State of decline

Dateline: Mon 11 Sep 2006

The departure of Norm Heikens from the business desk of the Star is a huge loss.

Heikens, who will return to the Indianapolis Business Journal, is best-known for "State of Decline." The 2003 series was investigative journalism at its best, and it pretty much nailed what ails Indiana.

See link:

After outlining the issue -- a "slow steady economic decline that has reached crisis point" -- Heikens wrote:

"An analysis of the trends indicates the economic future is bleak without fundamental change in the very fabric of the state's conservative nature -- the excessive caution, the resistance to change, the satisfaction with the status quo."

Heikens and I talked about his work at the time. As is typical, some of the more interesting research he did never made it into the paper.

Historians told Heikens, he related, that Indiana was in part characterized by Southerners who came north after the Civil War. They were pretty much rowdies and hicks, and rather than keep on moving north to Chicago or Detroit -- where blacks were migrating --they stuck to Indiana.

Some of this is anecdotal, but I recall a story about what pride some of these new Hoosiers took in being rubes and in running off anyone who might challenge their rough ways. One story involved a gentleman and a scholar from Louisville who had hoped to move across the river to Indiana. He was literally beaten until he went back home.

I thought about all this while reading the blogs and other news last week -- the deficit the city faces in building the Colts a palace, the poor deal the mayor negotiated in that project, the endless buck-passing, the total lack of regard for well-planned development, the cronyism, and of course the elephant in the room -- the $400 million police pension tab that Mayor Peterson inherited from former Mayor Goldsmith.

One has to wonder if most of our problems are not largely attitudinal -- as Heikens wrote, "the excessive caution, the resistance to change, the satisfaction with the status quo."

Or as a friend says: Indiana is a cheap state. Nobody wants to pay for anything. So cheap is cheap. If you don't spend and invest, you get back zero.

Another thought: very few Hoosiers seem willing to actively challenge leadership at any level. I mean, the blogs and letters to the editor are often saucy and encouraging, but where's the action? The corporate-owned newspapers are too timid and worried about MONEY to stir the pot, altho RiShawn Biddle gets a lick in now and then, as do Varvel and Carpenter. And the alternative press? Poor old NUVO. Nothing nouveau there.

A few years ago at the Star, I wrote several columns about the city's longstanding sewer problems. I'll never forget the call I got from a man who had formerly lived in Chicago and California. His point? He couldn't believe that anybody would tolerate such miserable and unsanitary conditions for so long. In Chicago, he said, people would be on the phone to their alderman until the problem was fixed. In California, they'd be out in the streets, protesting.

But not Indiana.

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