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Indianapolis aims to re-imagine Monument Circle using art

August 7, 2015

Most days the front of One Emmis Plaza is no more than an entrance — a passageway for business people and tourists on their way from A to B.

But on a recent morning, Jim Walker, the director of the art collective Big Car, lounged on a neon green rocking chair. He called this corner of Monument Circle "the Emmis Front Porch," where visitors can stop and listen to music in the shade and where an expanded sidewalk is filled with chairs, tables and food-truck-style vehicles — art trucks parked next to food trucks.

The city wants to change how people think of and use Indianapolis' most iconic roundabout, and that means letting artists take the first stab.

Backed by a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Big Car is partnering with the city to reshape the Circle into a pedestrian-friendly public space where passers-by can sit down to eat, engage in art, see live concerts and do yoga.

It's a first attempt at casting off the Circle's identity as a traffic circle. The project will limit and slow traffic by narrowing the road and widening the sidewalk.

"Spark: Monument Circle" launched Aug. 1 and will feature daily activities for 11 weeks, ending Oct. 16. During this time, the sidewalk on the southwest quadrant of the Circle will extend out to make room for lounging, art and activities, which include waving your arms in front of a custom-built theremin and playing hopscotch.

Each weekday will have a different theme, such as Talking Tuesdays and Walking Wednesdays. Musical Family Tree, Square Car Records, Classical Music Indy and the Rhythm! Discovery Center will present live music on Fridays.

Artist Rebecca Pappas will curate a themed parade each Saturday. Sundays will be themed around bikes.

Pingpong, food trucks, board games, chess, kid-friendly foam also are planned for the Circle, but perhaps the most eye-opening addition is the "Wagon of Wonders," a mobile interactive art installation.

Downtown leaders have long discussed the idea of closing the Circle to traffic entirely and transforming it into a pedestrian plaza.

The current plan being tested out by "Spark" narrows traffic from two lanes for driving and one lane for parking to a total of two lanes, which will include the one lane for parking. This will offer room for hangout spots and programming to "activate" the space, says Sherry Seiwert, president of the city tourism organization Downtown Indy.

"I'd love to bring my lunch here and be able to sit down," she said at a launch event Thursday. Behind her, a man dressed as a fish (The Big Carp is his name), part of Big Car's effort to promote narratives about our local waterways, danced atop the Wagon of Wonders as a small crowd cheered.

The city is in the early stages of a large-scale redesign of Monument Circle. Planners said evaluating how people engage in "Spark" and how the two-lane change affects traffic will offer insight into a larger conversation about the Circle, which is slated for new bricks, sidewalks and curbs and improvements to the decaying utility systems underground.

The central thesis behind the partnership is that organizations such as Big Car should help lead the conversation on "placemaking," a term that artists and city planners alike have embraced in the past five years.

Creative placemaking is an emerging field that leverages the arts to transform corridors into more community-focused public spaces.

Unlike the city's Cultural Trail project, however, "Spark" is focused more on interactive art and family-friendly activities than on static sculptures and murals. Throwback Thursdays, for example, will feature guest speakers and actors who delve into the history of the Circle and Indianapolis.

"We know the city is great at big events," said Amanda Dorman, communications manager for Downtown Indy. "What Big Car is doing is human-size events, where people can attend on a daily basis."

Big Car and the city will be observing the project closely. They will track revenue of local retail shops, traffic speed, pedestrian patterns and general reception of the corridor.

"What needs to happen is we need to activate the space," Walker said. "The idea is that if there are more interesting activities happening downtown, people are more likely to stop by."

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