The Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood on the east side of Indianapolis was once a thriving working-class community supported by manufacturing and a nearby railroad. But in recent decades, the predominantly black neighborhood has suffered from decay. Many of its buildings have plywood over their windows, and vacant lots are filled with trash or scrap metal. Nearly 40 percent of people live in poverty.
Just south of the train tracks lies the city's revitalized downtown, with its soaring office towers and the looming Lucas Oil Stadium, home to the Indianapolis Colts. After the city and surrounding Marion County merged governments in 1970, Republican mayors focused their attention on downtown renewal. But critics of the consolidated government, Unigov, say it benefitted the few at the expense of the many. For them, the contrasting images in Indianapolis hold lessons for St. Louis, which is weighing a similar merger.
“When I think of Unigov, I think of classism,” said state Rep. Greg Porter, a Democrat who represents the east side of the city. “I can remember as a community-based organizer looking at downtown development, and neighborhoods were being neglected. We started raising concerns about what was going on versus downtown in Mile Square.”’
Better Together, the think tank that’s backing an ambitious merger for St. Louis and St. Louis County, has cited Indianapolis’ growth and enhanced reputation as evidence that a consolidation could help raise the region’s profile. Only a few cities of a similar size have attempted such a move.
Like Better Together, Unigov wasn’t a full merger. It left out several city services, such as the fire and police departments, and left many taxing districts intact. It did consolidate Republican political power, as white, Republican voters overshadowed Democratic voters. That created a Republican dynasty that lasted for three decades.
Two popular Republican mayors, Richard Lugar and Bill Hudnut, focused on downtown. That left many neighborhoods, such as Martindale-Brightwood, in the dust, Porter said.
“I believe the premise of it wanting to spur economic development and build up the city might have been there,” he said. “But it’s also a way to displace and control the economic development.”
Unlike Better Together, which maintains that getting rid of the region’s fractured government could decrease segregation, Unigov backers didn’t state racial or economic equity as a goal when the Indiana Legislature voted it into law.
“In terms of who’s benefited from this, it has not been uniform in its consequences,” said Chris Prener, a sociology professor at St. Louis University who studies neighborhoods
The Indianapolis experiment shows that what and how much cities consolidate matters, academics say. For example, like Better Together, the Indianapolis plan didn’t include school districts.
Leaving those out, along with police and fire departments, left Indianapolis just as fragmented as before, said Rod Bohannan, a lawyer and past president of the city’s chapter of the NAACP.
“If you’re trying to consolidate and build a unified city where everybody feeling a part of it, you don’t leave the schools out, you consolidate the schools," Bohannan said.
Unigov didn’t result in the unified identity that the backers of Better Together say a consolidated government would create, he said.
“In Marion County, it’s still, ‘What township do you live in?’ They don’t say, ‘I live in Marion County,’” Bohannan said. “As long as you have that mindset, it sets up a ‘me’ situation and not a ‘we’ situation.”
Making schools a part of the merger in St. Louis could bring more resources to struggling city classrooms, Prener said.
“One very powerful place, if we want to regionally lift all boats, is in the schools,” he said.
Unlike Unigov, Better Together’s plan includes police departments and municipal courts — a move that the organization contends will raise standards for law enforcement and create better relationships between police and the communities it serves. Indianapolis eventually consolidated its county and city police departments in 2005.
Indianapolis shows what city leaders can do when they have a shared vision, said William Blomquist, a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Unigov gave Indianapolis mayors a large amount of power to use consolidation as a means to an end, he said. That helped the city remake its downtown, lure professional and amateur sports organizations and reinvent Indianapolis as a convention center hub.
Unigov “allowed the mayor to have the legal authority, but then to have the intangible chutzpah to sell the city,” said John Krauss, founding director of the Indiana University Public Policy Institute, who worked under Lugar and Hudnut. “We were fortunate to have … good intelligent leadership that had vision.”
Proponents of a merger in St. Louis also point to decades of job growth in Indianapolis since the merger was put in place. The city has added more than 170,000 jobs in four decades since Unigov. But most of those jobs did little to lift people in the city’s core out of poverty, said Prener.
“Yes, there has been growth, but most of that growth has come in the service sector, a sector in the economy that typically pays less,” he said.
Many city businesses employ people who live outside the city or even the county, said Bohannan, who pointed to a industrial park in Martindale-Brightwood as an example of how little city residents have gained under Unigov.
“If you want to have fun, you can look at the license plates” in the parking lot, he said. “You can tell by the license-plate numbers what county they’re from. While the community got this built on it, it didn’t turn into jobs.”
Better Together points to the lower cost of administrative services in Indianapolis, arguing that consolidation would eventually save the city billions through streamlining government services.
But researchers say Indianapolis has always kept spending low — one only needs to drive down the city’s infamously deteriorating streets to witness that.
“Indianapolis has low per-capita local government costs because it has always had low per-capita local government costs,” Blomquist said.
Unigov’s political influence on the City-County Council didn’t last forever. In 2015, Democrats won control of the City-County Council and the mayor's office for the first time since 1970. White residents have continued to move north into the affluent areas of Carmel, Fishers and Avon, just outside of Marion County. They're among the fastest-growing cities in the state.
The consolidated county is starting to look much like the city did 50 years ago, with a booming Republican ring surrounding a Democratic core.
There are big differences between Better Together and Unigov. Better Together consolidates more departments than Indianapolis did and eventually does away with the city’s earnings tax. While St. Louis County has a larger percentage of Republicans than the city, it’s not as dominated by Republicans as Marion County was in 1970. And instead of the Legislature deciding the merger’s fate, like in Indiana, the Better Together initiative would be put to a Missouri-wide vote in 2020.
Because it happened 50 years ago, it’s difficult to separate the effects of consolidation from events that changed many rust-belt cities in the latter part of the 20th century, Blomquist said.
“People who have criticisms of Indianapolis will bend your ear and say how Unigov screwed things up,” Blomquist said. “People who are proud will tell you Unigov was key.”
But one thing is certain: the merger would shift political power. Voters should keep in mind a merger will always benefit some more than others, said Bohannan, the former NAACP leader.
“When you've got consolidation, someone always loses,” he said. “And those who don’t have political power are gonna lose.”’
Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge
Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org