|An Italian Poster for "Winning"|
Yesterday, the world focused on the city of Indianapolis for the second time this year. The Superbowl was played there a few months ago. And on Sunday, there was the running of the Indianapolis 500, the “granddaddy” of auto racing, as it was once called. It is also called the “Greatest Spectacle of Racing,” drawing as many as 400,000 spectators, roughly 10 times that of the Superbowl.
It is a big event, an international event. Racing enthusiast Paul Newman once made a movie about the race, called Winning. And the race itself attracts not only international racing champions but also celebrities from around the world. When I lived in the “Circle City,” I attended with my father, who considered it a challenge to sneak into the track on race day. An otherwise law-abiding and honorable man he did so in his early days when he was impoverished. Despite the fact that he could afford it later and against increasing odds of getting caught through better security, my father refused to give up the tradition. We would sneak in and make our way to the infield where amidst the circus-like environment (this area inside the track was also called “the snake pit) we weren’t likely to be tracked down.
In honor of the celebration of this Midwestern City, I’d like to call your attention to my hometown. Long ago Booth Tarkington wrote his famous book, The Magnificent Ambersons (later a movie), which focused on the wealthy class that lived in an area known as Woodruff Place. That area of the city, though no longer the home of the city’s current upper crust, still exists — wide streets with center strips of grass and sculptured fountains. The homes, many of them subdivided for inexpensive apartments years ago suggest an earlier grandeur. And, in fact, many are being restored. Kurt Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis. His family ran a chain of hardware stores. Wes Montgomery, considered one of the greatest jazz guitarists that ever lived, anchored Indiana Avenue, the city’s premiere black neighborhood. Some disreputable business folks tore down chunk of this historic district. However, there are bits and pieces left near downtown, including the Madame Walker Theater. Born in 1867, Madam C. J. Walker was one of the country’s first successful black businesswomen. She started a cosmetics company in Indianapolis and went on to develop a line of popular beauty products. She later became a philanthropist, using her wealth to advance the NAACP and the YMCA.
Comedian David Letterman as well as actors James Dean and Clifton Webb were also born in what used to be the nation’s largest inland city as was John Dillinger and Dan Quayle.
|The First of the Samson Novels|
Because this is a crime fiction blog, it’s important we mention a few mystery writers who continue to use Indianapolis as a setting. The first is Michael Z. Lewin. Lewin may have invented the regional private eye series with his creation of Indianapolis-based Albert Samson in 1971. The fictional Samson lived in Fountain Square, another fascinating city neighborhood. Until that time, private eyes only walked the streets of metropolises like New York, L.A. and San Francisco. The most recent to use of Indianapolis as a backdrop is screenwriter David Levien, who has had a couple of best sellers with his character Frank Behr. As for me, why have a blog if I can’t engage in a bit of self-promotion. The 10 novels I’ve written about a P.I. named “Deets” Shanahan take place in Indianapolis. And I’ve just finished a novella with Shanahan at the fore. (More on that later.)
I was back in Indianapolis from time to time — when I can. I was fortunate enough to get back for the 15th Annual Magna Cum Murder Conference, sponsored by Ball State University in nearby Muncie. (S.J. Rozan is the guest of honor this coming October). It is a wonderful and intimate conference. And in 2009, I was a panelist at Bouchercon, the Mystery Writers of America’s major mystery conference (3,000 or so writers and fans), held that year in Indianapolis.
|Indianapolis Public Library, Central Branch|
What I discovered when I went back was a city that has continued to take its once neglected downtown very seriously. Instead of a parade of chain restaurants, which used to be the situation, there were a number of fine new eateries, new hotels and all sorts of interesting nightlife. The Massachusetts Avenue area continues to add a distinctive and exciting flavor to the city once called “Naptown.” The city also hosts a fine zoo, an increasingly bustling and beautiful area area along the canal, museums, and, my all-time favorite — the Indianapolis Public Library. The central branch was my resource, inspiration and hideaway during my young adult years. Their recent expansion shows how modern and traditional could blend in a splendid way.
Thanks for reading my less than poetic ode. It just seemed appropriate to honor my hometown on its grandest day of the year and where my first published book took place. By the way, it used to be considered rude to call Indianapolis, “Indy.” I think those days have passed. It’s a tribute to its reemergence as a destination. However, of my current town, San Francisco, it’s still not all right to call it “Frisco.”