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Commentary: Downtown reflected in shoeshine

October 6, 2008

Snake was proprietor of the shoeshine stand at Cento Shoes on South Meridian Street and, like he said, he could "make your shoes shine like new money every time." For over 27 years, he applied his spit and polish with lively commentary on any subject you chose. He was a downtown historian and authority on the local scene.

Snake suffered from a variety of ailments, but it was arthritis that finally sent him into retirement. While watching him fold that lanky 6-foot-4-inch frame to properly apply the brush and cloth, it seemed he wasn't physically suited for his profession. But he was a master at the patter, and that was an essential part of the job. In his prime, Snake's entire body was in perpetual motion around the shoeshine stand-arms, legs and mouth. If you wanted a good idea of what was going on in Indianapolis from the perspective of where, if you will, the rubber meets the road, Snake was the man to talk to. Indianapolis has lost one of its great raconteurs. Many of his observations were spot on.

Snake was one of the first to recognize the economic advantage of the Convention Center and was an exuberant rooter for its expansion. He knew the facility would draw foot traffic to downtown. Snake looked forward to the conventions for firefighters and police. Religious conventions, however, were his favorite. According to Snake, these convention-goers are a boon to business because they are proud of the way they look. They dress well and they want their shoes to shine.

Snake was a Pacers and Colts fan, but did not enjoy a boost from athletic events at Conseco Fieldhouse and the RCA Dome. Snake explained, "Just look at the feet of those fans. They are wearing sneakers."

Snake lamented the trend toward dressing down, particularly on Fridays. He saw that as a major threat to his bottom line. According to Snake, Friday used to be a busy day because men spruced up their footwear for the weekend. Men no longer wear their best shoes to work and feel less of a need for a shine.

Snake has been replaced by John from Houston, Texas. John doesn't just shine shoes. He is proficient with all aspects of running the shoe shop, including repair and total reconstruction of footwear. As John says, he's "less hustle and more professional."

Perhaps the transition at Centos is illustrative of the new era in downtown Indianapolis, a coming of age-less hustle, more professional. With the arrival of the Conrad, Lucas Oil Stadium, the Artsgarden, Victory Field, NCAA Hall of Champions and the Cultural Trail, the core of Indianapolis under the able leadership of Tamara Zahn, president of Indianapolis Downtown Inc., has shed its "catch-up" personality. Today, for its size, downtown has a big impact and projects a powerful image-and the Super Bowl is on the way. Indianapolis need no longer be envious of other metropolitan areas.

Downtown Indianapolis is a phenomenon to be emulated, exhibiting vibrant energy every day of the week. John, a consummate shoe professional, will be comfortable in this environment.

I'm a bit nostalgic, however, and not just for the streetcars, outdoor markets and the shoe shine administered with hustle and jive. I lament the fact that many major institutions no longer belong to us: Indiana National Bank, Indiana Bell and the Indianapolis Water Co. are now Chase, AT&T and Viola. Snake, too-replaced by a one-man professional conglomerate. Perhaps that is a normal manifestation of progress.

There is a proper place for nostalgia, even in Indianapolis. Perhaps Snake should be accorded a spot in the Indiana State Museum, right next to the Ayres Tea Room.

Snake, I wish you the best in your retirement.



Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media Corp., which owns the Indianapolis Business Journal. His column appears every other week. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.com.
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