Erika D. Smith: With new president, University of Indianapolis to take active role in shaping image, future of Southeastside


Erika Smith is a columnist for the Indianapolis Star. This article appeared on March 16, 2013. Reprinted with permission. Photos: Vision 2030 strategic planning sessions included all University constituents as well as members of the community.

Parents-meeting-009When I first moved to Indianapolis, one of the earliest bits of advice I received was this: Don’t go to the Southside. Where exactly on the Southside, I have no idea. Why I shouldn’t go, I don’t know that either—other than a vague rumor about racism.

I don’t put much stock in rumors. But even now, even though I have plenty of friends who live south of Washington Street, the Southside to me still has a nebulous quality about it. For those who don’t live in Beech Grove or Greenwood or close to Garfield Park, it’s a side of our city with an identity defined more by rumors and misperceptions than reality. So I had to laugh when moments after meeting Robert Manuel, the new president of the University of Indianapolis, he asked me: “How do you define the Southside?” Apparently satisfied with my non-answer response, he replied: “That’s good context because I have a hard time defining where we are. The Southside and the Northside, they seem so far apart in people’s heads, but they’re really 10 to 15 minutes away if you’re driving. And I don’t know where we are because we’re kind of close to the urban core, but we’re not quite in it. We’re not really as ‘Southside’ as people think in their minds.”

Manuel, who left Georgetown University last summer to take over UIndy, has stepped into an area of the city with an identity crisis. Or maybe just a public relations problem. Either way, he sees it as an opportunity to raise the profile of both the university and the surrounding community. That, in turn, will surely reshape public perceptions of at least the Southeast corner of the city.“We need to be institutionally competitive,” he said, “and I don’t mean just the university. I mean this area.”

What will that look like?

Alumni-meetings-184Well, for one thing, UIndy will become more of an anchor than an island. The university has operated in the same spot on the Southeastside for more than 100 years. But residents in surrounding neighborhoods, such as University Heights and Carson Heights, tend to see it as a place where students go, not a place where they have a reason to go. UIndy isn’t seen as a resource for things other than an education. Changing that will mean new initiatives, such as leveraging UIndy’s nursing school to attract a new health facility to the Southeastside. Or tapping students majoring in education to convene teachers from local schools to tackle big problems. Or providing fitness activities and other programming at a nearby city park. UIndy students would gain something from each of these initiatives and so would the community.

“This has to be an anchor of resources for everything that’s around here, because there’s no other entity or institution that’s quite as large, and consumes as many goods and services, and employs as many people,” Manuel said. Which brings me to the economic development piece of this Southside puzzle. Unlike the Northside of Indianapolis, the neighborhoods south and east of Fountain Square don’t have a community clearinghouse to work with city officials to get big projects off the ground. Concord Community Development Corp. went belly up last year, and in its wake, left a vacuum of leadership.Manuel wants UIndy to fill that vacuum, acting with and as a steward for residents. He is in talks with commercial and residential developers in hopes of landing a few projects that will create more density through population growth. Decades ago, 50 or 60 faculty members lived just blocks away in University Heights. Today, only five or six live there. In short, Manuel wants to create a thriving, sustainable university community, one that will complement efforts to revitalize the Madison Avenue retail corridor.

“It’s not about the university putting up five-story buildings. It’s not razing houses and making them different,” he said. “It’s giving people a reason to come back.”

If Manuel seems to have bold ideas for a newcomer, don’t be surprised. While at Georgetown, he worked with former—and very transformative—Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut on creating an urban planning program at the university’s School of Continuing Studies.All he knew of Indianapolis before stepping off the plane for an interview here were the stories Hudnut told him of the city’s amazing growth. Now that he’s here with his wife and children, he says he’s committed to Indianapolis for the long haul.

“There’s an opportunity here but it’s not going to be ‘The Southside,’ which is this massive, massive plot of land. Because Indianapolis in the north is not ‘The Northside.’ If you go to Carmel, you go to Carmel. If you go to Broad Ripple, you go to Broad Ripple. But everybody says ‘The Southside,’ and that’s two million square feet of land. So we need to focus on the space for us.”