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Eric McAfee and Kevin Kastner on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John's weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

If I had to sum up Indianapolis in one word, it would be “Underrated.” With a population of 829,718, the Hoosier State capital is the second-largest Midwest city (although it’s only the ninth largest metro area in the region.) Despite its size it’s known as “Naptown” and “India-No-Place” due to its reputation as a bland, suburban-style metropolis with few attractions besides the Colts, the Pacers and the Indy 500. I’m told that in the 1980s you couldn’t even buy a sandwich downtown after 6pm and the massive streets, lined with dozens of garages and oceans of parking lots, were so deserted you could safely walk down the middle of them.

But two weekends ago when I took Megbus there to meet up with my buddy Jake, in town for a conference, I discovered a surprisingly hip city with some fascinating architectural features and plenty of fun stuff to do. And while there’s little public transportation to speak of, and the city’s dominant image is a racecar, I was shocked to find a level of bike-friendliness that gives Chicago a run for its money.

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“Anne Dancing,” a kinetic artwork by Julian Opie, off Indy’s Massachusetts Avenue business strip.

Friends who grew up in Indy warned me the town was a cultural wasteland, but things seem to have changed in recent years, especially after last winter’s highly successful Super Bowl—I had a blast. In Broad Ripple, a dense, walkable neighborhood north of downtown, I strolled from brewpub to brewpub and heard a terrific set by the Jesus and Mary Chain at the Vogue, a Metro-like rock venue. Near Massachusetts Avenue, often compared to Wicker Park’s Milwaukee Avenue, I feasted on schnitzel at the Rathskeller, a huge, atmospheric German restaurant in a building designed by native son Kurt Vonnegut’s grandfather.

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Mural of Kurt Vonnegut with my borrowed Birdy folding bike.

Other highlights included the Oranje festival, an art-and-music extravaganza on the Indiana State Fairgrounds, and a textbook pastrami-on-rye at Shapiro’s Deli, in business since 1905. There’s lots more stuff I want to see on my next visit, especially the Marshall “Major” Taylor Velodrome, named for the barrier-breaking African-American bike racer who grew up there.

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Mural of Major Taylor alongside the Monon Trail.

Since transit options are limited to the under-funded, anemic IndyGo bus system, I spent much of my trip pedaling my folding bicycle along the Monon Trail, an award-winning rails-to-trails, that runs 16.7-miles from downtown to the north suburbs, where we were staying. When traveling with Jake and other bike-less companions, I dissembled my cycle and threw it in the trunk of a cab.

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The Monon Trail.

On Saturday, over biscuits and gravy in Chatham Arch, I got the skinny on local issues from my fellow planning geeks Kevin Kastner and Eric McAfee, part of the eleven-person collective behind the blog UrbanIndy.com. I ask about the challenges Indianapolis faces in becoming a first-class transportation town. “Not having good transit and a lack of political will from the state to improve it,” responds Kastner. For example, he says, the Indy Connect proposal would have created more extensive bus service, bus rapid transit and a light rail line to the northern ‘burbs, but due to apathy from lawmakers it never even got put to a vote.

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Protected bike lane, featuring permanent curbs and bollards, in the Fountain Square district.

While the transit picture looks bleak, the bicycle and pedestrian scene is blossoming. The Monon Trail is part of an extensive greenway system, mostly built during the 1990s, with 58.9 miles of paths along the White River, the Central Canal and numerous creeks. When Mayor Greg Ballard took office in 2007 there were virtually no bike lanes, but under his leadership the city has striped over sixty miles, and he’s pledged to create a total of 200 miles of lanes by 2015. “Ballard’s a Republican but he really did a 180,” Kastner says. “When he was elected he was anti-transit. He said, ‘Hoosiers love their cars.’ But now he realizes that creating a bike-friendly city is within our reach.”

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The Indy Bike Hub YMCA, a commuter station with indoor parking, repairs, showers, lockers and a gym, recently opened downtown. And most exciting, the city has almost finished building the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, nearly eight miles of Copenhagen-style separated bike-and-pedestrian paths connecting five designated cultural districts, as well as many museums and memorials. Unlike Chicago’s new protected bike lanes, which so far exist in short segments, the cultural trail is a seamless network, with wide, brightly colored street crossings to warn drivers of bike traffic coming off the sidewalk. “The trail attracts a demographic that’s terrified of urban cycling and puts them in an environment where they feel comfortable,” McAfee explains.

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The War Memorial with the Chase Tower, Indy’s tallest building at 48 stories, in the background.

After I swig my coffee, the guys take me on a tour of the trail and, as promised it’s a relaxing, worry-free experience. We pedal to the Indiana War Memorial, an imposing limestone structure inspired by an ancient Greek mausoleum, set on a picturesque plaza reminiscent of D.C.’s National Mall. We cruise by White River State Park, similar to Chicago’s Museum Campus, created by rerouting Indy’s Washington Street and converting the old bridge into a footpath. And, of course, we visit the iconic Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, a 284-foot-tall pillar topped by a victory goddess, located on the circular drive at the epicenter of town.

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We end our ride in the Fountain Square district, where artists and young professionals rub elbows with the longtime residents, blue-collar folks who migrated from the Appalachians. Nowadays the neighborhood has galleries, clubs and a record store, as well as classic greasy spoons. The area’s centerpiece is the vintage Fountain Square Theater Building, featuring a retro diner, a boutique hotel and two duckpin bowling alleys.

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Fountain Square Theater Building.

On the fifth-floor rooftop bar we kick back with hot pretzels and pints of Oktoberfest beer from Sun King, one of a growing number of local breweries. Gazing at the modest skyline, I bring up the article “Why I Don’t Live in Indianapolis” posted on Urbanophile.com by planning expert Aaron Renn. A former Indy resident and recent Chicagoan, Renn has great fondness for the Circle City but rails against what he calls the town’s acceptance of mediocrity and lack of support for design excellence. The result, he writes, is ugly new developments and faceless garages built on prime downtown real estate. He cites the Cultural Trail as being an exception that proves the rule.

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Parade participants carry paintings of lawmakers who lost reelection after voting for the Affordable Care Act.

Dozens of locals wrote back to defend their hometown. “People argued this is an easy place to get things done,” explains McAfee. “And, especially after the Super Bowl, there’s a spirit that our best times are ahead of us.” Suddenly a hullabaloo in the street below draws us to the rooftop’s railing to watch a raucous art parade go by, and I get the sense these Hoosiers are right to be hopeful.

See more of John’s Indianapolis photos here.

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  • nonya

    Went through Indy en route to Cincinatti back in August. There’s a civil war museum under the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument that is pretty nice (and free). You can also go up the monument to a viewing deck just under the goddess (you can see the wall of windows in your picture). $2 for the elevator or the stairs are free.

    For those with kids, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum is amazing. Unlike a lot of children’s museums that seem to be barely more than an educational play place, it’s a real museum aimed at kids.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Yes, next time I’ll have to go to the top of the monument. I’ve also heard the kids’ museum is great, as is the zoo and the museum of Native American and Western culture. If you’re into college sports, the NCAA museum is supposed to be worthwhile. Lots of stuff to do in Indy!

  • mcass777

    “Ballard’s a Republican but he really did a 180″ I ride every day and I am voting for Romney. Stop stereotyping republicans! And the democrats are really serving us well here in Illinois. Republican or Democrat BOTH sides need to work together, be open minded on spending on projects like we see going on in Indy. Keep voting for “progressives” like Mike Madigan and we’ll see the same old crap.

    sorry for the rant!

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Those were Kevin’s words, not mine. And despite what the U.S. Congress has been doing with the transportation bill, I realize that there are plenty of pro-bike Republicans, especially in the Chicago suburbs. Heck, I even recorded a song extolling the virtues of former Republican governor George Ryan (http://illinoisfirstrockband.com/mp3.php?track=ryan), although I stopped performing it after he went to jail. During the 2004 election campaign both Bush and Kerry were photographed riding bikes. I’m sure there are hundreds of Republicans who are members of Active Trans. On the other hand, it seems to be the case that Republican legislators tend to favor spending money on highway projects rather than pedestrian, bike, transit and passenger rail improvements.

      • Mcass777

        I know you are both right!

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      No need to apologize.

      I don’t believe political party in Illinois has much to do with corruption outcomes: it’s part of the culture; but, it seems to be most prevalent among Democratic party members because that’s who’s in (higher) office more often.

  • http://www.facebook.com/marilyn.holleystupka Marilyn Holley-stupka

    Indianapolis Museum of Art is a wonderful place and is only one of a myriad of museums in Indianapolis. They may not be the most extensive but they are reasonably priced, family friendly, easily accessible by car, bus, or bike, and are very well done.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      I’ve definitely got to hit up the Kurt Vonnegut Museum next tiem. They’ve got his typewriter.

  • http://twitter.com/rachaelnthomas Rachael Thomas

    indy’s bike culture is strong and growing. One of the local Indy blogs (Untold Indy) published a hip bike map a few months ago: http://untoldindy.com/images/bikemap.pdf

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Very cool! I like the way it resembles a transit map. And that’s almost all off-street stuff, correct?

      • http://twitter.com/ActiveIndyTours ActiveIndy Tours

        Untold Indy did a great job with the map! We are fortunate to have a pretty well connected system of off street, dedicated bike/pedestrian paths here in Indy – and an increasing number of bike lanes on city streets that are also represented on this map.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/8432336@N08/ BlueFairlane

    You know, I’ve passed through Indianapolis probably 300 times over the course of my life, but other than a school field trip to the Children’s Museum and a tour of the Speedway, I’ve never stopped. I need to explore that place.

  • http://twitter.com/ActiveIndyTours ActiveIndy Tours

    Awesome write up guys! So glad our friends over at Urban Indy took you around to some of our favorite haunts – on some of our favorite routes!

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Thanks! I took a quick look at your website, http://activeindytours.com. Looks like you guys do some interesting walking, running (!) and bike tours.

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