The City Isn’t The Problem

I was 33 when I became Corporation Counsel for the City of Indianapolis. I know “ladies” aren’t supposed to disclose their ages (I’m not very ladylike, anyway) but that was 45 years ago–and a lot has changed.

Especially downtown Indianapolis.

At the time, I lived on the city’s north side, and I would drive down Central Avenue to the City-County building. When I drove through the slum area just north of downtown (where I now live), I’d lock the car doors. I passed boarded up houses that had once been large, gracious homes.

Once at work, if I wanted to go out to lunch, I could go to any of the three–count them– center-city restaurants.

It was grim. Even when my husband and I moved downtown to the city’s first historic district, in 1980, revitalization remained on the negative side of iffy.

Fast forward to today. There are multiple desirable and well-tended historic neighborhoods. There are more restaurants, coffee shops and bars than we can patronize in a lifetime. There are both basic and trendy grocery stores.  Young people regularly jog past; men and women alike push strollers and have “baby carriers” on their bikes (which are everywhere, but especially on the Monon and Cultural trails). One of those previously dilapidated, boarded-up houses I used to pass recently sold for over a million dollars.

Downtown is a happening place–and not just here. Over the past three decades, young people and empty nesters alike have rediscovered the multiple pleasures of urban life–walkability, the human scale of neighborhoods, the mix of historic and new, and the diversity that sparks new perspectives and invites new experiences.

Jane Jacobs was right.

One of the fears I have about the aftermath of the pandemic is that people will once again fear urban density–that they’ll forget about the multiple ways cities nurture neighborliness and sharing, and pursue “social distancing” in the car-dependent suburbs from which so many of us fled. Given the very real challenges of today’s urban life–especially the enormous increase in housing costs– the path of least resistance might be retreat.

A recent article from CityLab looked at what the author termed “the long history of demonizing urban density,” and made an incredibly important point.

Moral environmentalists tended to blame urban spaces while neglecting the economic system that created these spaces. If changing the urban environment could solve urban social problems, then the economic system of industrialization could be left more or less intact. No wonder that a standard method for improving impoverished, overcrowded urban neighborhoods was simply to demolish them.

As the article pointed out, the conviction that the problems cities faced were the result of density, not poverty or unconscionably low wages, triggered a rush to provide “nature” by building urban parks. Nice as those parks are, they were created by people who put their faith in spatial rather than structural reform. But the actual ills of city life were attributable to economic conditions; what was needed was “social housing, robust regulatory protections, and the elements of a welfare state.”

The problem is too little money, not too much density.

Even the widespread belief that pandemics spread more easily in densely populated cities is not supported by the data.

Statistical analyses do not show a consistent connection between big-city density and coronavirus impacts. Some of the world’s most heavily settled spaces — Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore — have proved to be the most formidable at containing Covid-19. In the U.S., small towns in Georgia and Louisiana suffer along with New York City.

Cities that are properly governed (and in the U.S., we have far better leadership in cities than in our less populated states) actually have considerable advantages when it comes to fighting pandemics.

The dense urban environment can also be an asset in fighting disasters like Covid-19. Density means cities can more easily concentrate resources and social services where needed. Residents… have quicker access to hospitals and health care. And when nurtured by “social infrastructure” — community centers, libraries, and yes, public parks — cities can generate lifesaving networks of social ties which combat isolation and mitigate the effects of disasters.

Remember that banner that famously hung in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters? “It’s the economy, stupid!”

The lesson of the pandemic isn’t “abandon the cities.”  It’s “Give cities–and the people who live in them– the resources to address their economic problems, and most of the problems attributed to urban life will prove to be very solvable.”


  1. You can throw all the resources you want at the cities – and the people who live in them – but until the matter of racism is resolved, the problems attributed to urban life will not be solvable.

  2. Cities are the future, with regard to dealing with climate change. People who live in cities don’t have to drive 10 miles to find a supermarket, if they drive at all. Mass transit is incredibly more efficient in reducing carbon emissions than cars. In addition, high-rise apartment buildings are much more energy-efficient than single family homes on 60 by 100 foot plots. In fact, I would bet a dollar to a doughnut that New York City with its 8 million residents emits less carbon to the atmosphere than the state of Iowa, with its 3.5 million residents (an extensive farming and livestock operations).

  3. “Fast forward to today. There are multiple desirable and well-tended historic neighborhoods. There are more restaurants, coffee shops and bars than we can patronize in a lifetime. There are both basic and trendy grocery stores. Young people regularly jog past; men and women alike push strollers and have “baby carriers” on their bikes (which are everywhere, but especially on the Monon and Cultural trails). One of those previously dilapidated, boarded-up houses I used to pass recently sold for over a million dollars.”

    Do historic neighborhoods, restaurants, coffee shops and bars add up to being a city? They are urban suburbs! Those are areas, evidenced by that once dilapidated house recently selling for over a million dollars, adds up to only people with money are welcome. Theresa Bowers’ comments are on target regarding our deeply embedded racism here and throughout this country; but what are the racial statistics regarding residents in those downtown gentrified areas? I remember them well; for many years my trips downtown to shop in the multitude of department and specialty shops and have lunch at many choices of restaurants or see a movie in one of the many theaters downtown, was by city bus through Indiana Avenue slums. That area has been super-gentrified; who lives in Lockfield Gardens now? It was once national news as the first of its kind providing housing and businesses for blacks in a black area.

    A city used to be what Indianapolis downtown was; including the neighborhoods with housing for residents. My father’s cousin, Edgar Grabhorn, married Wilma Lockerbie whose ancestors once owned much of what is downtown Indianapolis today. They deeded the land to the city for the City Market; with the stipulation that parts of it would forever be used as farmer’s markets. Lunch at “three center city restaurants”? There were many restaurants to choose from, depending on your economic situation. The City Market contained produce and meat stands, specialty shops and an international collection of food stands, adventures in lunchtime cuisine. My cousins Carolyn and Judith Grabhorn tried to buy a home in Lockerbie Square to keep a piece of it “in the family” but it was a frightening place at that time. They later tried again but the two of them together could not afford the cost of a gentrified Lockerbie Square home.

    Destruction of downtown Indianapolis in the 1990’s to force business to the Circle Centre Mall has not exactly been an improvement. We may have restaurants, coffee shops and bars downtown in Indianapolis but we also often have bar fights and frequent shootings. “The City Isn’t The Problem”? But it is the cite of many of our public safety problems; except for those gentrified neighborhoods for the wealthy. And where do people shop in the city proper today?

  4. It’s nice to see neighborhoods changing for the better. It’s not so nice to see long term residents of those neighborhoods losing their homes due to their inability to pay the taxes on their re-evaluated properties. Where do you go when you have only Social Security to live on? Freeze taxes on those homes to let their owners stay in their homes. Those who are gentrifying should get together to help with clean up paint up and fix up. Neighborhoods should be about neighbors, after all.

  5. Those of us near the Children’s Museum live in a food desert, no choice but to drive to buy groceries. I’m told every one of those two-story buildings with a corner entrance was once a neighborhood grocery store. We have a car, can drive for groceries, but what a struggle for friends who grocery shop by bus. A problem to solve, but how?

  6. Peggy; thank you! I have ranted repeatedly about the total lack of assistance for victims of gentrification, often done by out of state developers. Residents and businesses whose taxes built and supported those areas for decades and have become low-income, seniors and disabled are often simply evicted from apartment buildings or cannot buy a home or business to replace their loss with what they are paid. They comprise a percentage of the growing homeless in all cities; including Indianapolis.

    A mea culpa on my editing of my earlier comments; should read “site”; “But it is the cite of many of our public safety problems;”

  7. Halloween Run. Downtown Indianapolis. People doing the run in costume. Thousands of costumed onlookers of all races and hundreds of participants. I attended once and was touched by the mass happiness and family fun generated by organizers and city leaders.

    The next morning headlines in the Star announced a rash of murders in Indy on Halloween night.

    What a dichotomy of realities!

  8. Theresa,

    Well said. When I was just little, my father drove into parts of downtown Cleveland to show me how “those people” lived. He lectured me about obeying the rules, working hard, etc. I was 10. The year was 1952. Later, I did my own recon mission and discovered that “those people” in “those neighborhoods” were still there and looked generally the same as they did when I was a kid.

    More research told me that the number was about 15%. It’s still the same…maybe up to 17% now. Every generation of politicians, local or national, have ignored the underclass. Why? Because they don’t vote. And why would they? Who are they going to elect that will help them out of the pit of racist, abject and institutionalized poverty? Not some black candidate – except maybe Corey Booker. Not some white Democrat who has to satisfy his/her racist constituency who also ignores the underclasses. And certainly not some Republican who doesn’t care much for anybody that isn’t making over 6-figures and donates to his/her party.

    Lester has asked me to delineate some ideas to cure this inner-city malady of ours. Some cities, like Denver, have mostly eradicated “slums”, yet there is still a massive homeless problem here. I wonder what rejuvenating a Marshall Plan for our cities would sound like to the white, gated communities around the country. How would that play in Jackson, MS, say?

    Gentrification means nothing to the chronically poor, the homeless and the rest of the ignored classes. Anyone who says we don’t live in a classist society is from Mars.

    Sorry for the rant, BUT the subjects of racism and poverty keep coming up.

  9. Big cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York teach an interesting lesson.

    Those cities are enormously dynamic by almost every conceivable measurement. Have been for two centuries.

    Yet, their ethnic groups form separate conclaves we know as Chinatown, Russiatown, Little Saigon, and many others. Within those klatches, residents create their own economy and their own culture, somewhat hybrid though they may be, and publish newspapers in their language. Each of these developments we could easily assume were harmful to the larger city.

    But overall they have been as beneficial to city dynamism as any other element of those cities, maybe more so. Tourists never pay for guided tours of the “boringly conformed” parts of those cities.

    In the same cities, parts of racial and ethnic groups have also assimilated into the general population and the general culture to become part of the boringly conformed. And the city keeps on ticking, anyway.

    My lesson is that no natural law dictates that a population has to homogenize its beautiful parts into a gray soup in order to thrive, and no mix of populations must give up its differences or its arguments in order to contribute to the whole.

  10. I moved to Indianapolis permanently in 1973 before I-65 and I-70 were completed. Many people were displaced when those interstates were created. I remember in high school reading the book on poverty that inspired the “War on Poverty”. It pointed out that interstates allowed us to avoid seeing urban poverty. It also pointed out that those living in poverty in Appalachia had natural beauty around them unlike those living in urban slums.
    Now we have homeless people begging on the streets.

    I appreciate all the comments about gentrification and the suggestion that we not raise property taxes on elders or people who cannot afford the increased tax rate that were there before the area became gentrified.

    As an introvert, living in a high density urban area is not particularly my cup of tea. I loved the vast vistas of New Mexico. I guess that’s why I am living in a suburb in Pike township and have a privacy fence.

  11. Vernon, you’re right. Racism and poverty! Racism and poverty! Racism and poverty! What part of those words do people not get? Not connect?

  12. Walk a hallway in their slippers.

    The affluent has to live somewhere. But it seems that we the non-affluent “virtuous normal” have a prejudiced little heart. Everywhere we see affluent homes pop up we find ceaseless fault. As if the USA is a kind of Bushwood Country Club for losers where successful people are the Gophers of Caddy Shack. Are we all auditioning to be the real live Carl?

    There are a few genuine tyrants that need our attention, and we won’t find them living in an upper middle class home in Fall Creek Place.

  13. JoAnn @ 8:03 am good post.

    The gentrification has allowed some people in the higher income category to live a cloistered existence. Just a bit west of of the gentrified near east side along 10th street west of the White River is Haughville.

    According Wiki > Of the adult population (25 and older), 40.7% do not have a high school diploma. The overall neighborhood’s per capita income is $9,760 and an average household income of $17,321 making the entire neighborhood well below the average per capita and household income of Indianapolis. During the 1990s, Haughville averaged 30 homicides a year, having the dubious honor of having one of the highest homicide rates in the nation for a neighborhood of its size.

    No million dollar homes here in Haughville, so close yet so far away.

    One of the common refrains of some people, is the people in Haughville or neighborhoods like it, is the people have no pride in the homes or neighborhoods to allow them to become run down and dilapidated. I look at it a different way. The people that live in these areas do not have the disposable income to maintain their homes.

    “Downtown is a happening place” I am sure it is for those that have the resources to enjoy it. What kind of jobs are generated by this “happening place”?? Certainly not enough to buy a million dollar home.

    Actually “Downtown” Indianapolis has been the recipient of Billions of dollars in corporate welfare – The Colts Stadium, Pacers Stadium, Circle Center Mall, and other schemes like tax abatments, etc. Downtown is a Potemkin Village.

  14. After all, there are plenty of rural areas where abject intergenerational poverty is widespread.

  15. Speaking of age, Sheila, I practiced law for 13 years from the Circle Tower Building in Indianapolis before leaving for the Orient to do tax law in 1970, where I was recruited by McKenzie to go to Bangkok but declined). I have been “retired” since 1989.

    Back to topic – Indianapolis is certainly a different look than the one I remember, a city in my day known for discussions by farmers on street corners about how many “bushel” of corn they expect to harvest this year, cheese stands at the City Market etc. I remember reading an article years ago by an urban geographer to the effect that cities were still experimental and that he was not yet sure they would work.

    It appears urban clusters, in varying degrees, do work, but for whom? Gone are the farmers on street corners and welcome to young professionals who have money to spend and goodbye to minorities who have no money to spend. Minorities who remain in these mini-New York Cites (if they can) are, with some exceptions, even more poverty-stricken than before.

    So have cities such as Indianapolis improved and succeeded financially, environmentally, socially etc. for all of its residents, or as measured by other criteria than the glitter and glamour of big buildings, convention sites and the like, is the jury still out? I’m thinking that such measurement may well depend upon the criteria employed and who is doing the measuring.

  16. Vernon writes, “Gentrification means nothing to the chronically poor, the homeless and the rest of the ignored classes. Anyone who says we don’t live in a classist society is from Mars.”

    In California, many of the “gentrified” include teachers, social and mental health workers who don’t make sufficient wages to live where they work.

    In Indy, look at the growth of the donut ring around Downtown.

    I believe it’s called the “market forces” for which we live and work. Market forces ignore city planners (centralized planning) and what’s best for the community on micro and macro levels.

    In our little town, once a study referred to Middletown, America, the poor and people of color weren’t just confined to live in some geographic regions due to market forces, the realtors and developers during the inception of the city and its growth years, used neighborhood restrictions to keep out Jews, Chinese, and people of color. Even Jewish architects were restricted from designing homes in specific neighborhoods until the 1970s.

    In other words, the so-called “markets” were shaped by racism and xenophobia at its core. I guess when you consider Middletown was a microcosm of the USA, we can trace the roots of capitalism and market forces that were dependent upon slavery and cheap immigrant labor to our inception and growth periods. The capitalists wanted and exploited cheap labor, but resented having to give them a place to live in their communities.

    Today, it’s almost comical to watch economists bend and twist to explain or justify “market forces” and why we are better served when the “markets” are unabetted by government interference.

  17. Kudos to all (especially Theresa) for pointing out the negative impacts of gentrification. And, quite disturbing are the ones on education.

    There have been some very successful experiments (Houston is one, I think), where lower-income folks get vouchers to move into middle class areas to improve diversity. The impacts of this are potentially high as younger people tend to be more open to diversity and in the experiments so far, education for the less fortunate gets materially better.

  18. Cities are exciting and offer untold opportunity for stimulation, learning and growth. And, many want to live near their work. But a city like NY which grows up and not out is a challenge. I lived in NYC for over 30 years. I often think of what it would be like to still live in our apt at the corner of Broadway and 68th St. on the 12 th floor, having to share a small elevator in order to leave my
    500 sq ft! And, the impact of life with no social interaction–which is what makes living in a city meaningful. Dealing with this pandemic, its no doubt that nursing homes, prisons, and cities where its almost impossible to be 6′ away from others are the hotspots for a reason. And, that makes the question of what happens with college campuses in the fall especially relevant.

  19. Some cities quickly decided to shelter-in-place to contain the virus wih positive results. Density need not be a death knell, but it does pose increased risk. Mass transit and car pools, elevators, close working quarters and hallways, re-cycled-shared air, shared office equipment such as copiers and coffee machines, crowded sidewalks, standing in line anywhere, common facilities (lunchrooms, restaurants, restrooms, conference rooms), etc. are the opposites of isolation and increase infection potential. Rural communities also share the amenities and infections of shared spaces in churches, stores, post offices, and more.

    Some places are safer than others, but in our interdependent society, no place is safe. A re-opened economy means we’ll either be sicker or need to be pro-active and even MORE sanitation conscious.

  20. The 1950s and 1960s saw a flight of people from cities to the suburbs and even rural areas. The reason why was the automobile and better roads (including interstates) which gave people the chance to live further away from the city where they worked and shopped.

    After 1990 or so, there has been a renewal of people wanting to live in cities, particularly young people. They wanted to live close, often within walking distance, of their jobs, entertainment options and shopping.

    But another trend is now with us and is being accelerated by Covid-19. With technological advancements, most white collar workers can now do their jobs from home. They don’t need to travel five days a week to huge downtown office buildings. They can just walk to their home office. Employers are finding that employees working from their home office are more efficient and the overhead costs for the employers is much less. And people can order pretty much anything from their computers and have it delivered to their homes. They don’t need to go to a mall.

    While some people lament the loss of the congested city, I’m not one of them. Less pollution, less traffic, more space…I believe those are good things. I don’t celebrate congestion. Of course, I grew up in the country and like wide open spaces.

    Unfortunately our city leaders thought Indianapolis’ future would resemble its past. We taxpayers helped build a large downtown mall, just as brick-and-mortar retail was beginning to die. Taxpayers subsidized expansions of the convention center (even though convention business had been declining for some time), big downtown office buildings, apartments, sporting arenas, etc. We even leased our parking meters to a private company, with the contractual provision if those spaces are not going to be needed in the future, we taxpayers have to pay the private company.

    City leaders thought Indianapolis 2050 would be exactly like 2000, except we’d have electric vehicles. It was a very short-sighted approach to urban planning. We taxpayers are going to be left holding the bag for their shortsightedness.

  21. I forgot another Indy folly…spending a fortune on upgrading the city’s mass transit just as changing transportation patterns are decreasing the need for large city buses running to and from a downtown filled with white collar workers who will increasingly be working from home.

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