Turning a New Yorker into a Hoosier

  • 6 min to read
Turning a New Yorker into a Hoosier
How Hoosiers See Themselves

Whitney Downard, a native New Yorker, traveled the state to meet Hoosiers as she embarked on her new job as a statehouse reporter.

INDIANAPOLIS – Several months ago, an Upstate New Yorker and Hoosier bonded over beer and trivia in Meridian, Mississippi, hundreds of miles away from home.

Jessica, the first Hoosier I’d ever met, loved sports (especially basketball) and had the state flag tattooed on her shoulder. Long before I considered moving to Indiana, Jessica embodied the warm friendliness and fervent hometown love that I’ve come to expect from the Hoosier State.

My new job as the CNHI statehouse reporter working and living in Indiana’s capital comes with a particular challenge: connecting with the 12 far-flung Hoosier communities that are home to CNHI newspapers, including the Kokomo Tribune. I’ve had to quickly familiarize myself with each area’s quirks, industry leaders and elected representatives … right after I figured out where to find them on a map.

My Tour of Indiana to explore Hoosier identity and visit each newsroom took several weeks, hundreds of dollars in car repairs and many, many caffeine boosts. After three years reporting on local government in Meridian, I wanted to learn more about my new state.

“We’re all family oriented,” Christen Lucas, a 25-year-old stay-at-home mom, said during lunch with her friend at Kokomo’s Cook McDoogal’s Irish Pub. “Maybe we’re very close to family because we have less to do here.”

Lucas’ definition of family went beyond shared genes.

“We have friends from out of state that only lived here for a year but ended up in our wedding,” Lucas said. “They’re still coming back for weddings.”

Donta Rogers, the executive director of Carver Community Center in Kokomo, told me to “claim the corn” and embrace the mantle of Hoosier after a few years here.

“(But) if they think there’s just corn in Indiana, then they’re ignorant,” Rogers said of outsiders. “We have some of the best politicians, great cities that are first in everything. … It’s not Hicktown, USA.”

I reached out to several minority Hoosiers for this article because I wanted to know about opportunities in Indiana for non-white residents. While white residents make up the greatest percentage of Hoosiers, about 10% are black and 7% are Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census data.

Rogers named organizations for black Hoosiers such as the Indiana Black Expo, which hosts events such as the annual showdown of football teams from historically black colleges in the Circle City Classic to fund scholarships. Other Hoosiers, such as Bill Watson, saw “subtle differences” between white and black Hoosiers.

“If you look at it on a race base or from an ethnic perspective, you’re going to find subtle differences,” said Watson, the owner of Pittt Barbeque & Grill in Anderson. “Church in the black community plays a larger part than for white (Hoosiers).”

Watson said, from his experience, black families bond together by finding their place with God, rather than on family vacations or other excursions.

Theresa Ortega, who co-advises Indiana State University’s Hispanic Latino Alliance, said that the students she advises have experienced new discrimination with the changing political climate and difficulties living in the United States, including Indiana.

“It’s difficult to navigate issues where students feel attacked, threatened because of their Hispanic or Latino culture,” said Ortega, who owns Terre Haute’s Kamikaze Karate. “Before, they kind of blended, and now the issue has been made … blatantly blunt that if you have this (Hispanic or Latino) background then you’re the ‘other.’”

Ortega said she has called Terre Haute, a city she’d lived in all of her adult life, home and identified as a Hoosier but has strengthened her connection to her Venezuelan roots as she has aged.

“It’s disconcerting because you don’t feel like you’re in either culture,” Ortega said, explaining that she “passes” as white because of her red hair and “gringa” face.

The nation’s opioid crisis has hit the Midwest harder than my home state of New York or the state of Mississippi, where I worked the past three years. Thousands of Hoosiers have died, impacting hundreds of thousands of friends and families in Indiana.

In Washington, Indiana, Denise Case shared her son’s story of addiction to drugs, which she said flooded into the once-quiet town she had known.

“He’s in a required program at prison. Purposeful Incarceration,” Case said, naming Indiana’s program for treating chemically addicted offenders. “When he gets out … that’s going to be the test.”

A private recovery program could provide her son with support, but it costs more than Case can afford. I watched her pull out a slip of paper, carefully stored in the front pocket of her purse, several times during our interview. The paper bore details about a free, faith-based program that could be her son’s answer.

“I don’t want to bury another son,” Case said, alluding to her child who was stillborn years ago. “Every time I hear the ambulance, I think, ‘Am I going to get a phone call?’”

Many of the Hoosiers I interviewed had a blend of backgrounds, often growing up or splitting their time in other states. But nearly all had embraced their new home by becoming local advocates.

“I think there’s been a lot of energy at the local level since the (2016) election,” said Karla Hansen-Speer, a Terre Haute resident from Arizona. “There’s only so many times I can call my congress member before doing something locally.”

At the downtown Blueberry Festival, Hansen-Speer, an anthropology professor at Indiana State University, pointed out mayoral candidates and community organizers aiming to make Terre Haute’s downtown more attractive to new residents.

“That’s one of the things about Terre Haute, there’s a community here,” Hansen-Speer said. “We’ve been here long enough that we overlap with people running the Blueberry Festival. … And the same people who might come here are involved with initiatives to clean up the river or bring more arts downtown.”

Across the state in Jeffersonville, Jackson Stuber, 25, and Taylor Yager, 24, said a walking bridge to Louisville, Kentucky, had blended the two border cities into one larger metropolis.

“We’ve really seen things pick up with the walking bridge,” Stuber said. “Jeffersonville has done a good job of embracing it. I’m proud to be here.”

Both working at local restaurants, Stuber and Yager highlighted the number of new attractions near the bridge, including bars, ice cream shops, parks and bicycling.

“It’s brought a big-city sense,” Yager said. “But it’s still very easy to talk to new people and make friends just by sitting down next to someone at a bar.”

Neither of the Jeffersonville residents identify with one of the state’s all-time classic movies, “Hoosiers,” which surprised me. I thought watching the 1986 film would be required — especially since the state’s governor, Eric Holcomb, loves it so much he kicked off his reelection campaign in Knightstown, home of Hoosier Gym.

Admittedly, like Stuber and Yager, I feel ambivalent about the movie. But maybe it just means more to older generations of Hoosiers, like Linda and Paul Brose.

“You have to be a basketball fan, and that’s kind of the cement of being a Hoosier,” Linda Brose, 79, said. “And you have to see ‘Hoosiers.’”

Though she’d lived in Ohio for 45 years and now lives in Virginia, Brose has refused to let go of her roots.

“I’m still a Hoosier; I don’t care,” she said.

Many Hoosiers I met had lived elsewhere but found themselves drawn back home, like Sheila Maxwell, of Peru, and Marta Smiley, of Logansport.

“I kept wanting to be home in Logansport,” Smiley said.

“I just could not wait to be back here,” Maxwell agreed.

The two women volunteered with several others at their automotive parts factory in a United Way program to provide mulch for playgrounds in Logansport.

“To me, these smaller cities have a slower pace,” Maxwell said, noting the troubles her daughter experienced moving elsewhere. “And the cost of living is decent.”

I’m open to the new experiences that come with living in Indiana, but I don’t want to lose my central New York identity. Binghamton, New York, Carousel Capital of the World, will always be home, even if my family moves away.

I met several people who called themselves Hoosiers but still identified with their home state, blending their identities together in the Crossroads of America without sacrificing either one.

Leonard Beechy, 66, moved to Goshen from Ohio to attend Goshen College. After living in Goshen for 45 years, he sees himself as a Hoosier.

“I say that with some ambivalence, of course, because we still go to Ohio,” he explained. “But I think we understand what it means to live in this state and what it involves.”

As a retired educator, Beechy still works as an advocate for teachers locally with Horizon Education Alliance.

“There’s been a decline in the last decade,” Beechy said, highlighting the static pay of many educators. “There’s been a very fast and depressing erosion of teachers’ rights and the decline in the importance of that role.”

Beechy described Indiana as a state without an “obvious marketing brand,” with humility, four distinct seasons, a broad concern for the surrounding environment and an interest in maintaining a good quality of life.

“Goshen has also added things that make it more livable – bike paths and being a community that can sustain artists,” Beechy said. “Those are the types of things that make me optimistic.”

As a Hoosier in the making, I’ve already got a love for basketball … but only if my alma mater, St. Bonaventure University, is playing. (Side note: If we’ve got any other Hoosier Bonnies, I’m looking to set up some watch parties!)

Whitney Downard Headshot

Whitney Downard

So, to Anderson, Terre Haute, Kokomo, Jeffersonville, Logansport, Washington, Goshen, Greensburg, Lebanon, Rushville, Batesville, Zionsville and surrounding communities I help cover, send an email to whitney.downard@cnhimidwest.com. Let me know what I’m missing in your community and send your restaurant recommendations. I’ll be in town soon.

(But pork tenderloin sandwiches will never compare to Binghamton spiedies.)

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