In 2010, novelist Patricia Henley wrote a thoughtful piece for the Smithsonian magazine on how she came to the Lafayette area, her decision to make this her home, and the persistent conversation among other Indiana writers who are “always trying to decide whether to go or stay.” I happened across this essay again the other day and thought it was too lovely not to share.
Old-timers may say that downtown isn’t what it once was, before the mall and the commercial strip that stretches for miles on Route 52. Downtown, you can’t buy a pound of nails or a new pair of shoes. But here’s what you can do: sip that espresso; buy locally made stained glass, earrings and cut-velvet scarves; drink oatmeal stout brewed in a former furniture store; select handmade chocolates for your sweetheart; hear a poetry reading or the Lafayette Symphony; buy antiques for a song; pick up a 13-mile trail that leads to the Tippecanoe Battlefield in Battle Ground; or attend a musical event put on by Friends of Bob, our local nonprofit music co-op. Downtown Lafayette hosts a farmer’s market that has operated in the same vicinity for 170 years. While the downtown of yesteryear—with its five-and-dime and movie theaters, its department stores and the red neon rocking chair atop Reifer’s Furniture—may be gone, the community still thrives here.
Of course, I noticed how friends and family reacted to my decision to live in Indiana. Until 2006 most of the state did not cotton to daylight saving time. We were on the same time as New York in the winter and Chicago in the summer. We never changed our clocks. This was confusing to friends who would telephone from other parts of the country. I would say: “In Indiana we never change.” One time a writer at a conference in Washington State dismissed me with a wave of her hand and said, “Oh, you’re from one of those I-states”—Indiana, Illinois, Iowa. As my grandmother would have said, she ruffled my feathers, and I never forgot it. I would invite friends and relatives to visit me in Lafayette, and they might hesitate, suggesting it was too flat or lacking in diversity, not a “destination,” as one cousin put it.
Not gussied up or cute, Lafayette is a sturdy town, persistent in its character, as I see it now, creative and practical, and it’s not true that we never change. Sleek condos branch out in the second and third floors of historic buildings downtown. A campaign is underway to clean up what unites both communities, the Wabash River. Walking and biking trails have been constructed, an annual River Fest established. A state-of-the-art homeless shelter was built by the Lafayette Urban Ministry, a coalition of 42 congregations from both sides of the river.
When it comes to diversity, Purdue has the second-highest number of international students among public universities and colleges in the country; the Subaru plant draws a Japanese community. I like to take visitors to Mama Ines Mexican Bakery. You can purchase sugar horns and marranitos—spicy, brown, pig-shaped cookies—in a store reminiscent of bakeries south of the border; with an aluminum tray and tongs, you help yourself from the pastry-laden cookie sheets, Mexican pop music blasting. An annual fiddlers’ gathering is held seven miles away and members of the rock band Green Day have done production work at Sonic Iguana, a renowned punk rock studio. We have more than 16 houses of worship downtown and I defy you to sleep through the Sunday morning bells. And the Dalai Lama spoke at Purdue in 2007. That’s diversity.