Downtown Indianapolis is empty. No basketball fans. No conventioneers. No dine-in restaurants, bars or nightlife.
The lifeless sidewalks and deserted streets are all part of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the ailment shaking the world economy and changing our daily lives. While the pandemic is new to all of us, our suddenly lifeless downtown is familiar to some.
The desolation is oddly reminiscent of downtown Indy circa 1970—with no global pandemic. For much of the ’60s and ’70s—even into the ’80s—a hollowed-out center city after 5 p.m. was business as usual. Much of what we’re missing in the cascade of closings and cancellations? It didn’t exist.
So, with events disappearing from our calendars and life slowing down, it’s a good time to pause, reflect and be thankful for the monumental achievements that transformed our city—achievements we take for granted with the passage of time.
We should never forget that it took vision, leadership and tireless effort to turn a sleepy Midwestern city into a magnet for sports, tourism and conventions. It required even more hard work to capitalize on those accomplishments—all of them building blocks for seemingly unrelated advancements. Would we have a thriving tech sector without the attention the city received—and the can-do attitude it cultivated—in the process of reinventing itself?
Mayor Richard G. Lugar and his contemporaries started a transformation in the late 1960s that snowballed throughout the administrations of Bill Hudnut and all who followed. The generosity of Lilly Endowment helped bankroll the early vision, the Indiana General Assembly from time to time passed legislation that allowed it, and the efforts of countless others—dedicated company leaders like Mel and Herb Simon—made it happen.
Amid the reminiscing, it’s important to acknowledge there’s no ending—happy or otherwise—to this story. The city is a work in progress with numerous challenges and opportunities. It will take more creativity and bipartisan cooperation than we’ve seen so far to deal with crime, homelessness, inequality, a declining tax base and other problems that threaten the city.
How we meet those challenges will likely dictate whether and to what extent we’re able to grow the city’s convention business, build an effective public transportation system, capitalize on our region’s significant biotechnology assets and seize other opportunities that we hope will come along as economies at all levels begin to recover from this global pandemic.
Building on the city’s potential will be easier, for the most part, if state lawmakers remember Indy’s importance to the state economy and resist the urge to micromanage city affairs. Likewise, city officials mustn’t fall into the partisan trap that hamstrings progress on the federal level. And we’ll need business leaders who continue to look beyond the bottom line and give back to the community in meaningful ways.
It’s human nature to forget the lessons of the past, so let’s not waste this reminder of what a desolate Indianapolis looks like. When this time of social and economic uncertainty passes—and it will—let’s rededicate ourselves to the city’s upward trajectory.•
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