Over Thanksgiving week, I did something I hadn’t done in a long time: travel through the South.
I went to visit my brother and sister-in-law, both auto industry executives, who live in Greenville, S.C., in the “up-country” of the Appalachian foothills. We also made a quick stop in Asheville, N.C., about an hour north of Greenville.
To put it simply, traveling through a whole host of Southern “red states” made me a bit … nervous.
As an African-American, a progressive and a generally open-minded thinker, I have been taught to fear the South. After all, it was home to a people that once proudly (and defiantly) enslaved millions, blocked schoolhouse doors, defend the Confederate flag 150 years after the fact, and fought integration of any shape or size. In fact, looking at the past five or six presidential electoral maps, they eerily mirror the same maps that divided the country during the Civil War.
Call me a Yankee sympathizer (which I am) or a Northern elitist (which I may be, but hope I am not), but I’d be lying if I said all that historical baggage was not on my mind.
So imagine my surprise when I rolled through the Blue Ridge Mountains into Asheville to find a modern, thoughtful and shockingly enough, progressive city.
Asheville, whose metro population is just north of 400,000, is half the size of Indianapolis, but was absolutely amazing for many reasons. Walking around downtown, it was almost absent of chains. Just the opposite, I saw literally 40 to 50 independent eateries and dozens of local bookstores, retailers and shops. There was public art everywhere, and it even has its own version of a Cultural Trail. It had an art museum, live music and abundant public green spaces. It was clean, interesting, different and full of life. In other words, it was a really happening place to be.
Greenville was much the same. It featured the same collection of independent eateries and shops, beautiful public plazas and one of the most stunning downtown parks I’ve ever seen. In a word, it had energy.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s how people described Indianapolis 30 years ago.
Certainly, every city has parts of town they don’t advertise in tourism brochures, and I’m sure Asheville and Greenville have their fair share.
But what I saw in both places were city leaders who understand the new paradigm, and communities targeting our people, businesses, artists and innovators. Ironically, they probably learned many of these lessons from us.
Case in point (I’m not making this up): The first two people we met in Asheville were from Indianapolis. One worked in our hotel industry before moving south, and the other was a 26-year-old recent college grad from Lawrence Township. Whatever Asheville is doing, it’s working.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “Indianapolis doesn’t have the weather, the mountains, oceans or beaches” so many times that it might be starting to lose its meaning. But as I was walking with my brother through that Greenville park on a warm, sunny day in November, while it was 40 degrees and gray back home, the cliché truly hit home.
Indianapolis’ renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s was unprecedented. Forward-thinking decisions put Indianapolis light years ahead of most cities in terms of urban renewal. Efforts in the past decade—charter schools, the Super Bowl, public art, Fringe, Midtown, Lucas Oil Stadium, public art, greenways, bike lines, sustainability and life sciences, among others—have kept us moving in the right direction.
But make no mistake: The South is indeed rising again, not with weapons of destruction, but with climate, oceans and mountains. If we fail to aggressively stay on the path laid out the past 40 years, these “new” Southern cities will overtake Indianapolis and others like us.
Budgets are tight or nonexistent, and Hoosiers hate taxes. But Asheville and Greenville have, or soon will have, everything we do, plus the view.•
Campbell, president of Campbell Strategies, was a deputy mayor under former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.