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Zach Dobson steps into Joe’s Butcher Shop, sandwiched between Auntie Em’s custard shop and Mary & Martha’s boutique on Carmel’s Main Street. A meat-cutter in a white apron waves from behind the L-shaped glass counter and greets the 30-year-old photographer by name. Inside the cases are neat rows of pink chops, marbled roasts, and thick-sliced bacon. Zach and his wife, Courtney, are regulars at Joe’s. They shop here because they can buy locally raised meat, because they like the sense of community that comes from knowing the owners, and because they can walk here from their home on the edge of the Arts & Design District.
Six years ago, Zach and Courtney moved to Carmel from Chicago. They had lived near Wrigleyville in the city and were used to having everything close by—shops, restaurants, and parks all within walking distance. When the couple decided to move to Indianapolis to be closer to their families, they looked for that same urban feel in neighborhoods downtown and in Broad Ripple. But they wanted to start a family and were attracted by the quality of the Carmel schools. They liked how the suburb was reenergizing its once-sleepy core with apartments and galleries, so they rented a townhouse near the City Center and eventually bought their midcentury-modern home.
Last year, Zach opened a small but sleek new studio, Zach Dobson Photography, on a side street near the Palladium. It’s three minutes from home by car, and on nice days, he can bike. Because lower taxes and rent in Carmel offset the cost of travel, Zach can compete for jobs with photographers who live in New York and Los Angeles.
In their free time, Zach and Courtney walk along Main Street’s brick sidewalks with their two children, sometimes splitting a salad and a tenderloin at Muldoon’s or mixing with the crowd at Bub’s along the Monon Trail. They poke around the Old Town Antique Mall. Driving is the exception, not the rule.
“We had a long-term vision for our family, and Carmel was just the best fit,” Zach says. “And you can still be in an urban environment.”
Zach and Courtney are among the roughly 86 million so-called “millennials”—a generation spanning ages 20 to 34—who are compelling cities and suburbs alike to think differently about neighborhoods. This demographic drove the resurgence of big-city districts in the past decade—places like Mass Ave and Fountain Square in Indianapolis. Now the surrounding areas are waking up, too. Recognizing that their relative youth and cheap land won’t last forever, Indy’s suburbs are aspiring to be culturally relevant, competitive for the “best and brightest” workers, and maybe even a little bit hip—primarily through a movement called “new urbanism.”
New urbanism is characterized by walkable, high-density, mixed-use developments. Storefronts are designed for sidewalk appeal, and parking lots are hidden underground or behind buildings. You see it most clearly in Carmel, a nondescript Quaker town that was just a stop on the Monon Railroad before waves of upscale development began in the ’70s. Now, out of a sea of subdivisions have emerged the Arts & Design District, City Center, and the Village of WestClay.
Of course, these islands of urbanism are emerging in the outer rings of Indianapolis’s suburbs. Things aren’t so promising in the first ring built in Marion County’s townships in the ’50s and ’60s. With no town centers, outdated housing styles, aging retail strip malls, and crime problems, those early suburbs have become a cautionary tale. Just ask Aaron Renn, the Hoosier-born, Rhode Island–based city planner whose Urbanophile blog is followed by new urbanists across the country. “Anyone who’s in Fishers or Avon or Plainfield or Greenwood should just look at what’s happening in Warren Township or Wayne Township and say, ‘That’s us unless we do something different,’” he says. “You need to get ahead of the game and put in amenities that will continue to attract people over the long haul. You’re not going to be the shiny new thing forever.”
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