When Kim Kardashian was 4 years old, a University of California economist named Moshe Adler wrote a six-page paper explaining the means by which she would eventually attain worldwide renown. Published in the The American Economic Review, “Stardom and Talent” made the unsettling claim that fame could just be a matter of luck. Even an insignificant incident (like the unauthorized release of a sex tape) could escalate into superstardom by a sort of positive feedback loop: The more famous an entertainer becomes, the more readily you can talk about her with your friends; the more she gets talked about, the more her fame expands.
The underlying phenomenon is not unique to Kardashian or entertainers or even humans. Other researchers have shown that random noise can get amplified in businesses and ecosystems, explaining the otherwise inexplicable dominance of a company or species. Sociologists call it “preferential attachment,” and it seems to be nearly universal in hierarchies. Superstars simply make their milieu more efficient, facilitating gossip, and while some (such as Kate Winslet) are bolstered by talent, quality is no requisite.
The same is true of cities. San Francisco and Boston have natural harbors, and New York is built on the Hudson, but you don’t need good geology to attain geographic celebrity. Indianapolis, for instance, is the metropolitan equivalent of Kim Kardashian. Just as Kardashian can’t act in the traditional sense, the nation’s 13th most populous city is devoid of conventional geographic merits, such as a major waterway or safe harbor. The city came into prominence for reasons nobody could have predicted, any more than Moshe Adler could have guessed that he was describing the future life of Kim Kardashian. Famous for being famous, Indianapolis provides an opportunity to appreciate why cities in general are so special.
Indianapolis was founded by decree. In the summer of 1820, 4-year-old Indiana sent a delegation of 10 men to the middle of the state, some 8 million acres of wilderness recently “purchased” from the Native Americans for several thousand dollars. The delegation was given the task of locating a replacement for the temporary capital of Corydon—a small town located at the southern border of Indiana—following the logic that the state’s legislative center should literally be in the center, equally accessible to all Hoosiers. Beyond that, the State Assembly was vague (understandably enough, given that most Indianians had never ventured into Indian territory, and less than 1 percent of Hoosiers had ever lived in any town or city). Locate the capital wherever you “deem most proper,” they instructed, “having specially in view the health, utility, and beauty.”
After visiting the few farmsteads in the region and imbibing plenty of local corn whiskey, the commissioners chose a swathe of woodland called the Fall Creek settlement, where a dozen families were living in log cabins. They were mostly squatters, getting by as subsistence farmers, but the commissioners put great stock in the fact that their settlement was the spot where the Fall Creek met the White River. There was big talk of mills and shipping, yet so little understanding of either that nobody bothered to check the depth of the water.
Indianapolis came into prominence for reasons nobody could have predicted, any more than sociologists could have predicted the fame of Kim Kardashian.
The noble new capital needed a grand new name. Down in Corydon, the legislators considered pseudo-Indian monikers like Suwarrow and Tuwarrow, all of which were ridiculed and dropped. Finally Judge Jeremiah Sullivan, a man who evidently remembered his grammar school Greek, had an epiphany: Why not call it Indianapolis? (The suffix polis means “city.”) Already exhausted by the Suwarrow/Tuwarrow debate, the legislature accepted it, inducing a new round of mockery. (“Such a name, kind readers, you would never find by searching from Dan to Beersheba,” sniped the Indiana Sentinel.)
Of course the former Fall Creek settlement also called for a grand new plan. To lay out the town, the legislature appointed Alexander Ralston, who’d previously assisted Pierre L’Enfant to design Washington D.C. As L’Enfant had planned D.C. to resemble Versailles, Ralston planned Indianapolis to resemble Washington. Four avenues radiated from a central circle, intersecting a grid of 18 streets at a 90-degree diagonal. One of these, named in honor of George Washington, was designated to convey the new National Road from Cumberland, Md., through the middle of town.
Within this geometric grid, superimposed on one square mile of the Fall Creek settlement woodlands, full blocks were designated for the state house and courts. The remainder were broken into a dozen lots each, and offered to the public in the fall of 1821. Exactly one was bought on the first day. To sell off the rest took two decades.
By then a number of things were obvious about the Indiana state capital, and none were positive. First, no governor was willing to live in the middle of town, where an ostentatious mansion had been built according to Ralston’s grandiose urban plan. Second, the unpaved roads were snowed in or flooded much of the year. Third, the Fall Creek was good for little more than mosquitoes and malaria. Fourth, the White River was too shallow for big boats and shipping, and an attempt to augment it with a Central Canal—dredged like the Erie—sent the state into bankruptcy. The 90-mile trail from Madison to Indianapolis—still Indiana’s most populous town—took three days by stagecoach in the best of conditions.
Health, utility, and beauty? In the words of one Indianapolis local, the centrally located state capital was “an almost inaccessible village.”…