Can Indy's big-league efforts outrun small-town image?

March 27, 2013
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I was going to write this post about Butler University basketball coach Brad Stevens' being a candidate for the UCLA job opening. Or about the exposure the NCAA basketball regional would bring to Indianapolis.

But as I researched those topics, I was stuck by a common chord voiced by many comments to the stories and blogs I was reading this week.

No matter how much Indianapolis performs as a major-league city, there are those who will never consider it anything more than a few high-rises amid a sea of cornfields tended to by a bunch of hayseeds.

First came a comment to an online story I wrote this week discussing the $15 million economic impact of the NCAA basketball regional held this week in Lucas Oil Stadium.

“It’s a crying shame that this is what passes for economic activity in Hooterville,” the comment said.

I laughed it off, but must admit the sentiment about the place where I was born stung a bit.

I pondered, was this simply a small-minded person or is Indianapolis not the big-league city I’ve been made to believe it is?

Or is there something else? Indianapolis' smaller-market neighbors such as Columbus, Ohio, and Louisville don't seem to take nearly as many arrows for their lack of size. Maybe, by striving to compete with the bigs, Indianapolis has made itself a target.

It was far from the first time I had seen or heard Indianapolis criticized on my story and others. Maybe the sheer repetition is getting to me after all these years.

These types of comments seem to come out of the blue. A case in point was an article this week on the Bruins Nation website.

The story, headlined, “Brad Stevens Not Necessarily A ‘Small Town’ Guy,” explained that Butler is in urban Indianapolis, and Stevens might be a nice fit for the UCLA job and be relatively comfortable in Los Angeles.

Immediately the comments—I presume mostly from Californians—started bashing the writer for comparing L.A. and Indianapolis. One even noted that people from here can’t handle driving on L.A.’s eight-lane highways.

Really? Well, maybe that’s true, but can anyone from anywhere keep their sanity in L.A.’s crazy interstate traffic?

Another noted how confused and disjointed Hoosiers get when venturing to a really big city.

When considering how Stevens might fare in L.A., it might be worth pointing out to UCLA followers that the Wizard of Westwood and the author of 10 national championships, John Wooden himself, was from Martinsville—in Indiana! But I digress.

The commenters trotted out all the tired things most Hoosiers have heard about Indianapolis a million times. “They don’t call it Nap town for nothing,” one wrote. “Nothing but cornfields and tumbleweeds a mile outside Indianapolis,” another pontificated.

Then another person produced a well-thought-out post about how big, wonderful and vibrant Indianapolis is. The person even noted a number of convincing statistics about the city’s considerable size. Yet another mentioned Indianapolis is the home of NBA and NFL franchises, the nation’s biggest single-day sporting event, and the NCAA headquarters--and even hosted a Super Bowl.

Someone responded: "Put any numbers on it that you want, but Indy is still a small town." 

Some criticism comes from right here in the Midwest. Chicagoans constantly scoff at Indianapolis. One Chicago journalist told a co-worker of mine, “What’s news in Indianapolis is news in Indianapolis. What’s news in Chicago is news.”

Thanks for the education.

I’ve heard people from Louisville say we’re just a bunch of small-town hicks trying to pretend we’re big-city slickers. Jealousy? Perhaps. At least that’s what I’ve been told by city boosters.

There was no shortage of people who told me over the last two years that hosting a Super Bowl would finally break down all those small-minded stereotypes.

Perhaps the idea of Indianapolis' being like the small town John Mellencamp so eloquently wrote and sung about is so entrenched that no amount of sports events, branding or positioning is ever going to change that.

But here’s something people outside this area might not know about the people of this tiny town.

They have the audacity to make bigger plans than anyone thought possible. And they have proven to have the muscle to turn those plans into a larger-than-life stage for events ranging from sports to the arts.

They were stupid enough to build an NFL stadium without an NFL team. They were crazy enough to think a downtown minor-league baseball park would be an attraction. They were dreamy enough to think a dusty test track could attract 300,000 people a year for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. They were insane enough to think this city could host Final Fours and Super Bowls—and do it better than anyone else.

What a bunch of fools.

Small town? Big city? Metropolis on the brink? Or a legend in our own minds? Label it—and us—what you will.

But know this: Everything this city has accomplished since it really was Naptown all those years ago is no small wonder.

  • Don't compare, just improve
    'Maybe, by striving to compete with the bigs, Indianapolis has made itself a target.' I'd rather dream big and be ridiculed than be Louisville.
    • The Circle City
      Indianapolis, Indiana. Isn't that good enough? Why is it that medium-sized cities such as Indianapolis, Columbus, El Paso, Sacramento, Birmingham, and so on feel a need to be a "major league" city? Why? To be part of an arrogant club with Chicago, New York, Houston, Los Angeles? Indy, you are better than that. I spend a great deal of time out in Los Angeles as part of my profession. Why would any city aspire to be another L.A.? And who said bigger is better? Really? Drop the inferiority complex, Indianapolis, Indiana. You have too much character for that. The Circle City, smack dab in the middlle of the Crossroads of America has nothing to prove. You are a great and humble city in the heartland of America. Stay classy, Indianapolis.
    • Best kept secret
      There is a great deal of truth in this article, on both sides of the issue. I thought the comment about corn fields 1 mile out form the city was interesting, especially coming from a Chicagoan. Have you ever driven 1 mile outside of Chicago? There is significantly less to see there than here. Anyway, I've heard on several occasions, and some several different transplants from "bigger cities" now living here, that they cannot believe more people haven't figured it out and moved here. It's a great little town, big town, whatever... and people with any sense that have any frame or reference, know that.
    • It Takes Time
      Nobody denies that it was not long ago Indianapolis truly was Naptown, where they shot pigeons on weekends in the Circle. There's no question the city has come a long way in the past couple of decades, but brands and images take a long time to turn around. It is happening, but not enough yet to change the impressions of many. There are also still many things that can be done in Indy to hasten that changing image. Perhaps first and foremost is turning IUPUI into a nationally respected, top level university. No great city does not have a great university. IUPUI can be that great university, but we need to change the attitudes of our own citizens that think that Bloomington and Lafayette are the centers of the academic universe. And bringing nationally prominent programs to IUPUI, including those relating to the sports industry where they would get lots of visibility, would be a big plus. And it would also help if our legislature didn't constantly put us in the news for proposing, and sometimes even adopting, bills that make the state look like it's still in the middle ages. So let's keep working on it - the city's image is changing, but it still has a significant ways to go.
    • Why Indy is viewed as a small town
      I would think the continued slings toward Indy as hickish small town has to do with the fact that there are still plenty of people in Indy -- which draws a lot of its population from small Indiana towns -- who still think like hickish, small-town people. On the one hand, we have a lot of great efforts that have legitimately made Indianapolis a viable, thriving city with a lot of housing, entertainment and attraction options. On the other hand, we have the Indiana General Assembly.
    • My Thoughts on Indy
      I grew up in Indy and left to live in few of those big cities and have even driven in LA traffic. The traffic in LA is no big deal. What I will have to say is Indy great place to raise a family and a great place to live. I think the real true is the so called "Big City's" are jealous of what we have accomplished and wish they could have the same thing. A small city with a big feel...
    • Indy Big City
      The only thing that will make Indy a "big city" is more people. Our metropolitan population is close to 2 million. LA is about 17 million. Indy isn't a big city and likely never will be unless some huge life changing business is discovered in Ind (think automobiles/Detroit). Instead, I'd rather see Indy build on being a convention town. Like Vegas without casinos. Or New Orleans without the filth. Those two cities are perceived as big cities, but they're similar to Indy. New Orleans is actually smaller than Indy.
    • The Struggle is Real
      Great article and unfortunately your sentiment is all too familiar to me and to the fashion community we are trying to build here in Indianapolis. Aside from the amazing professional sports teams we have here and the outstanding attractions there is a stigma that surrounds Indianapolis and Indiana that is so hard to break through. As the owner of a Fashion Services company here it is triple the effort for me to have others outside of the state to take us seriously as a business. It's even harder for them to believe we have a thriving and talented fashion community in our city. As stated, they feel we are just a bunch of hicks who know nothing - especially when it comes to high fashion. This, we are trying to change and this couldn't be further from the truth. The professional and creative fields here are coming together and are what is driving this next generation of Hoosiers to become a strong think tank for our city - they are the ones getting things done and getting people here. Again, it's sad to hear these things about my city but I guarantee that the people you wrote about above that said those "not so nice things" have never visited and may never. They are safe to judge behind their computers and never fare out into the "corn fields" as they say to see what we are really about.
    • REally?
      Indianapolis has spent a ton of money to build and subsidize with public money a nice place to host moderately large events for visitors, mostly sports. I don't see how that makes us a big-time city in any way.
    • Hooterville?
      The Petticoat Junction version or the Green Acres version? Or is this implying that the only restaurants here are Hooters? If it's in reference to anything else LA definitely has us beat, at least if you are counting the silicone variety. Also thanks for the reminder - I need to clean up the tumbleweeds from my cornfield.
    • Don't Let it Bother You
      I remember a student of mine that went to Gary West Side and she was talking about the Jackson Five, "We used to make fun of those boys all the time. Look who is laughing now." My point is that many, many success stories throughout the history of mankind, from the Biblical Joseph to Tom Brady to Donald Trump, all start out with this sort of disrespect. You either ignore it and stay hard at work, or become crippled by it. Do the right thing. Ignore it and keep at it. Don't let it bother you. LA just let their sex offenders out of jail because they dont have room, and their tax rates are out of this world. Who is laughing now?
    • LA critic reply
      It may be good to remind the criic from LA that their town's most prominent sports legend of all time is from little Martinsville, IN. Without John Wooden's migration west UCLA would likely have continued as an afterthought in basketball. Small town can do just fine in the big city.
    • Indy big little city
      What everyone has is true, well mostly. I have lived here most my life. I feel that like the Mayor, until Indy has a true mass transit system the city cannot compare itself to the great cities of the world.
    • Kudos to our past and current leaders
      Great article. You could have also added that we're fiscally solvent and the heart of a state that can balance a budget. Whats news in LA and Chicago is that their states are on the brink of financial collapse.
    • Indy
      Just entertained business guests from Seattle. Dinner at Weber Grill and a Pacers game. They were impressed (and wished they had an NBA team!). Just spoke to a young professional last night who has lived in Indy for about a year. He's lived in China, Chicago, Denver, & Charlotte. A year ago he researched where to raise his three toddlers and picked Hamilton County. Thankfully, Indianapolis is not a "big" city, it's a fun, neat, cool city. From a marketing perspective, we have the best nicknames other cities would dream to have: "Indy" and "Circle City". I've had family that lived in Chicago, NYC, and Atlanta. It's true, nice places to visit (when avoiding rush hours), but I'm always delighted to get back home to Indy! Every time we've been out of town, we come back and see how much we missed (events) over the weekend.
    • Hicks In Indy
      Good article as it contains truth on both sides. Yes, we are a bunch of hicks in Indy. I've lived here for the last 14 years and the great majority of folks I've met grew up in smaller cities/towns in Indiana. Which I think makes us a great city -- very friendly compared to large cities I've lived in like Chicago and Phily. Fact is, in Indy our folks are humble. I love Indy. Yet, keep in mind the City of Chicago keep trying to grab events from Indy like the Big Ten Hoops Tourney and Big Ten's Football Championship. Heck, Chicago even made a race track out in Joliet (not exactly a near Chicago for those that have been there) to get a NASCAR race. The Super Bowl also clinched it for us. So, if Chicago is trying to compete against us they sure must know deep down that we are a big city. And if they say most of our citizens are hicks, they are probably right. And I have no complaints about it.
    • What efforts?
      We had one Super Bowl a couple of years ago. And we're already known for basketball, so hosting the NCAA is sort of like Idaho hosting a potato festival - not exactly newsworthy or brand-shattering. As long as genuine progress - like public transportation that isn't a joke and less bigoted laws - is thwarted at every turn, Indiana will be known as backward with very good reason. Or we could just host another Super Bowl in seven or eight years. Maybe THAT one will change everything....
    • Wider focus
      I moved here several years ago from a larger city. I love the easy access, relative lack of traffic etc. Only thing bothersome is the city's (and media's) constant focus on sports events. A truly great city needs much more than sports.
    • More restaurants
      I agree that Indy is a great city; however, the IBJ article touting the fact that there will soon be a Chitpotle's downtown to compete with Qdoba does nothing to dispel the small town myth.
    • Small but Mighty
      Thank Heavens Indy is what it is ---The best of all worlds!
    • Small but Mighty
      Thank Heavens Indy is what it is---The best of all worlds
    • Home Sweet Home
      We all know that home is where the heart is. I think Hoosiers have some of the biggest hearts in the nation. If you ask me, Hoosiers have the advantage. We have the ability to be warm and hospitable like the folks in a small town, while at the same time, we indulge in new trends, fine dining, fashion and world class entertainment. We have all of the luxuries of a big city, only on a smaller scale. The proof is in the eclectic and eccentric “mini burrows” of Indianapolis. Fountain Square intrigues with a vibrant art scene and vintage culture. Broad Ripple calls to mind our college days with dance clubs and a “shop local” mentality. Surrounded by luxury apartments and historical neighborhoods, Mass Ave. is where urban businesses, art and culture collide. Take a stroll and relax as the smell of locally grown cuisine and the sound of jazz fill the air on a warm city night. If you come across bright lights, 5 star hotels, jazz and cigar lounges, fine dining, world class symphonies and theaters, well, you have made it to Downtown Indianapolis. For Hoosiers, it takes only one hour to get back in touch with nature in the beautiful woods of Brown County. The rolling hills, tiny villages and cozy cabins provide a much needed getaway. Traveling to the bigger cities like Chicago and New York is undoubtedly a thrilling experience. However, after all is said and done, I always end up longing for my Indiana home.
    • Don't give the nay sayers the time of day
      Excuse me ---but after nearly 35 years of constant of converting vision to reality, vacant space to hotels and sports facilities, to expanding and providing the limelight for the arts and museums of all description, and bring an array of diverse and iconic restaurants and entertainment venues do we still need bloggers who provide time to those who do not have a clue on how our city became a destination worthy of praise and visitation. The headline to this blog is so out of date. In the convention and events market, Indy outshines Cincinnati, St. Louis, Columbus, Louisville and many others. We should treat the nay sayers with indifference -- instead of giving them an audience to air their dislike for the city. Nobody is perfect---but get a grip---many in this country look up to our city. We're visionary, progressive, work together, and think of our customers first when putting together our products.
    • Big City Boneheads
      The problem is not Indianapolis. The problem is the arrogant big city boneheads who consider themselves the center of the universe. The reality of life is that the vast majority of this country lives outside New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. So why is being a big city with high crime, an elite attitude, and people living on top of each other a good thing? I have lived in the big city. Now, I love to visit but would never live there again. And, by the way it is well documented that Indianapolis not only hosted but transformed the way the Super Bowl will be hosted from now on, as it did the Final Four in the past.
    • Easy answer, Indy is a big little city or a small big city. Doesn't matter and whatever you call it, it has many advantages over big cities and many advantages over little cities. We host major conventions, sporting events, world class arts and concerts, but yet our downtown is walkable. It is not an hour drive from downtown to our major sports venues or convention center. You can be anywhere in Indy in less than 45 minutes. In big cities you can't get out of some parking lots in 45 minutes. Not only can you walk downtown, you are safe, especially compared to big cities. Unlike Chitown, we don't have weekly shooting death tolls in the double digits. And a shooting in downtown Indy is page 1, Chicago not so much. What you are seeing is jealousy. From the small towns who see their major achievement being able to share the FFA convention like Lville, or from the big cities that have to share major sporting events like the BMW Golf Championships and Big Ten Bball. It is from those same towns that cannot host events we can like the two largest single day sporting, events, the Superbowl (and we beat Chitown) and our large number of family friendly conventions. Jealousy is ugly, whether on the playground or between cities. Mike ROyko made a living trying to slam us. My Father always said the reason he has to slam us means he is jealous of us for something. That is still true about all of these wannabee bloggers. Indy needs to do what it does best, Lead and Succeed.
      • need crime and filth
        To be truly considered a Big City, we need to increases our murder rate tenfold, multiply our gang violence by at least 20 times, scatter garbage all around the city, import thousands of rats into our downtown areas, force traffic gridlock all over the city and start being really rude to each other. Who's in? I didn't think so..........
      • Let Indy be Indy
        People make stereotypical comments about ALL major cities based on outdated or uninformed perception. it is not unique to Indy. And the low expectations people have for Indy when they come to visit works distinctly in our favor. Witness Super Bowl 2012. Everyone went away raving about what essentially was a few streets downtown turned into a concert staple and a zip line. What Indy lacks that would make a big difference (as others have noted) is more residential density. Residential density and retail development have a constant scaffolding relationship, one naturally leading to and supporting the other. We don't have some of the amazing natural amenities of first tier cities (lakes, mountains, beaches, etc.), so we'll always be playing at the top of our tier or the lower rung of those bigger and better competitors. Let's be the very best Indianapolis that we can be and let people say whatever they will. They are going to anyway.
      • Safety also can be a stereotype
        To be fair, the lack of safety in big cities is pretty much an old stereotype as well. As someone who travels weekly for business I've always felt just as safe in the downtown areas of the larger cities (Chicago, NYC, LA, etc.) as I do in Indy. I won't comment on whether or not women would feel the same.
      • INDYpendent
        When I was younger, I wanted to move and live in Chicago, or NY because I heard it was so great and that Indianapolis would never be a big city after living here since I was a toddler, I have come to the conclusion I rather be in and city that is independent and not afraid to take risks then to be in a big city, with big problems.
      • Well..
        I was born and raised in Indy. In the past ten years I've lived in Los Angeles and Miami. My work has taked me to "big" cities across the country. Indianapolis is a "bigger" city than most people, including many who live here, give it credit for. We have everything that bigger cities have, albeit on a smaller scale - as, of course, it should be - afterall, we don't have 17 million residents.
      • So what?
        So what do we care what others think? Are we that thin-skinned? If you like Indy, live here. If you don't, live somewhere else. It's still a free country and there are a lot of great places to live that suit multiple tastes. I just wish someone didn't write a column every time there's criticism of Indy. Take the criticism in stride and move on.
      • Two words
        Screw 'em.
      • No reason to apologize
        Living and working in Indianapolis is an acquired taste. After years of tolerating silly corn field Hoosier comments from my "big city" acquaintances, I realized there's no need to apologize (or try to explain) our excellent quality of life, how we're a great place to raise a family or the very affordabl cost of living we enjoy here.
      • Disagree with most of what you say.
        I disagree with almost everything you say including this goofy post. Most of the time you come across as arrogant and misinformed. I understand you are trying to "get a rise" out of the folks, but everyone that reads IBJ isn't waiting to hear you opinion.
      • Stop comparing, start doing
        If we keep comparing ourselves (our city) to larger cities in terms of size we will always come up short. Indy does Indy very well and with a downtown that is clean, walkable and welcoming. Past initiatives with sports, art and tourism have set us up to succeed - and there's no turning back now. After hearing details about the pro soccer team recently, I have every reason to believe we are on the right track.
      • arts
        I think one cultural disconnect here is that coastal cities tend to embrace their arts institutions, while Midwestern cities tend to embrace their sports institutions. A true, broad engagement with the arts is what will move our city to the next level. This is not a criticism of the arts community here now, I think the people involved are doing wonderful, challenging, creative work. (Although it seems as though the IMA may have taken a step backwards with their new director.) In any case, for influencers in New York or San Francisc, the exhibition by Ai WeiWei is more important than the Super Bowl.
      • We'll know we have arrived....
        We will know that we as a city have truly arrived when we stop caring about what other cities think about us and just keep doing what we're doing: being a great place to live and work, along with being a great place to visit, especially for the parties we throw around major sporting events. Now, if we could just get the General Assembly out of the 19th century...
      • Enjoy the criticism
        Major cities and their residents hurl insults at each other all the time. The reason Indy takes more flack than say, Columbus Ohio, is that we actually have a national and international presence. Our similar sized counterparts aren't even a blip on the radar. We take these barbs because we've arrived, and we should just laugh them off and enjoy the humor.
      • We can be so much more
        Thanks for the article and everyone's comments. I agree with everyone, especially V. Indy is a good city but it could be great. It once was when she held the most population density and interurban rail lines in the world. It was as we see it today, a nest in a sea of corn. People came to Indianapolis to work and earn the warm honor of being a Hoosier. Years passed, wars came and went, and a generation of suburbia easily took hold in a city with no natural boundaries. The status quo took hold, tons of political offices were generated, and everything in Indy seemed to halt. The center was gone for a while, but now its back. Its time to bring people to it again and see if she still will be the ambassador to our Hoosier hearts. If we could take one step today and promise done by years end, we could reclaim so much lost when Indy was down. A rail line from the airport to union station could be down so easily and relatively cheaply. It would bring all the naysayers to be napsayers, and maybe one day a Hoosier. I love Indy. I just hope we realize our potential and progress accordingly.
      • Doing Better Economically
        Chicago and California are concerned about staying economically competitive. Taxes and spending are out of control, and smaller cities and adjacent states are eating their economic lunches. Indy is one of a few metro areas that has recovered all of the jobs it lost to the Great Recession according to recently revised data from the Labor Department. Chicago has recovered 51% and LA has recovered 39%. Businesses and households are voting by moving or adding jobs in places with reasonable taxes and a good quality of life. That's Indy.
      • You think you have it rough?
        Try being from Peoria....
      • Live in town.
        Perhaps all those that live in outlying communities and want Indpls. to be "big" should live in Indianapolis. I am fed up with "movers and shaker" living out of county. Maybe IPS problems could be solved and I wouldn't have to pay the thousands I do for each of my children to be educated.

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