Julianne, founder of Local Universe, on the trike with her sister Valerie where they grew up, just outside of Fort Wayne proper.
[FORT WAYNE, IN] How do you condense a place you’ve known for 43 years into a single blog?
That’s the challenge I face with Fort Wayne, Indiana, my hometown. Of course my local universe would include this place. It’s shaped me, even though it’s never held me. I moved to Denver when I was 22, but moved back to Fort Wayne when I was 26. I moved to Chicago when I was 34, but moved back to Fort Wayne when I was 37. Why? For the same reason that most people do: Family is there, and it’s a good place to raise a family.
Fort Wayne’s unofficial slogan was just that for many years: It’s a good place to raise a family. Sometimes said with sincerity, sometimes said with a sneer, depending on the demographic of the speaker. And it really is a great place to raise a family. There’s little real traffic. Home costs are some of the lowest in the country. There’s an art museum, a ballet, a science museum and a nationally ranked children’s zoo, among other things. If you want to have a nice house and take your family to nice events, it’s mighty doable here in the Fort.
But this is also known as flyover country. We Hoosiers have a bit of a chip on our shoulder about that. We often try to apologize for or justify or hide the fact that we live in a very flat part of the world with lots of soybean fields, humid summers and gray winters, and few natural attractions. That flatness is good when it comes to the fantastic system of bike trails in and around Fort Wayne, but you have to look a little more closely here for the beauty. It’s found in smaller tableaus—a sprig of wildflowers, a burbling creek, a cardinal hopping from branch to branch, the sun setting behind a barn. Some people love the flat open spaces, the green in the summer and brown in the winter, the rural surrounding the smallish, friendly city. My definition of glory is the rugged, arid wild of the Rockies, but there are people who find Fort Wayne quite beautiful.
(Go to Instagram and follow my good friend Rachel Burkholder, who captures beautiful rural scenes on her farm just outside Fort Wayne.)
In spite of—or because of—the landscape and weather, many people grow up here and stay here. There are generations of families living right down the road from each other. Even though most people are friendly, it can sometimes be hard for newcomers to find a way to fit in. Relationships often are already established.
The charge in Fort Wayne when I was in my 20s and early 30s was combating brain drain. City leaders sought to stem the tide of educated young people seeking broader vistas. It’s morphed into a desire to revive the downtown, to restore shopping and restaurants and residential space. The sentiment ranges from agreement with the cause to earnest cheerleading, and slowly, there is progress.
Because I was pretty plugged in for a lot of years, working for the newspapers, a private school, a downtown ad agency and serving on boards and committees, I sometimes felt like I knew most everyone. But then I go to some cool event downtown in some hip building with a brick interior and craft cocktails and meet all sorts of new and interesting people, and I’m reminded that Fort Wayne is a place full of innovation and change. (Heck, there’s a whole history museum devoted to the inventors who’ve called Fort Wayne home.)
What’s it like today? Fort Wayne is the second-largest city in Indiana, which surprises most people. It’s a real city, with a downtown, plus a mall and suburbs and such. The aforementioned downtown is sporting a new brewpub and wine bar, as well as a fleet of food trucks. The newish Parkview Field, home to the Class A TinCaps, regularly sets national attendance records for the league. And there are vintage shops and boutiques popping up all the time, along with a massive new office building/residential/retail complex.
Fort Wayne won the All-America City Award from the National Civic League a record three times. Unfortunately, in 2002 the CDC ranked Fort Wayne among the fattest cities in America, and in 2005, Men’s Health magazine called it the dumbest. We can never get too big for our britches—metaphorically speaking—before we take another kick in the teeth. (Hey, we have all of those.)
But there’s pride in the city neighborhoods—the North Anthony corridor (home to Sweets So Geek chocolates), Wells Street, the ’07, Williams-Woodland. And there are fancy suburbs and older suburbs and new neighborhoods going up on the sprawling perimeter. We have pretty close ties to Michigan and Ohio, sitting in the northeast corner as we do, and we’re just three hours from Chicago. It may be flyover country, but they’re not flying far past Fort Wayne.
If you happen to touch down in Fort Wayne, here are a few places I’d suggest you check out:
Parkview Field is really nice. And there’s all kinds of stuff going on there, not just baseball. The doors are open most days for walking; during the summer, you can grab a bite to eat, too, or run the stairs. There are concerts and races and other events as well. But the baseball games are great. Get a cheap (like $5) standing room ticket; you’ll want to wander the park, sit in the lawn and check out the views anyway.
Enjoy some fine dining at locally owned Baker Street, Paula’s, Club Soda or Catablu. A little further west of Fort Wayne is Two EEs Winery; on a weekend, you're likely to find a food truck selling snacks to go with your glass of vino. For something more casual, hit one of the Casa’s restaurants owned by the Casaburo family and get the house salad—it’s famous for good reason. Grab a fancy coffee at Fortezza downtown, sit in the window and watch the lunch crowd walk by. Residents annually wait for the Zesto’s ice cream stands to reopen for the season each spring—if it’s warm, go get a cone and sit on the patio (just bring some mosquito spray).
There are lots of lakes just north of Fort Wayne, and every weekend most residents seem to go to “the lake.” (Which one is another question.) Even Justin Bieber was spotted waterskiing at “the lake” one summer. But you don’t have to leave the city—rent a kayak or canoe from Fort Wayne Outfitters downtown and paddle down one of our three rivers. Or rent a bike and tool around the Fort Wayne Trails.
Depending on the weather, go check out the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. It’s one of the top 10 in the country, and grownups really like it too. Or hit the Fort Wayne Museum of Art (better without tiny kids) and Science Central (better with little kids). If you have any spare time or want something seasonal or quirky, see what’s listed on downtownfortwayne.com. It’s how I find all kinds of cool and unusual happenings.
There are things happening in Fort Wayne. People who live there work really hard to make sure of that. There are lots of caring, intelligent, diligent, hip, interesting people living in my hometown, many of them dear friends. And while I may feel called by the mountains, my family and my foundation will always be in Fort Wayne.