Branding the boundary-line: when one side of the border crossing builds a landmark…and absorbs all the monumentality.

Author’s Note: This article on a landmark was originally intended for Urban Indy, but technical problems at that site prevent its publishing. I will link this article to the intended source once we are able to address those problems.

The City of Indianapolis deploys the word “monument” far more than most American cities, and not without good reason.  Most metrics indicate that it has the second highest concentration of memorials, landmarks, and civic plazas (behind only our nation’s capitol), and the landmark that gives the city its well-defined absolute center—the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument—comprises a geometrically precise plaza that almost every local calls “Monument Circle”, which logically feeds into the casual sobriquet “Circle City”.  Indy’s popular marathon takes the name “Monumental”, not only as a hat-tip to the city’s numerous prodigious monuments (many constructed out of Indiana limestone), but because the marathon’s trajectory provides a sort of connect-the-dots among some of the most celebrated ones.

Most people reading this article know all this.  But, for all the city’s smartly located landmarks (mostly concentrated in its historic old boundaries, before the 1970 Unigov initiative consolidated the city with Marion County), it’s amazing how little significance the City ascribes its points of entry, the roads leading into the city’s 368 square miles.  While some of them offer small, modest green signs—particularly on those state and national highways—other entrances have absolutely nothing to tell the traveller that he or she has entered the city limits.  To add insult to injury, some of these political boundaries offer particularly eye-catching entry points…to the suburb immediately adjacent to Indianapolis’s outer edge.  And as of the last few years, these thresholds feature a landmark on par or even greater than some of the city’s oldest and most celebrated installations.  Like this one at northeast Indy’s boundary to the neighboring suburb of Fishers.

Landmark at entrance to Fishers, Indiana with no reference to Indianapolis

This fixture stands at the intersection of Fall Creek Road and 96th Street, using a northward vantage point along Fall Creek Road in the above photo.  The latter of these two streets (96th) serves as the boundary between Marion and Hamilton County, as well as the northern limits for the City of Indianapolis.  Several years ago, the local government decided to replace the more conventional three-way stop with a roundabout to ease traffic backups on these two equally important collector roads.  The central circle remained unadorned for a few years, as this Google Street View from September 2013 indicates.  But by 2016, the City of Fishers had installed the large “sail” landmark, vaguely evocative of Salvatore Calatrava, as a particularly elaborate welcome sign.

Landmark at entrance to Fishers, Indiana with no reference to Indianapolis

To people from elsewhere in Indiana, the sail may seem like an unusual metaphor for Fishers, a sprawling suburb that has surged in population in recent years, ranking it by most metrics as the state’s fifth or sixth largest city.  It’s neck-and-neck with both the adjacent suburb of Carmel and the independent city of South Bend.  But most of Fishers consists of formerly forested farmland experiencing the rapid encroachment of medium- or low-density single family detached housing developments.  It’s not a place with a maritime history…except that this small portion along Fall Creek Road directly abuts Geist Reservoir, an affluent community of large homes fronting a sizable man-made lake that offers potable water to much of metro Indianapolis, as well as recreation to the elite few who live along the waterfront or dock their boats at one of the ports.

The installation at this 96th Street roundabout features a smaller seal labeled “Geist District”, indicating the entry point to portion of Fishers largely characterized by the large and wealthy housing developments that boast shoreline property along Geist Reservoir.  

Perhaps more telling, however, is the act of circumscribing the installation using the right-of-way in the roundabout.  Here’s the east side of the circle:

And here’s the north side, looking at the landmark in a generally south-southwesterly direction, with 96th Street stretching off toward the horizon on the right side of the photo.

Landmark at boundary between Fishers and Indianapolis, with no reference to Indianapolis

Needless to say, there’s not a single reference to entering Indianapolis—the core city from which Fishers largely owes its current size and prosperity—anywhere on the landmark or the entire roundabout.  In fact, pivoting northward along Fall Creek Road, the camera captures another, much smaller sign announcing Fishers yet again, just off the shoulder (near the bridge portion of the sidewalk).

My suspicion is that this second sign pre-dates the installation and formerly served as the primary welcoming sign to the City of (formerly Town of) Fishers.  Meanwhile, this reasonably prominent and consistently affluent entry point lacks even the most rudimentary recognition of the Indianapolis city limits for motorists traveling south along Fall Creek Road.  I recall the presence of such signs during the Greg Ballard administration; though I’m sure at least a few still exist during the Joe Hogsett administration at busy entrances, I’m having a difficult time coming up with evidence of this.

Truth be told, the City of Fishers owes the City of Indianapolis nothing: if the former invested in the installation, it is only natural that it should devote the real estate toward the branding and promotion of its own incorporated municipality.  Although it may seem surprising that the primary impetus for the monument—the roundabout itself—would not involve a trans-municipal partnership (since it sits on the boundary), it is probable that the most or all of the investment in this traffic improvement came from the jurisdictions north of the line.  I learned, through the discussion following an unlikely blog post in Albuquerque, that Indiana statutes dictate that the any southernmost county line road falls within the control and jurisdiction of the northern of the two counties.  Therefore, 96th Street’s entire ROW is under the control of Hamilton County and/or the City of Fishers, meaning that the entire funding for this boundary roundabout came from Hamilton County (since the current municipal boundary of Fishers is proximal to, but does not explicitly encompass, the 96th/Fall Creek intersection).

In summation, Hamilton County most likely funded the roundabout, which sat fallow for a year or two, and then the City of Fishers negotiated with Hamilton County to build the installation in the middle of it, despite the fact that the closest reach of legally incorporated Fishers is approximately a quarter mile to the west (at the intersection of East 96th Street and Mollenkopf Road).  Fishers then paid for the landmark.  And Indianapolis had absolutely nothing to do with any of it.  The statutory stipulations notwithstanding, this lopsided branding reflects funding priorities in two municipalities with vastly different demographic profiles.  Indianapolis, with a socioeconomically diverse population, high crime, large districts of depressed real estate, and the state’s highest concentration of tax exempt properties (due to public or nonprofit ownership), must stretch its budget across a far greater array of social services and capital improvements, leaving far less room for branding and civic art.  And where it does spend it, the City is justifiably more compelled to strategize at the highest profile areas where the investment could achieve a spillover benefit or a quantifiable return—nearly always more lucrative in the 200-year-old historic center, the Mile Square or nearby.

Fishers, officially elevated from a town to a city exactly five years ago, lacks such socioeconomic diversity, being almost uniformly upper-middle or upper income.  Poverty is almost nonexistent.  Numerous corporate headquarters flank busy Interstate 69, endowing the municipality with greater capacity to raise its revenue through business taxation or modest taxes assessed against its generally high-value real estate.  The law enforcement budget is negligible compared to Indianapolis, resulting in considerably more money devoted to alternative transportation (sidewalks, bike paths), “boutique” traffic improvements like roundabouts, and civic art like a nautical landmark that says “Welcome to Fishers – Geist District”.  This dichotomy reveals hardly a condition unique to Indy and Fishers: numerous other city/suburb pairings manifest similar disparities, often palpable from the elegant, smoothly paved roads in the fancy suburb, contrasted with pockmarked pavement in the older, poorer core city.

One compensatory feature in this case: Fishers funded the protruding “sail sculpture”, which, at night is bathed in a floodlight so bright that it’s almost a distracting nuisance to the neighbors.  Then again, since it stands right on the municipal boundary, Geist residents in both Indianapolis and Fishers must bear the brunt of the nuisance from this ostentatious landmark.  And thus the political tug-of-war continues.

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4 thoughts on “Branding the boundary-line: when one side of the border crossing builds a landmark…and absorbs all the monumentality.

  1. AvatarTJ Deck

    I’m surprised you’ve not mentioned the obelisk-like monument in the median of US 31 at the Westfield-Carmel boundary. Such sign is shown here in this Google Maps Street View imagery: https://www.google.com/maps/@39.9990677,-86.1265939,3a,75y,205.79h,95.37t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1si_yU2y69t5whg207Gs-h6A!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

    The statue was erected by Westfield and as such featured the name Westfield on both sides of the sign, even though it is on the far southern border of Westfield (146th St.) Anyway, Carmel pitched a fit over it and Westfield eventually allowed Carmel to include their name on the north side of the statue (facing southbound traffic entering Carmel.)

    Indianapolis’s signs are in my opinion decent and there’s plenty of them from what I’ve seen. It’s a simple sign that features the flag of the city, a good symbol. Still, I wish there was a little better gateway signage along the interstates. INDOT typically doesn’t sign city limits on their highways (only county lines.) So there is never a sign announcing that you’re entering Indianapolis. I’d like to see maybe something on some of the bridges at the city boundaries with the city name and maybe an image of the city flag and Monument Circle. It could be modest but announces you’re entering the city.

    In the meantime, the only real “entry sign” we have for Indy on the freeway as along I-70 near Holt Road. It’s a typical billboard with the Indy logo and a race flag flying next to the billboard. Such sign is featured here: https://www.google.com/maps/@39.7517334,-86.2286856,3a,15y,7.1h,97.28t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sdaz1IdBaiH-VbP_H5abZ6w!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

    Reply
    1. AvatarAmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Tj, thanks for your observations. I wasn’t aware of the Westfield-Carmel signage. Though it’s rather plain, sometimes that’s better than the alternative: an ornate entry sign not only diffuses the branding but it’s also more likely to use features that become dated, which could hurt its influence. The Westfield sign you shared reminds me of an equally austere, almost harsh signpost for entering Baltimore (https://www.southbmore.com/2017/02/07/new-baltimore-signs-installed-at-citycounty-lines-in-south-baltimore-and-around-city/) which despite its aggressive appearance may actually prove effective. I’m sure it was well thought out. And I still like the Fishers sign much better than the Lebanon IN gateway overpass, which is exactly the sort of thing that will age badly. (Probably already has.)

      As for Carmel having “pitched a fit”, I don’t know the details but that may be the exact sort of thing necessary to get representation. Needless to say, Indianapolis government has too many other fish to fry so it will probably never happen.

      The “Indy” logo already has a sort retro feel to it, which I think is smart, and it feels inviting and whimsical. That said, it’s puzzling to me why the City doesn’t emphasize the flag more–not the checkered flag but the Indy flag. It really is (as the Urbanophile has noted in the past) one of the best city flags in the country, from a vexillological standpoint. Not sure why the City would lease space and give money to a private billboard company rather than paying for something on its own. Perhaps that’s an indication that the City expects to retire the “Indy” playful brand sometime in the near future?

      Reply
  2. AvatarBrian M

    Interesting article! My city of employment is currently undertaking a “gateway signage” design project, and it is surprisingly challenging to get agreement on what a somewhat anonymous suburb “is”. 🙂

    In California, city limits are monumented by simple green highway signs, including in many cases secondary State highways or even local streets. The signs usually include population and altitude. Altitude would not be very relevant in Indiana, of course. 🙂 Even some unincorporated Census Defined Places get a “boundary” marker.

    Reply
    1. AvatarAmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Brian–yep, you guessed it, elevation isn’t usually too relevant in Indiana. I can’t even recall what the standard state-issued sign looks like in Indiana (since I don’t live there) but I think it might just be name and population. If it’s an unincorporated area (CDP) it usually just gets a very small, dinky sign.

      When you say “gateway signage” you did help ring a bell. I had forgotten all about this initiative from several years ago within the city limits of Indy. https://dirtamericana.com/2013/04/a-modest-new-gateway-arch/ I’d give it about a 6 out of 10. Granted, it was funded by a consortium of businesses in the area, rather than the City itself, but hey–better than nothing!

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