It was a drizzly, cool weekend in Indianapolis. The White River, which runs through the heart of town and on to the mighty Wabash, looked distended from my vantage on a bluff in Holliday Park. I watched in silence as a tree floated down the river like an unmanned kayak, and the scattered trees on the banks below me were knee-deep – or rather, trunk-deep – in water.
I don’t think there was any serious flooding that weekend, but it was still an ominous scene. You could sense the river’s latent power.
I was in town with Molly and her dad to see their family. We had some downtime and had just checked out Broad Ripple, a hip neighborhood on what was once on the outskirts of Indianapolis. It’s essentially a small town that was revitalized by sprawl. It had a cute brick downtown with bars and boutiques that took up a couple blocks. Straight streets led to neighborhoods with historic homes.
Hip Broad Ripple. (Image by davitydave.)
It was nice, but it reminded me too much of the suburban downtowns in the Detroit area. I kept thinking I was in Royal Oak, Ferndale, or Birmingham. Or, perhaps, even Northville or Wyandotte. It was a bit disorientating. Stay for too long and you’ll end up drunk in an alley nursing your wounds from a freshly inked tattoo as bits of sushi dribble down your chin, unable to say for sure exactly what town it all went down in. That’s urban living in the Midwest, man.
Having seen enough, we’d taken a quick drive over to Holliday Park. With its impressive bluffs and meandering trails along the White River, it’s a hidden treasure within the Indianapolis parks system. Indiana tends to get lumped in with “flat as a pancake” Midwest stereotypes, but that’s only half-true – if that. The Interstate, with it preference for mundane, easy routes, has done more to slander the geography of the Midwest than anything else.
Holliday Park. (Image by Serge Melki.)
If you get out there and really explore, the Midwest is far from flat. It lacks the drama of the East and West Coasts, graced with an unassuming beauty that takes more time to appreciate, but is fully worth the effort.
Holliday Park contained one another surprise besides its terrain. A genuine Roman ruin. Why, yes – just look at those columns! Could it be that Caesar himself had stepped foot on this continent well in advance of the Pilgrims, Christopher Columbus, and Lief Erikson and made a monument to his glory, only to leave without another trace?
Well, not quite. The “Roman ruins”, it turned out, weren’t Roman at all, but rather the displaced ruins of New York City. It says something about this country that you can see both the ruins of an old empire and an empire at its peak within the span of a few hours. America is, in a sense, a succession of empires, one after another, the end result of which is the twisted, strange, and serene landscape you see before you today. How wonderful.
The columns were in fact hauled into the park back in the ’50s. Western Electric had decided to demolish the St. Paul Building in Manhattan, a skyscraper from 1898. In its infinite wisdom the company had decided at least save the facade of the building’s entrance. Western Electric held a contest for the statues, and as you might’ve guessed, Indianapolis won. The company’s decision was probably influenced by the three statues carved from real Indiana limestone that sat atop the column to bear the weight of a now nonexistant building.
(Image by IndyParksAndRec.)
The statues, or “atlantes”, represented the Caucasian, African, and Asian races, and it inspired Indianapolis artist Elmer Taflinger to incorporate the facade into a patriotic theme. He added a reflecting pool, 13 evergreens to symbolize the original colonies, statues and other classical bric-a-brac salvaged from old Indianapolis buildings, and a columnar oak for Washington DC.
Yet, in what amounts to perhaps one of the greatest ironies in American urban history, “The Ruins” – as its now known – was in a state of near ruin. Decades of neglect had left Taflinger’s masterpiece in tenuous shape. The pool was empty and tall weeds poked out wherever there was spare room. A sign begged for help: “A PRICELESS ASSET IN NEED BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE DONATE NOW”.
Fortunately, the Friends Of Holliday Park have raised quite a bit money for The Ruins, and it’s future appears to be in good hands. As we walked around the atlantes under the steely sky, their faces strained, Molly’s dad recalled taking a date here once long, long ago. I’d like to think that, soon, it’ll again be a place you’d want to take your date. Because, as we all know too well, ruin porn just doesn’t make for a classy backdrop.