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Taking the Urban Park to New Lengths in Downtown Indianapolis

Jan Mercker

A bike and pedestrian trail has changed how locals and visitors experience downtown Indianapolis’s art and food scene

What do you do when your city has one of the best linear parks in the world? You make it longer, of course. The Indianapolis Cultural Trail is both a tourist destination and a way of life in downtown Indianapolis.

The 8-mile bike and pedestrian path in the heart of the city has boosted walkability and economic development and become a hotspot for public art. And the folks behind it are making plans to stretch it out.

“It has totally transformed downtown Indianapolis and I would argue Indianapolis in general. It has really made us a face to face city. People now are able to have a street life in Indianapolis safely and with other walk or bike or wheel or stroll,” said Kären Haley, executive director of Indianapolis Cultural Trail Inc., the nonprofit that manages the trail.

A thing to do and a way of life in downtown Indianapolis

The city launched ICT in 2007 as a way to revive downtown restaurants and retail, by bringing green spaces and public art smack into downtown Indianapolis. The idea was to create a connector among the city’s six designated cultural districts. But the trail has taken on a life — and a fanbase — of its own. It’s both a draw for visitors and a lifeline for residents.

“It’s a thing to do, but it’s also a way of life,” Haley said. “It provides a function in terms of people using it to get from point A to point B, but it’s also a destination. People come to Indianapolis to do the cultural trail and see what it is.”

Downtown Indianapolis
A slice of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. [Courtesy of Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc.]

A donation from the late Indianapolis-based philanthropists Eugene and Marilyn Glick in 2007 got the ICT rolling. The U.S. Department of Transportation gave it a big boost in 2010 with a $20.5 million grant. And over the past decade, it’s become part of the fabric of the community.

Locals routinely go a few blocks out of their way to walk on the trail as they head to work or run errands. There’s an elementary school right on the trail and families have long used it to walk their kids to school, Haley says. But it’s also a big draw for tourists. The trail is dotted with plenty of cool attractions and social media-worthy photo ops. And public art, along with the trail’s gorgeous gardens, plays an essential role.

A commitment to public art — and keeping ‘Ann Dancing’

From the outset, bringing public art to downtown Indianapolis was part of ICT’s mission. The nonprofit started with a $2 million public art budget, and many of the first installations are site-specific commissions integrated with the experience of the trail.

Community and visitor favorites along the trail include Jamie Pawlus’ interactive “Care/Don’t Care” sculpture. It plays off the traditional Walk/Don’t Walk pedestrian sign. Colorado-based M12 Studio’s “Prairie Modules” connect Indiana’s rural landscape to downtown Indianapolis with architectural sculptures featuring prairie grass and solar panels. And the Glick Peace Walk, sponsored by the trail’s benefactors, is made up of 12 sculptural gardens. The gardens celebrate notable humans, from Susan B. Anthony to Martin Luther King Jr.

Then there’s the city’s most recognized piece of public art. The electronic sculpture “Ann Dancing.” The work by British artist Julian Opie was one of the first pieces installed on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. The four-sided electronic sculpture is focused on a figure, affectionately known as Ann, making  rhythmic movements. 

Downtown Indianapolis
The “Ann Dancing” sculpture in downtown Indianapolis is a favorite destination along the 8-mile Indianapolis Cultural Trail. The Looking Through Windows sculpture along the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. [Courtesy of Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc.]

“She had become our city’s most iconic art piece,” Haley said. “People go to Chicago and get their picture taken outside Cloudgate..and we have Ann. That’s the piece that really resonates with people.”

When the electronic sculpture started showing some wear and tear a decade after its installation in 2008, the ICT worked with Opie’s studio to make technical upgrades to the piece. The nonprofit crowdfunded $250,000 for the work with the popular the Keep Ann Dancing campaign, complete with its own hashtag, #keepanndancing.

Expanding with purpose — and more art

ICT is currently working on plans to expand the trail with a focus on the city’s Black history. The expansion will connect the linear park with downtown Indianapolis’ Indiana Avenue Cultural District.

The district includes a vibrant historically Black neighborhood and is home to the Madam Walker Legacy Center. The center is the former headquarters of Madam CJ Walker Hair Care and Beauty Products. It’s now a nonprofit theater and cultural center. It celebrates the noted African American entrepreneur Madam CJ Walker, the nation’s first documented female self-made millionaire.

Now, Indiana Avenue is also home to the city’s Black Lives Matter mural, created this year as artists and protestors around the country responded to the murder of George Floyd. Both the city’s Black History and the current cultural context will influence public art planned for the extension, Haley said.

Downtown Indianapolis
The Looking Through Windows sculpture along the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. [Courtesy of Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc.]

“We’re thinking about how we can use the history and culture of Indiana Avenue in particular and how to weave that into how the art works on the expansion.”

ICT is beginning the public engagement process to determine what public art on the expanded trail will look like. Most of the current pieces are permanent, but organizers are considering adding more temporary installations as the expansion comes online. And Haley wants to make sure there’s a place for both local and national/international artists.

“We want to make sure we provide a canvas for both experienced and emerging artists,” she said.

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Keeping Indy rolling through COVID

As COVID changes the patterns of daily life for all Americans, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail has become an invaluable resource, both for city residents and regional tourists from all over central Indiana looking for things to do outside. 

“It’s both that backyard linear park for people who live downtown or for people who work in our service industry whose restaurants have opened up,” Haley said. “People are still using it to get to their destinations but it’s also become more of a regional destination.”

Downtown Indianapolis
The 8-mile Indianapolis Cultural Trail has changed how locals and visitors experience downtown Indianapolis’ art and food scene. [Courtesy of Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc.]

The drive to get outside has also created a bump for the booming ICT-run Indiana Pacers Bikeshare program, launched in 2014 in partnership with the city. The program now has 525 bikes available to check out and return at 50 stations in downtown Indianapolis. Last year, ICT expanded the bike share program outside of downtown on paths along the city’s extended Greenways trail network.

“The trail truly has transformed how people get around downtown…Now there are bikes everywhere,” Haley said.

The bikes are popular with residents and visitors looking to spend time outdoors during the pandemic, she adds, but they’re also being used as a COVID-safe alternative to public transportation.

The beauty of the ICT, Haley says, is the flexibility and integration with downtown Indianapolis. Folks can walk the entire 8 miles as a planned outing or simply hop on for a few blocks of beauty as they head to work or school.

“It starts wherever you get on and it stops where you get off because there are no designated entrances or exits,” she said. “Your journey starts where you want it to.”

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