personalities and political differences can be overcome in reaching a goal. It must start with the individual. Educate and communicate.

  4. “Most of us want to live in a city that is inclusive and welcoming, with a citizenry that sees diversity as an opportunity and difference as enriching,”

    Absolutely not. That’s Obama’s communist plan to dilute Real Americans with people who don’t belong, so America forgets what being an American is supposed to be and makes the population easier to control.

    In case you haven’t been paying attention, the greatest matter of interest on the campaign trail is the desire of Real Americans to make America less inclusive, less welcoming.

    America is no longer working for Real Americans. We don’t need to invite foreigners in to make things worse here.

  5. “What is the difference between cities that are collections of homes and businesses and cities that are genuine communities?”

    Who cares? I have no use for a community, whatever that nebulous word today means to those with an agenda. “Community” has become a trojan horse for very bad ideas.

    All this talk about made-up “community” is an attempt to justify idiotic ideas like “protected bicycle trails,” “sustainability,” lack of road lanes, construction of “stack ’em and pack ’em” high density housing and the other attempts at forcing people to live right on top of each other to bring about high levels of social control and lack of personal autonomy and mobility.

    It’s Agenda 21, and it’s easily spotted from afar.

    Communitarianism is nearly synonymous with communism.

    “we know that great cities don’t exist without great schools and educated populations.”

    I’d really like to see a cite for that argument. That seems more like a campaign slogan that serious social research.

  6. The national conference of The Arc, an advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, just wrapped up in Indianapolis. One of the presenters posed the question, how do we work so that people with disabilities are not just “in” the community, but rather “of” the community. This holds true for all of us.

  7. I think there is a troll on here, who would like to goad us into an argument. If we reply to his comments, it merely encourages him. Therefore, I choose to just ignore him.

  8. I’m unable to articulate with accuracy what makes a community, but I will state partisan politics can rip apart a community at its seams.

    Engaging in a bit of blue sky thinking, I’d imagine the City of Indianapolis would function in a smoother and more positive manner under a Council/City Manager system than under its current Council/Mayor system.

    The left hand truly needs to know what the right hand is doing, and at present, one hand is hosting a series of events “Electing Our Future” while the other hand is occupied with drafting Plan2020, a strategic Bicentennial Plan for Indianapolis updating long-term plans for six local government functions. “Electing Our Future” by virtue of its title has a decidedly political ring to it while Plan2020 leaves one with the feeling that it’s nonpartisan. Without being privy to any information, perhaps these two hands meet on a regular basis, or perhaps they don’t.

    Plan2020 does have a website where its draft plan is posted. http://plan2020.com/

  9. Gopper is talking about the native Americans as the real Americans. The ones that don’t belong actually took control of America some time in the 19th century and I suppose it has been in a downward spiral since. Maybe our salvation is to resurrect the native American culture and live off the land in our tribes.

  10. Gopper offers us a valuable lesson today, that of parasites. If he was a responsible person disliking people as he does he’d move to where they’re not.

    But then he’d have to provide what is needed to live there. So he tries to live off of us.

    We’ve been given a great solution for parasitic infection. Democracy. We just need to marginalize (actually I prefer trivialize) their political influence by out voting them.

    I like Sheila’s intro because it reminds us of the big picture. While we spend our time completely immersed in managing details we live in an environment – in the big picture of community.

    So that’s what government is formed for: to empower us to create our environment. Safe. Sustaining and sustainable, supportive of human values and the platform from which we can launch the future.

    That’s what we get from our dues (taxes) as members. At levels from very local all of the way to global.

    We also know the two other creators of our environment: our ability to earn that allows us to afford this big picture from government as well as our personal details from business. Houses, cars, clothes, food, entertainment, charity, energy.

    IMO, if you look at what our average is, we enjoy excessive stuff from business, our personal details, and insufficient stuff from the big picture environment, government. I personally don’t think that our allocation is optimized.

    What do others of you think? More personal stuff or more environmental support? More now or more future? More for us or our grandchildren. Can America as we want it exist at the expense of the rest of the world or should we be leading the rest of the world to where we are?

  11. One sort of amplification. As a very, very general concept, what we invest in with taxes benefits everybody. What we buy from businesses is for us.

    So in a balanced economy we would be comfortable about what everybody has vs what we individually, on the average have.

    We know though that by objective measure we are at an extreme both historically and globally by that measure.

    Can we say that has made our lives better on the average?

    I don’t hear anybody but oligarchs and their minions claiming that.

  12. Re: oligarchs and minions

    I refer to oligarchs as “tycoonocrats” and minions as “toadies”, those submissive characters w/lowered eyes stereotypically present in old black/white films featuring organized crime where the tycoonocrat turns to his toady and says something to this effect, “Ain’t that right, Leftie”. Both the tycoonocrat and the toady still exist.

  13. I love Sheila’s helpful explanations of our basics which are sometimes forgotten. She reminds that ‘community’ is greater than the sum of its parts.

  14. Something to think about. Republicans hate taxes because any dollar that we spend on taxes is not available for business.

    That explains why they invest so much in anti-government advertising. While they are understandably very reuctant for those activities to become apparent to the public the Supreme Court has given them more than adequate permission to do that advertising secretly.

  15. This will be a response for my friend who wants to see solutions to our problems here…and as a nation. Read the last paragraph of my earlier comments regarding what we had in Indianapolis with Mayor Bill Hudnut for 16 years.

    We want a government that is part of the residents of Indy, to be our neighbors and part of the community at large. Not power mongers ruling under the guidance of big business ownership.

    We want beneficial returns on our investment; that investment being our hard earned tax dollars we expected to be used for improvements to benefit all, not a chosen few.

    We want a competently trained police department, combined with the sheriff department – consider the fact that our murder rate has risen drastically since they were separated and almost all power stripped from sheriffs and called “public safety”.

    We want all of our children to have the same opportunity for decent education, transportation where needed, free lunches when appropriate and assurance that our children are safe when we send them to school. This includes our college level students.

    We want to be heard; that means we want to be listened to and responded to regarding problems large and small (before they become large) and consider solutions that can be found through input from our citizenry.

    We want a return to the American way; it is as plain and as simple as that, we must all work toward this end. But to quote JD, “If we cannot communicate on a personal level with our immediate neighbors, the greater community issue is mute.”…and we will remain lost.

  16. The American way referenced in the last paragraph of JoAnn’s post, deserves a description, a definition. The best I can offer is one of those questionable Wikipedia definitions which states, “The American way, is the unique lifestyle, real or imagined, of the people living in the United States of America. It refers to a nationalist ethos that purports to adhere to principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” At the center of the American way is the American Dream, the idea that upward mobility is achievable by any American through hard work. This concept is intertwined with the concept of American exceptionalism, the notion that the American way is only possible in the U.S. because of the unique culture of the nation.

    This way of life…is an example of a behavioral modality, a set of behavioral norms which develops in a group.”

  17. A little while ago I posted:

    “So in a balanced economy we would be comfortable about what everybody has vs what we individually, on the average have.”

    Of course that is roughly a statement about wealth distribution.

    To be clear I think that America can be proud of what the least among us have and how they can live. You don’t have to meet many of the really poor of the world to know that if life deals you an impoverished hand you could at least hope that it happened here.

    Good for us.

    What that says though is that our opportunity is at the other end of the wealth spectrum. Those with so much that they could never spend it all. Those who can afford anything and everything that they could ever possibly want.

    Is there more good that could befall the world from that money than they having a multi million dollar 250 mph sports car or a McMansion yacht or their own commercial size private jet?

    Why shouldn’t we be investing in that greater good as progressive taxes enables?

    Parasites would claim that if we do this the capable would deny their skills and the poor would become uninspired.


    People that I know merely are who they are. They do what they do. Crooks and saints. I don’t see wealth beyond necessities having any impact on that.

  18. BSH; interesting description/definition of American way. I wonder if anyone who read my comments added them up and recognized they are simply our basic civil and human rights; as Americans most of us have worked for them, paid for them, earned them, deserve them but are being deprived of them. They won’t be returned to us without a fight; we are being forced to struggle to take them back before more are lost. The Bill of Rights, Constitution of the United States of America and the Amendments were written as the basis of government “of the people, by the people and for the people” of this country but are being stripped of their original meaning by greed driven elected officials and their bastardization is being upheld by SCOTUS.

    “What Makes A Community?” The founding fathers were a community of leaders working together to create a foundation upon which to build America. Per my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary a community is “a unified body of individuals”. UNIFIED individuals make a community!

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