When you’re privileged, you get to choose more of your tradeoffs

Unfurling the Indianapolis flag
Apple iPhone 12 mini, 2023

Indianapolis has a really good city flag. Vexillologists — people who study flags — agree. The North American Vexillological Society rates the Indianapolis flag as eighth best city flag in the nation, behind Washington, Chicago, Denver, Phoenix, St. Louis, Wichita, and Portland.

This fellow unfurled the Indianapolis flag after the city’s soccer team, the Indy Eleven, scored a goal in a game. Margaret and I were there to watch.

We live in the suburbs now, but before we married I lived in Indianapolis for 25 years. It’s the place I lived the longest, and I miss it.

That’s not to say I loved Indy from the moment I moved there. It took me a long time to adjust to living in Indianapolis. It was the largest city I’d ever lived in, and there was a lot to get used to. There was an ease about life in the small cities I’d lived in before. I was used to being able to zip to the grocery store for a needed item in twenty minutes round trip. But from where I lived in Indianapolis, that trip was always an hour because things were farther away and traffic was always heavy.

Holy cow, the traffic in Indianapolis. There was always so much of it, and it moved so fast! Lots of roads are multi-lane arteries. To get places fast, you have to use the Interstate highways that ring and cross the city. I am an anxious driver, and was triply so when I moved to Indy so many years ago. Driving around town was nerve-wracking. It took me a full ten years to feel comfortable navigating my city in my car.

But unlike the sleepier cities of my younger years, there was so much to do in Indianapolis! We have major-league football and basketball teams, minor-league baseball and soccer teams, a symphony, a repertory theater, a thriving bar scene, lots of terrific restaurants, and excellent shopping. I’ve enjoyed all of it in my time here.

I moved to Zionsville when Margaret and I married because her youngest son was finishing high school here. This is a northwest suburb of Indianapolis and highly regarded. Its center, which everyone here calls “the Village,” is charming as hell. Margaret and I love going there on random evenings for a walk and maybe some dinner and a drink.

It’s also a crazy expensive place to buy a house compared to the rest of Indiana. We can’t afford a house in the Village, so we live in one of the many subdivisions that push past it to the west. Ours is one of the farthest away from the Village — house prices rise proportionally to how easy it is to walk to the Village. For us, that walk is six miles.

Where we are, it’s all vinyl villages, big-box stores, and strip shopping centers. If you’ve seen one new suburb, you’ve seen them all.

But counterintuitively, this is the most walkable place I’ve ever lived. Our subdivision is behind a couple of shopping strips. We can walk to the stores in them in as little as ten minutes. In the strip closes to our home there’s a breakfast and lunch diner, a Mexican restaurant, a Thai place, and two pubs. The pharmacy where my prescriptions are filled is a couple minutes farther out. A little beyond that is a grocery store and a hardware store — both big-box retailers, not charming little local businesses, but they’re there and I can walk to them.

I haven’t lived in a neighborhood this walkable since I was a kid, and even then that place was a tenacious vestige of a passing era. From the same house today there’s nothing to walk to, and hasn’t been for decades.

There are walkable neighborhoods in Indianapolis, but thanks to gentrification, home prices are higher than Margaret and I are willing to pay. Outside those traditional neighborhoods, a lot of Indianapolis actually has a suburban feel to it. My last house in Indianapolis was built in 1969 on a large lot in a subdivision off a main road. I needed a car to get anywhere. Even if there were somewhere to walk to, the main road had no path for pedestrians.

I want that small-city ease of my younger years, with big-city amenities and excellent walkability. In other words, I’m searching for a purple unicorn.

Margaret and I have dreamed for years of where we’ll live after the last of our kids finally moves out. I’ve badly wanted to return to Indianapolis and buy a big, older home in a neighborhood that hasn’t fully gentrified yet.

But the other day as we walked over to one of the pubs near our home, it dawned on me that I have a lot of what I want right here. The big-city amenities are farther away, but we can still access them. Traffic here isn’t as heavy as in the city. We can walk to so many good things. And for the first time in my life, I can take long bike rides in the country with only the occasional passing car to bother me. But to keep all of this I have to live in one of these ill-built, vinyl-covered spec houses.

We are privileged — we can choose so many of our tradeoffs. It wasn’t that long ago when I didn’t make remotely enough money to live even in a vinyl village in Zionsville. That’s why I lived in the old suburban part of Indianapolis rather than in one of the more established and connected city neighborhoods. I had to go where I could afford to be, and my options were much more sharply limited. I lived where I had to, and I had to make the best of it.

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23 responses to “When you’re privileged, you get to choose more of your tradeoffs”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Having lived all over the country, I’m done commenting on Indiana and Indianapolis. Those who know me know how I feel. Life is getting too short for me to fight jingoism amongst the inexperienced. It is quite sociologically untenable.

    I will say that Zionsville is one of the top five places I’ve lived. It was safe, walkable all over (I lived just 2 blocks north of downtown), and had a good selection of goods and services. I used to get home from work, and unless I was going to the Jazz Kitchen Sobro, never left the town, or even got in my car, and rarely left on the weekend. Had a killer small town library just two blocks from me that I used almost daily, and an aquatic center I was just about to try out. It also had free music days in Lincoln Park on days during the summer (I met the woman that ran that, and she was a delight), as well as being far more arts oriented that the rest of Indiana combined, including Carmel, which was touting itself as an “arts” area and was most certainly not, and mostly about fake arts commerce. The same woman was either running this, or told me about them taking the poetry contest winners from the high school and casting their verse in cement and putting it around a small park on the south side of town. It also had a nice diner style restaurant that was about the only place that had what I would call Midwest breakfast, as well as a bar, the Friendly, which was as close to a Chicago/Milwaukee corner bar as any place in Indiana was going to get. You can tell when the grannies are lining up for their old- fashioneds on a Friday night.

    Was it expensive? Maybe, but if you were not from Indy, it seemed reasonable, especially considering the ridiculous property tax, which was only 1 percent, less than half the property tax where I live now (no wonder the roads are crap). Back then, I could have afforded a small house still in the village, but on the south west side of town. What made it so nice? For me, no contest; the people I met were either educated school teachers that had been there for decades, people NOT from Indy and there for a job, or “euros” that lived there and were working at Eli Lily or Dow Chemical, or another of the international companies. I even lived in an apartment building owned by one of the old families of Zionsville, and filled with some of their retired “townie” friends, who were also a delight. It was definitely far, far sociologically different from the rest of what I knew about Indy, from living in the city for two years.

    Downsides? You better be willing to drink the “stepford” coolaid. Every election I voted in, besides president and governor, in other words, all the local and county elections, had zero democratic opposition! Literally! The ballots had a choice of the republican incumbent, no democrat, and a write in spot! In 50 years of voting, I never saw that! I also met a medico who relocated for a job from Austin Texas, and immediately her very sweet daughter was being bullied at the local Zionsville high school (because she was “different”), and the administration wouldn’t do anything about it, told her she didn’t have to send her kid there! Again, unheard of. She got a new job, and relocated to Bloomington literally a few months after moving to the state.

    Why did I leave? I was actually mulling over retirement in Zionsville, but got let go in the first wave of layoffs for a company that actually brought me down from Chicago to fix their department. More layoffs followed until the company was sold on with only half their employees. Had never moved my storage space down to Indy, so, there were just better places to go.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Zionsville does have its dark side, and one of them is a certain conformity. Some of Margaret’s kids experienced bullying and other poor treatment in Zionsville schools because they didn’t fit the cookie-cutter mold. Going to high-school events here I can see just how much every kid wants to look and behave like every other kid to this standard. It’s disturbing.

      But as nearly empty nesters now there’s a lot to be said for living in the village. Trouble is, even though we make very good money, the only houses truly within our budget are too small. If we got lucky with the right house and were willing to stretch our budget by as much as an additional 25%, we could probably do it. We could probably qualify for that loan, but it would result in a house payment that makes us trade away some other things we want out of our lives just for the charm of the village.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        I’d be a liar if I didn’t say there are still times I think about calling my old Zionsville landlord and drinking the cool aid!

      2. Warren W Jenkins Avatar
        Warren W Jenkins

        Maybe Zionsville is the inspiration for RUSH’s “Subdivisions”
        “Conform or be cast out”

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I hear Geddy Lee lived here for a couple years in the 80s! 😉

          1. Rush Rox Avatar
            Rush Rox

            Being a huge Rush fan, I would love to know where you heard that about Geddy! (The next time I see him, I’ll ask him about that!)

            However, it might interest you to know that long-time friend of the band, fellow Canadian, and the creator of much of Rush’s album art, Hugh Syme settled in central Indiana. Ironically, Hugh does live in a subdivision, albeit a serene one with comfortably-sized wooded lots.

            1. Jim Grey Avatar

              Of all the places on Earth to choose, I wonder what made him choose central Indiana!

              1. Rush Rox Avatar
                Rush Rox

                I can’t say for certain, but I think it was his fondness for a lady friend that drew him here. And his fondness for his offspring that keeps him here.

  2. tbm3fan Avatar

    I currently live in Concord CA which is about 35-38 miles as the crow flies east of San Francisco across the bay and 30 miles east of Oakland. From central Concord I am 1.25 miles so an easy walk of bike to Todos Santos Square. Most everything else is maybe a 10 minute drive except work which is a 30-40 minute drive for 14 miles. This place is comfortable and turns out very central for my wife and her Filipina network of friends.

    Now San Francisco is a much bigger city than Indy and I lived 10 years in one of her districts. We note the city by districts such as Outer Sunset, Inner Sunset, Outer Richmond, Inner Richmond, Marina, Excelsior, Upper Market, South of Market, Downtown, Sea Cliff, and so forth. I lived in the Outer Richmond which is straight out Geary, to the west, from downtown by about 4 miles. You could walk or bus to downtown. I was on 20th Avenue and at 48th Avenue you were at Land’s End and Ocean Beach. South of me, by 4 blocks, was Golden Gate Park. Bike down to the ocean, through the park and you could turn south and reach Fort Funston along the coast. North of me by 5 blocks was the west end of the Presidio. Bike to the Presidio and you could be on the Golden Gate Bridge over to Marin County and Sausalito or Fort Baker.

    My produce store was 1 block away, barber 1 block, the USPS 2 blocks, an actual butcher 4 blocks, the hardware store 5 blocks, my bagel shop 5 blocks, my coffee shop 4 blocks. Being near Geary between 16th to 25th Avenues was great. I lived 1/2 block off Geary. Now the only downsides was the commute across the Bay but that was choice. Two, you can’t have 10 cars. Three, the foggy weather takes getting used to in the summer and the fog can really blow in down Geary at night. Yet, also at night one could hear the fog horns and get a whiff of salt air. As far as safety I always felt safe. I do miss The City but while good for my photography hobby it is not good for my car hobby nor a hour plus commute at my age today.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The city life you describe sounds terrific. But yes, there are tradeoffs for sure.

  3. Darts and Letters Avatar
    Darts and Letters

    It sounds like Zionsville checks quite a few boxes for you, particularly the walkability in the immediate vicinity of where you live. I’m not sure about living so close to all the big-box stuff, that would be really hard for me because to me those places symbolize the deterioration of long-term healthy communities from an economic and cultural perspective. For that reason, my vote would be for an older, more established neighborhood someplace else. Yet it sounds like there are other vital things mixed into the area around you, gathering places like pubs and eateries. When you walk around just the residential part of your neighborhood, do you have opportunities to bump into people for chit-chat, at all?

    Are you six miles round-trip from the Village, or is that one way?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      In most of the Midwest, there aren’t older, established neighborhoods. There are older neighborhoods that have declined such that the people are in poverty and it’s dangerous to live there, or older neighborhoods that have gentrified and as such have become out of reach for my wife and me. We might be able to land in an older neighborhood with limited or poor walkability at the price we’re willing to pay.

      Six miles one way.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Jim, ditto almost everywhere, certainly Milwaukee, Chicago, and Minneapolis. There are old “carriage trade” neighborhoods with 1920’s beautifully built homes being kept up by the wealthy, and pushing close to, or well over, 7 figures, and the rest is dangerous and run down. The middle class left for the ‘burbs starting in the late 70’s, unfortunately in not very well built homes, but at least in safe neighborhoods with the ability to “night walk”. I’m amazed at how this has accelerated just since the late 90’s! The recent scandal where I live, which is on the edge of an upper middle class first ring suburb, is a double sized ranch home, which is pretty much “meh”, just closed for 1.2 mil! No one can believe it, especially since home loans are floating around 7%!

        1. Darts and Letters Avatar
          Darts and Letters

          That’s disappointing to hear about Milwaukee, i.e., the price of housing, I must be being willfully naive, there’s plenty of evidence of America’s national housing crisis. I guess in my mind I think of Milwaukee as a more blue collar city and more affordable. My younger son and I spent a night in Milwaukee this summer, explored a little bit through neighborhoods on our way to a Brewers game. I was trying to imagine myself living there. We always take the Lake Express ferry to my parents’ (they live on the other side of the lake in MI) instead of driving down through Chicago.

          1. Andy Umbo Avatar
            Andy Umbo

            D&L, the blue collar was starting to get wiped out after the Arab Oil embargo of the late 70’s. In the 80’s, most Union jobs had their unions broken, and what little factory there was after that point moved to “right to work” republican enclaves like Indiana and Ohio. (BTW, Masterlock just announced they are shutting down, the last manufacturer in the city) On top of this, there was a very autodidactic German blue collar that sent their baby boomer kids to college, so that they could have “clean” jobs; and most of them bugged out for the coasts by 1980 since there were literally zero jobs being created for college grads in Milwaukee! Jobs that had been created for college educated baby-boomers were all taken up by the leading edge of boomers that were born from 1944 to about 1950, after that point, you were lucky to get anything. My four years in Indiana in the mid twenty teens were interesting, because almost my entire staff of twenty something’s were first gen college in their families, literally something like three generations or more behind what was going on in Chicago and Milwaukee, where the first gen college educated are well into their 70’s now!

            There was an article written in the Milwaukee paper not that long ago saying that there hasn’t been an apartment complex built since 2018 that doesn’t rent for 2k a month or more, and yet Milwaukees average household income is over 10k less than the national average! My brother is in a middle class professional suburb with 1920’s houses, and he bought his house maybe a little over a decade ago for 115k, and a single family down the block from him just went for 530k! Milwaukee is fast losing it as expenses for living, and crazy taxes and fees are far outstripping salaries!

            BTW, if you were in town for a Brewers game, you probably drove near my apartment; I live about 15 minutes from the “yard”. As far as the Brewers go, don’t be surprised if they leave. The tri county area was screwed royally 20 years ago for using tax funds to build millionaires a new stadium, which made us open to ridicule nationally for being that stupid, and now the millionaires club is fishing for another 290 million for upgrades. Everyone here is vowing to kick everyone out of office that votes for that, and sue the county if they try and tax us again!

            1. Darts and Letters Avatar
              Darts and Letters

              A.B. thanks for your thoughts. That’s a pity about Masterlock. Regarding the Brewers, indeed I was shocked recently to hear of Brewer ownership’s discontent with the current state of the stadium. The idea of obsolescence gone truly mad…..

      2. Darts and Letters Avatar
        Darts and Letters

        I appreciate your insight, Jim. In my mind, I guess I made an incorrect assumption that once you get away from the more expensive coastal cities, there’s more of a range of decent, affordable neighborhoods that existed in mid sized and big cities. To wit, I was really discouraged this summer at how economically depressed and rundown parts of Muskegon were, that’s the lakefront town by my mom and dad that I’ve sometimes dreamed of moving back to when I’m older. It’s always been a pretty hardscrabble, forgotten-about sort of place but parts of it have gotten even worse. My only other main point of reference for mid-sized cities is Grand Rapids (MI), I was pleasantly surprised at how many nice working class or middle class-feeling neighborhoods seem to exist. Maybe they’re more expensive than I realize.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          There are probably some cities where affordable and safe neighborhoods with good amenities exist. Heaven knows I haven’t been to every city in the Midwest! Maybe Grand Rapids is a shining star – that would be nice.

          I’ve been to Muskegon! But it was when I was a kid in the 70s. My grandparents took my brother and I on a vacation, and we drove up the Lake Michigan coast up to Manistee. Muskegon was one of the places we stopped for the night.

          1. Andy Umbo Avatar
            Andy Umbo

            Grand Rapids has a hell of a good jazz radio station as well, Blue Lake Public Radio…. Believe it of not, there are some nights I pick it up in Milwaukee on the “skip”!

  4. Jim Hanes Avatar

    Looks just a little bit like the flag of Cuba.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Same colors and some similar imagery, yes.

  5. Khürt Williams Avatar

    I had never known the term vinyl village before but yet I understood what you meant as soon as I read it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I stole that term from somewhere – I had the same experience the first time I heard it.

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