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Downtown Indy trail connects venues

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Cyclists ride along the Indy Cultural Trail on Alabama Street. The trail was designed to connect the city's cultural districts together. With lanes for bicyclists and pedestrians, decorative pavers and landscaped gardens, the trail has been a key factor in promoting the city as a cultural and artistic destination. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Cyclists ride along the Indy Cultural Trail on Alabama Street. The trail was designed to connect the city's cultural districts together. With lanes for bicyclists and pedestrians, decorative pavers and landscaped gardens, the trail has been a key factor in promoting the city as a cultural and artistic destination. SUBMITTED PHOTO

While walking the Indy Cultural Trail, pedestrians will encounter animated public art, world-class sculptures and an installation using smell to create art.

They can catch jazz at Madame Walker Theater then walk or bike a short distance to the Old National Centre for a concert by Harry Connick Jr., Steely Dan or the National.

Along an eight-mile stretch of walkway through downtown Indianapolis, small galleries tout local painters and sidewalk cafés showcase up-and-coming musicians.

After six years of construction, the Indy Cultural Trail enables people to discover the best Indianapolis has to offer in art, music and performance theater. Joggers, walkers and cyclists can get from art sculptures to concert amphitheaters to gallery openings, all by following a single walkway.

Organizers intended to create a link to significant areas throughout Indianapolis. They’ve achieved that but also helped incubate a creative spirit unique to the city.

“We wanted to connect the cultural districts but also make us more known as connected and bicycle friendly,” said Kären Haley, executive director of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. “You can travel whether on foot or by bicycle or by skateboard, whatever you got. It makes it an exciting and beautiful journey all at once.”

The cultural trail idea took root about 10 years ago, as city leaders started planning and looking at a system of dividing the city into cultural districts, Haley said.

Neighborhoods that had been assimilated into the fabric of downtown Indianapolis were encouraged to market themselves with an identity, to help with tourism.

Arts supporters in the city liked the idea but had a complaint — the districts were not connected in any way.

“People were concerned how a visitor would get from the canal to Fountain Square, or Mass Ave to the other districts,” Haley said.

Inspired by Monon Trail

Brian Haley, CEO and president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, was biking on the Monon Trail when he came up with a potential solution.

The Monon Trail is a major greenway running north to south from downtown Indianapolis to Carmel. Haley wondered if city leaders could create a pedestrian walkway and bicycle path weaving through the city, connecting all of the cultural districts.

Public meetings and planning lasted for many years as organizers planned a workable route. Streets needed to be widened, underground water and electrical conduits had to be moved or renovated.

The trail winds along a combination of Indianapolis’ busiest streets, through parks and into small neighborhoods. People go from Washington Street just south of Monument Circle to IUPUI’s campus and along the downtown canal.

Organizers had hoped to get ideas from other cities on where the trail should go. But they found that nothing like they were trying to do quite existed, Haley said.

“They were setting the bar in Indianapolis as the model for urban design, and it’s true,” she said.

Construction started in 2007, and finished early this year. Along the way, planners found ways not only to make the trail functional, trail planners wanted to make it aesthetically beautiful.

Colored pavers, distinct signs and markers and native Indiana plants turn plain concrete sidewalks into street-side oases. Stainless steel benches and bike racks give people a place to stop and relax.

Most importantly, they wanted original, one-of-a-kind art installations leading pedestrians along the route.

Art as part of trail

Mindy Taylor-Ross, the curator for art on the trail, put out a worldwide call for pieces of large, public art.

When artists were chosen for the projects, they were given the opportunity to walk the trail and choose the most fitting location for their pieces, Taylor-Ross said.

“Swarm Street” was installed in the tunnel along Virginia Avenue by Acconsi Studio of New York City. The idea was to use more than 1,000 LED lights to create the effect of fireflies swarming around pedestrians as they go through the purple-tinted darkness.

“Ann Dancing” has become one of the city’s most well-known landmarks. Sitting at the intersection of three main streets in the Mass Ave district, the LED display shows a simple figure of a woman swaying to an easy beat.

A series of bus shelters, stylishly designed with curved recycled ecoresin panels, are engraved with the original words of local poets.

“The art really is a part of the trail. It’s not something that you walk past or that is next to the trail. The pieces envelop the entire trail,” she said. “Some of the pieces go over the trail, some are on top of it. Some are scented art, so it’s a smell as you walk past the trail.”

Some of the art blends into the surroundings so well it is difficult to distinguish. Jamie Pawlus designed his piece “Care/Don’t Care” to resemble a pedestrian walk sign. The display changes from saying “Care” or “Don’t Care” throughout the day.

“Chatham Passage” is actually installed in a historic alley that the trail follows. The sensory experience features lighting on the sides and hanging above the alley. Sunken into the brick alley is a mechanized vault that releases a floral scent occasionally.

Artist Sean Derry wanted something that blended into the surroundings but also delighted anyone who moved through the space. Researching the neighborhood, he learned that the Real Silk Hosiery Mill had operated in the area, so he felt it fit into his plan.

“My projects are pretty research heavy. Walking that northeast corner of the trail, I was drawn to that. It was very captivating space but also had some design issues to get people back there and make it safe,” Derry said. “The challenges of the trail going through the alley became a very interesting aspect of it.”

‘It’s a fun journey’

In addition to works commissioned specifically for the trail, the route winds past existing pieces of artwork other groups have done. Along Indiana Avenue, they can pass by a sprawling mass of trumpets, trombones, sousaphones and other instruments recognizing the area’s jazz history.

Sculptures, memorials and multimedia projects dot the route along Mass Ave.

“It keeps people guessing. It’s a fun journey, and a destination in itself. But if you’ve never been on the trail, it’s a surprise,” Haley said. “There’s always something new to look at and always something do.”

While the trail has helped beautify and connect areas of the city, it also has become an economic generator in those cultural district, Haley said. Retail businesses, restaurants, bars and other businesses have inquired about setting up along the trail route.

Heartland Truly Moving Pictures, organizers of the annual Heartland Movie Festival, was looking for a new headquarters in 2011.

While a number of locations appealed to the group, they checked to see which neighborhoods would give them the greatest visibility among the arts community.

They found an ideal space in Fountain Square, where the trail runs right past their storefront windows, said Tim Irwin, artistic director for Heartland Truly Moving Pictures.

With the bulk of the trail done, city leaders and trail organizers are pausing to determine what needs to be done next. Discussions are in place on where the trail could expand, Haley said.

Also, officials intend to use the trail as a venue for community events, staging concerts, get-togethers and other ways to bring people together along the trail route.

“We want there to be something new every time you turn a corner,” Haley said.

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