Indianapolis, St. Louis and the Perception of a Successful City

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(Listen to “Lessons from Indianapolis” from St. Louis Public Radio’s St. Louis on the Air with myself and Ripley Rasmus, Senior Vice President, Director of Design at HOK as guests.)

Indianapolis is an incredible Super Bowl host city. Lucas Oil Stadium fits so well architecturally within the downtown. It’s only a seven block walk to the center of the city. Most of the city’s big hotels and restaurants are nearby. Indianapolis has a relatively compact, walkable downtown. The stadium has a Walk Score of 72. Indianapolis nailed this Super Bowl because of infrastructure. Indianapolis knocked it out of the park as host city for Super Bowl XLVI.

All of the above has been said in the past week about Indianapolis, Indiana. The city has been lauded for its hosting of sports events. This isn’t a revelation to many who have attending an NCAA Final Four, or countless Olympic trials and other events there. The city has great facilities. What’s more difficult to understand is the great chasm in rhetoric between Indianapolis and St. Louis. None of this is meant to put down Indy, but as an attempt to understand the rave reviews and why a city like St. Louis may never gain such a reputation.

Understanding expectations and preconceived identities tells us a lot. It’s much better to be dismissed as “India-no-place” than labeled as the most dangerous city in the nation. Super Bowl attendees likely had low expectations, or no expectations, for Indianapolis. They were pleasantly surprised. Even the weather cooperated. Several recent Super Bowl sites required visitors to board busses, drive or fork over a hefty ransom in cab fare to move from the stadium to hotel to other attractions. That’s the way it works in Miami, Phoenix, San Diego, etc. Super Bowls are not often held in urban stadiums.

Except for the architectural compliment above, the comments could just as well refer to St. Louis. But of course, they don’t. And to be honest, the Edwards Jones Dome isn’t the worst looking NFL stadium by quite a ways. If you stack up a list of amenities including hotels, transit, walkability, restaurants, unique attractions and more, it’s difficult to understand where the difference lies. Although a Walk Score is a less-than-perfect measure, the Edward Jones Dome scores a 92, “walker’s paradise” for its nearness to hotels, restaurants and transit. The one big difference between the cities? Circle Center Mall – think St. Louis Centre when it was shiny and new, or maybe more accurately, the Galleria downtown. Perhaps that’s a perception game-changer.

Indianapolis closed three blocks of Georgia Street that connect the Pacer’s arena with the convention center attached to Lucas Oil Stadium for the Super Bowl Village, the “Epicenter of Awesome”. The equivalent in St. Louis would be to close 8th Street from America’s Center to City Garden. Indy installed an 800 ft. zip line that allowed visitors to fly over downtown. But let’s be honest, which would you rather have one 800 ft. zip line or City Museum? The Indy airport may be a short cab ride to downtown, but MetroLink provides a connection Indy can’t offer.

The biggest issue may be that the two cities didn’t start at the same point. Indianapolis is at, or very near, its apex, not because of the Super Bowl, but because of decades of success in attracting amateur sporting events. The city sits at the geographic center of its state, the majority of the metro area is within the city limits, it’s the state capital. St. Louis, on the other hand, was this and was that and used to this and once had that…. A prime example of this mentality is Lambert International Airport which still today carries 60% more passengers than Indianapolis (6M to 3.7M in 2010), but it used to be the TWA hub!

Indianapolis has had a sports strategy and has the experience and commitment to host events (read “Naptown to Super City”: Considering the Indianapolis Sports Strategy on nextSTL). The corporate, and largely the residential, community have bought into the effort, the identity. The Super Bowl had more local volunteers than it needed. What is the identity St. Louis has constructed? In St. Louis our civic energy and leadership has other priorities: the botanical garden, the Arch, Forest Park, City Garden, Washington Avenue… The point is that St. Louis has decided to focus on other initiatives. In the end, those attractions have not produced a coherent story like the sports strategy in Indianapolis.

Every large city has a garden, parks and museums. Differentiating such amenities from other cities is much more difficult than saying, “We have the Super Bowl and no one else does.” That’s the power of sports. But does the perceived difference between Indianapolis and St. Louis matter? Sports, and the Super Bowl in particular carry enormous weight in terms of perceived success, and that perception is self-reinforcing. Indy was a great host in some part because it got the Super Bowl. Yet, in terms of direct economic benefit, St. Louis may be equally served by having booked the week-long FIRST Robotics Competition for three years (2010-2012).

Of course it’s not just robots (or competitors building robots), St. Louis has served as host to the men’s NCAA Final Four in 2005 and the women’s in 2009. The city will host its 5th of the past 9 NCAA wrestling national championships this year, and the MLB All-Star game was recently in town. Not bad at all. The problem in the end may be simply that St. Louis in competing with Indianapolis in their chosen civic focus. The nearness of the two cities doesn’t help either as the NCAA, NFL and other organizations look to move events around the country.

As one person put it to me, “Indianapolis just feels nicer than St. Louis.” But “why”? Perhaps Indianapolis has fewer vacant buildings to pass and empty neighborhoods to wander into? If so, it’s not because Indy has demolished more than St. Louis (we’ve done plenty of that), but that the city never had the building stock St. Louis continues to enjoy. Perhaps we’re a nice city still wearing a suit three sizes too large, both physically and mentally. Today’s Indianapolis fits its skin just fine.

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  • T-Leb

    I’ve never thought to go to Indy for any live music… all my friends come to StL.

  • Hasan

    Alex hit it on the head when he said “he doesnt mean to make it sound simple.” It really is that simple. City leaders/officials just dont know how to make it happen.

  • Aaron

    It can’t be understated, Indy has a big advantage over St. Louis by being the uncontested center of the state politically, the state government is much more responsive to the city’s needs. 

    Indy has also practically merged city/county government and annexed just about all of Marion county. One result appears to be that they have retained more of their big wealthy companies within the city limits. Pharmaceutical and engine manufacturing to name a couple. 

    Indy also has a better reputation within it’s own state. I’ve lived in southern Indiana for 8 months now (after 8 years in STL) and haven’t heard a single disparaging comment about the city. It appears to be a place where the young people from the smaller towns  want to be when the grow up and look for jobs. 

    St. Louis could perhaps benefit from re-establishing a positive image for itself within Missouri both to state law makers and the general public. Perhaps merging the city and county while streamlining government could be a first step. 

  • I should add that St. Louis has more than a million more people. Indy feels like a town by comparison.

  • Kansas city is quite a bit larger and certainly more interesting than indy. The quantity of parking lots in indy is just staggering to me. It is a city for people who don’t like cities.

  • Xing500

    I was in Indy the day before the Superbowl. I don’t think St Louis should be comparing itself. Indianapolis is just a different city. The first thing to take note of is that Indianapolis is not a neighborhood city. It has neighborhoods, but they’re just not on par with other midwest cities. The friends I went with noted this to me, and I saw it as well. As a result, a lot of the city’s energy goes into its downtown. Also, the downtown’s coverage is much smaller. It doesn’t take up as much space, and once again, this adds substance to the small amount it does have. I felt it was very walkable, and my only complaint was that I didn’t think there was enough to add content to the massive crowd. It was way overcrowded . Going to the bathroom was a pain – 20 minute lines, and god forbid you’re a female, where the waits were much longer. I think the one thing downtown St Louis lacks is a good shopping district, and Indy has that, but it’s a mall. We can do that, and it doesn’t have to be an indoor mall.

  • Gary Kreie

    1.  In the last CQ Press METRO, not city, crime ranking that included both St. Louis and Indianapolis, they ranked 38th worst for crime, and we ranked 103.  If we assume that their suburban crime is about the same as ours, then their core area crime must be much worse than ours to get that high of a ranking.  But we’re the crime city?  I believe St. Louis is primarily known around the country for these three things.  1. The Arch, 2. Baseball, and 3. Crime.  There is crime, but the ranking thing is completely bogus relative to other cities, yet St. Louisans themselves seem to want to believe we are the worst in crime, and cite that as why we should look down on ourselves.  That and broken windows and graffiti visible along the interstates in the city.  And we have no new skyscrapers downtown — never mind that we have two downtowns.  I don’t know if enough Countians have been downtown and other areas to see the changes in the last 10 years.

    2.  I have been a charter Rams PSL holder since 1995.  Friends that we sit with in the dome say they would dump their PSLs if the Rams go to an outdoor stadium.  Outdoors is nice in St. Louis most of the football season, but not so much in December and January.  I like parking close and eating in nearby restaurants before or after a Rams game.  I see a lot of people tailgating when I walk to the dome — there is no shortage of surface parking downtown for that.  Some of us like to walk to a place nearby after the game, such as the Casino sports restaurant, and watch the 3:00 game.  Try doing that in KC or some other stadium in a cornfield.

    Sometimes I feel that St. Louis is like the Rams in 1998 — just 4 players short of breaking out and going all the way.  Maybe we should promote our comfortable charm and maturity without all the traffic and blandness of newer cities.  We have a lot of cool things to ride here — riverboats, arch tram, light rail, golden eagle ferries, carriages (which should be pulled by Clydesdales), boathouse boats, zoo train, Amtrak, Cassilly CM slides and ferris wheel, six flags woodies, Current River canoes.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Excellent comment! The city needs its own Kurt Warner…

  • David

    Some good comments on this post.  I’ll follow up Stlgasm and Mike by agreeing that StL is a much better urban experience than Indy, having visited both cities at least twice.  But I have an annoying story. 

    Recently a friend of mine here in Virginia had the opportunity to move to StL because Wells Fargo had bought the bank her husband worked for, and Wells was paying for the relocation if they took it.  Wells gave them a trip to the city to help them decide.  They declined.  I asked why.  Well, the downtown was OK, but it’s sort of penned in by interstates, she said. 

    Ok, well, did they take you to Soulard?  What?  Never heard of it.  How about the Central West End?  Never heard of it.  The Hill?  What hill?  Forest Park?  Oh yeah, I think they mentioned that.  I didn’t bother asking about the Delmar Loop or South Grand or anything else.  She did acknowledge that you have a nice light rail system.

    Geesh folks!  This was someone from StL showing around people they wanted to move there, and they leave out 7/8 of the city!  You have a terrific city that next to no one knows anything about.  All that people here in the east know about StL is the Arch, the Cardinals, and the Clydesdales.   You really need to publicize these other areas that are away from downtown.  I mean, just Forest park alone – it’s one of the great urban parks in the nation and everything in it is FREE.  The zoo – FREE!  The art museum – FREE!  Etc etc.  Why doesn’t everyone in the US know this?  You have to tell them.

    Perhaps you need a popular reality TV show based in the city.  Top Chef St Louis – except that no one outside St Louis knows it as a foodie town either.

    • STLgasm

      That’s really infuriating, but part of the blame falls on them.  Who visits a new city and doesn’t make it a point to explore beyond the usual tourist traps?  Especially if they’re considering moving here– why wouldn’t they seek out some real neighborhoods?  In the internet age, there’s really no excuse for being so lazy and unadventurous.

      • David

        Because they weren’t looking to make a move, Wells wanted them to move.  They basically said “OK, we know next to nothing about St Louis, sell it to us”, and the Wells folks failed.  That would be OK if they had really shown them around, but even if there were time constraints and you can’t show them everything, at least talk about the CWE, Soulard, et al.  According to my friend they were never even mentioned.

        • STLgasm

          I apologize for my harsh tone, David.  You’re right– Wells-Fargo obviously failed in giving the “elevator pitch” for St. Louis.  Maybe you can contact their HR department and let them know that they are really squandering an opportunity to attract smart talent– your testimonial is a perfect example and perhaps they will learn from their mistakes.

  • STLgasm

    St. Louis on the descent is still miles ahead of Indianapolis at its apex in my opinion.  I don’t want to come across as snob, but Indy is so BLAND!  Indy at its most urban is about equivalent to Webster Groves or Brentwood (okay, maybe Maplewood in a couple pockets), but it doesn’t feel like a big city at all.  St. Louis feels hard, weathered, mature, unpolished and bitchy.  Indianapolis is painfully ordinary.

    Almost anyone who appreciates urban culture and has spent time in both cities will tell you that St. Louis is superior in almost every measurable way.  If they disagree, chances are they are suburbanites who spend their vacations at the Hard Rock Cafe or the Old Spaghetti Factory.

    • hoosieGuy

      I disagree Indy has anything st Louis can provide. Only thing I say is Indy needs more live entertainment downtown but we have a zoo,white river state park,Lucas oil with retractable roof,it’s connected to the convention center. there is the bankers life where the pacers and fever play.the ncaa hq there’s plenty of restaurants and a 4 level mall downtown. There’s mass ave,fountain square and lots of high end hotels and downtown condos and living. We have other nice place around the city like broad ripple and castleton area fishers and Carmel areas are just as nice as any place in st Louis. There’s the Indiana black expo and circle city classic so you don’t get awarded a super bowl if there’s nothing in your city.the largest JW Marriott and a Conrad I know st Louis doesn’t have a Conrad and there’s two casinos just 30min drive north and 30min east of the city

      • TJ Pan


    • TJ Pan


    • B

      You obviously haven’t been to Indianapolis it has class I’ve lived both places Indianapolis is modern and growing st Louis is dead and dying deterioration the population is abandoning st Louis look at all the empty buildings and houses sad wake up look around at what you got

  • jkf1220

    St. Louis is approaching the tipping point. I see more innovation, entrepreneurship and collaboration bubbling up than ever before. I see people who are not waiting for the economy to change or for the city and county to embrace. they are tired of being blocked by St. Louis’ low self esteem and self fulfilling myths that are an excuse for inaction and frankly irrelevant to where we want to go. I agree that our image is not consistent with reality and our marketing does not tell the story. St. LOuis has signficant assets that should be recognized and celebrated, leveraged and built upon..

  • AG

     I’d also like to see more marketing for St. Louis.  I know a lot of younger business leaders and creative minds doing great things, but where is the marketing/ads on a national level?  I know I may be missing it because I live here (so why advertise), but it would be cool to have something that says “Hey, we’re awesome and affordable.”  We need to play to our strengths and build from there.  I always thought it’d be cool to do a commercial for STL.  Something along the lines of “people say we are 2nd in crime” and then pan to multiple neighborhoods with people walking around/talking/eating.  I think we need to believe in our city/society so that others will too.  We have a lot to brag about and we should do it until they believe us.

  • Rgbose
  • matthb

    There is no way to get past the fact that St. Louis City attractions are spread out in different neighborhoods/parks, compared to a place like Indy.  The city should embrace it. 

    During the Rock n Roll marathon I talked to a lot of out of town visitors who were so impressed and surprised at how nice the neighborhoods were that they were running through, and I would argue that the selected route missed out on many additional highlights. 

    People like this stuff, but its not “perfectly centered”, they have to find it.  Let’s help them.

    How about a motto something like…
    St. Louis, your Neighborhood city

  • Mike

    Indianapolis reminds me a lot of Kansas City. It’s nice, clean and very easy to get around downtown, and reasonably cheap to reach Westport and the Plaza by cab. But, I always leave feeling like “is that it?”.

    Being a Mizzou grad, it always amazed me how many of my peers thought KC was so progressive, artistic, and “cooler” than St. Louis. After visiting a half dozen times, I just don’t see it. St. Louis is so much cooler. KC and Indy are more comfortable, new and shiny for (just my opinion) people who have little experience living in a real city. 

    But I agree, KC and Indy have done a much better job at defining themselves and fitting into their skin. They are cool places; I just think STL has much more to offer.

  • AG

    I agree with Leagle Eagle in that we really need to strengthen our neighborhoods.  Neighborhoods/cultures are one of the things that make this city great.  I’ve grown up in St. Louis (youngest of 3 generations) and it is great for me to remember how things were in the ’80s and see where we have come to now.  There is a lot of work to do, no doubt, but things are happening in a bad economy.  I’d love to see what a great economy will do to this city.  I understand comparing St. Louis to other cities for data, but all in all, I’ve been to Indy and it’s…okay.  The first thing I said was, this is it?  I expected something larger.  When I go to other cities, I OFTEN end up saying “this place is cool, but I think St. Louis has more to offer in terms of cost of living/food/art (nicer attitudes).”  I guess it just depends on what you are looking for, but if I go to a museum in Chicago I’m already down $20-30 (for parking) before I even walk into the museum.  I’m also a little burned by the fact that I have family in Indy that says Handel’s ice cream is better than Ted Drewes.  Silly hoosiers.  Thanks for the great article Alex!

  • Court S.

    I actually strongly disagree that St. Louis is trying to return to its 1904 statute. I think it is trying to grow and change organically, and needs more regional strategy and cooperation. Constantly harping on what is the mentality of St. Louis can be damaging when it prevents looking at problems with fresh and inquisitive perspectives.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I agree. I don’t think that it’s STL looking backwards, but searching for a new identity, that’s the issue. The city, physically, doesn’t fit our old bones (buildings, streets, parks, and more) and that’s a big challenge. One thing that’s clear is that Indy changed its civic mentality before how others perceived it changed.

      • Zun1026

        A challenge to finding ones self is not getting caught up in what is the mass cultural trend at the time. Seeking a new identity often leads us to change who we are, rather than evolving. I am sure this is just semantics, but I also think it is worth discussing. Sometimes I feel like St. Louis is trying too hard to change its identity, when it should be focused on evolving. 

        • Benya31

          ^^ I’d like to agree entirely. Just look at the difference between a place like St. Louis and New Orleans. (I do realize economic and geographic differences play a huge role here but stay with me) St. Louis and New Orleans both were grade A cities at one point and they’ve both fallen off. In New Orleans I feel a much bigger sense of pride and big city swagger in the people. They are New Orleanians and they’re proud of it. While in St. Louis it seems like people are also looking at people in other cities to see whats new or popular or good. For instance, and I hear this all the time, I hate when my friends go out of town and there’s some good chain restaurant and they say how much St. Louis sucks because we don’t have it, and other stupid stuff like that.

          Just imagine what the city would like today if we didn’t jump on every urban renewal trend over the past century…

          • Alex Ihnen

            I know it’s not this simple, but we’d have an incomparable warehouse district on the riverfront and a place called the Mill Creek Valley to rival any late 19th C urban scene anywhere.

          • Zun1026

            Its those sorts of things that I don’t want to loose. But, if they evolve into something new without loosing identity, then great. 

          • Noble Harvey

            Wee have plenty of places worth preserving today that we will lose if we focus on what happened in the past. Don’t write about Mill Creek Valley, write about JeffVanderLou and The Ville.

          • dempster holland

            Keeping the old Mill CreekValley would certainly retain
            the 19th century, complete with no hot water, outdoor
            privies and other quaint historic artifacts.

  • WIK

    I am a STL native “incentivized” to relocate to Indy for my employment four years ago.   Mixed emotions.   But it is rather pleasant to not endure constant city vs. county bickering here.   Everyone seems to be on the same page.   The “success” of the Super Bowl seems to provide rationalization to residents for choosing to live here.   I’ve long wondered how Indy can consider itself a true sports town without MLB or NHL teams.   

    • hoosieGuy

      Well you have to remember there’s victory field for the Indians but Indy also have the nfl combine and the indy500 and host the ncaa final four for the men and women.indy could easily accomidate a MLB but until then Indy has made its case that you can’t sleep on the city. I challenge those that aren’t from here to do your research more on the city and surrounding areas and it can hold its own against st Louis

  • Legal Eagle

    I completely agree.  St. Louis Keeps striving to return to the stature we had in 1904.  It’s time to accept where we are and strive to make St. Louis a great city for THE SIZE IT IS not what IT WAS.  If you keep trying to be a top 5 city when you are consistently much lower in population and every other metric you will fail.  STL needs neighborhood pride and needs to go from block to block working to make the city better.  Washington Ave, CHECK.  The Grove, CHECK.  Old North St. Louis, CHECK. Downtown, working on it…

  • Interesting read.  I think the comparison between the two cities is compelling.  One city seems to have reached its apex, while another city appears to be descending.  A challenge for St. Louis heading into the future appears revolves around becoming more strategic, connecting our assets, and changing the perception.