Connections or Divisions
With instagrammable burger joints, a newly developed downtown and brunch menus that take some translation (even for seasoned New Yorkers), Indianapolis presents a promising opportunity. With a thriving automotive and pharmaceutical industry, a high standard of living and reputable schools, Indy was a ‘no brainer’ for the young professionals who elected it ahead of other US cities as the place to raise their families. The way many tell it, the story of downtown’s development was one of phoenix-from-the-ashes, rising at the time of the 2012 Super Bowl because of the investment that it brought. We heard that the city’s monuments are the same, it’s just the foreground that has changed: ‘these were here all along, it’s just that nobody cared’.
However, longtime Indy residents remember a time before this reformation, when getting out of the city was the only viable solution for families. When RJ and Carrie of the Stray Dawgs first came back into Downtown for a bike ride event, they couldn’t believe how the place had changed. We met Carlette, a former felon-turned-advocate for reentry into the labor market supporting those with a criminal history, who confirmed this picture. But when we asked her if she thought things were getting better, she shook her head. She thought things were, in fact, getting worse. This was especially the case for women caught on the wrong side of the law, who no longer rely on the men in their lives to conduct criminal activity for them.
We heard stories like hers, of people forced to choose between dealing drugs and feeding their families. Carlette told us that downtown may have reformed, but that was because the troublesome families that used to live there had been relocated. What we heard from a waitress during a brief breakfast in a roadside out-of-town cafe echoed her sentiments - when you’re earning $2 / hour there aren’t many opportunities for a college education or a vacation to Florida. But this was one of the few ways to find a second chance in Indy.
For most, the city’s dangers were now a low drumbeat keeping the city’s rhythmn. An Uber driver told me that he carried a penknife in his glove compartment, which he insisted was to cut his seatbelt if he was ever caught up in a car accident – though I wondered whether having it to hand made him feel reassured. Most people live in the middle: the bowling league whose members were ‘doing alright for themselves’; the young film festival volunteer who made a point of being the perfect gentleman and supported his local church; the young man who was spending the afternoon at a German beer festival with his mom.
Indianapolis is clearly a city in a state of transition, but I wondered whether this wasn’t a city pulling in opposite directions, cultivating the cavern between those seeking a second chance and those ordering a soy milk latte on a Sunday morning.
Brands need to consider this too –target markets are designed to perpetuate this division, however those who unite like-minded locals will ultimately win people’s hearts and minds. The most salient example for me is the dive bar in Carmel, which managed to unite a Doctor of Science with a local farmer, with two British advertising eXplorers from New York. These are the brands that people feel most affinity to – those who connect people in real life and who put similarities before differences.