Saturday, April 21, 2012

Carmel, Indiana: Round-About Heaven

Shortly after passing a sign welcoming me to Carmel, an affluent suburb of 80,000 residents just north of Indianapolis, I was greeted by a freshly minted round-about.  It gave me a surge of delight, just as I felt three weeks ago in Sheyboygan, Wisconsin, when I last encountered one of these eminently sensible and aesthetically pleasing traffic devices that are so rare in America, but most common in France.

I was still humming with pleasure when I came upon another just a couple minutes later.  I thought I was dreaming when soon after there was another, also of recent vintage, as if rushed to completion in time for my arrival.  I was so excited by this bonanza I did a full 360 around it and then another 180 to continue on my way.   And that wasn't the last one.  There were a handful more before I arrived in downtown Carmel and then over a few blocks to its library.  It was all I could do not to give each a full joyous spin.

Rather than rushing to the stacks for the book on the 1949 Giro d'Italia that had lured me to this unexpected Round-About Wonderland, a four-day three hundred mile bike ride, I pounced on the first librarian I saw and asked, "What's with all the round-abouts here?"

"Aren't they wonderful," she exulted.  "We have more than any other town in the US, over eighty of them.  Our mayor, Jim Brainard, is a great proponent of them.  He just started putting them in a few years ago.  Everyone loves them.  Last year we hosted an International Round-About Conference.  Urban planners from all over the world came to see our round-abouts.  There were Japanese everywhere with their cameras taking pictures of them from every angle.  We're very proud of them.  They reduce accidents and keep traffic flowing.  I don't know why they are so rare.  I hear France has them everywhere.  Someone at the conference said that Carmel is to America what France is to the world.  Once you get rid of a traffic signal you realize how ugly and inefficient, almost stupid, they are."

She told me I could go to the city hall and get a map showing the location of every one of them.  If I didn't have a book I was eager to read and a deadline to return to Chicago I certainly would have.  I will most definitely return, especially after I found two other bicycling books there that I would like to read.  Round-abouts in America could be my next quest once I finish my Carnegie Quest.  With more than 1,500 Carnegies still to lay claim to though, it will be a while. 

I had to scan the library's three shelves of  bicycling books twice before I found the slender, 200-page, "The Giro d'Italia--Coppi versus Bartoli at the 1949 Tour of Italy."  It was a collection of the daily articles written during the race by one of the most acclaimed writers of the time, Italian poet/novelist Dino Buzati.  They were published as a book in 1981, then translated into English in 1999.  Buzati had never witnessed a bicycle race first-hand, though he knew the sport well, as did every Italian at that time, until that 1949 Giro.  The  race was a much anticipated showdown between three-time winner  Gino Bartoli and two-time winner Fausto Coppi, four years Bartoli's junior.  They are the two giants of Italian cycling, a term he repeatedly uses to describe them. 

His writing is a joy to read, not only describing with great flourish and eloquence the exploits of the riders, but everything surrounding the race and Italy at the time, still recovering from WWII.  The narrow, smooth, taut tires of the racers look like snakes to him.  The racers dragging themselves up a steep mountain in the rain, bundled in rain coats  appear to be "big, lethargic snails."  The torturous climb up Sestriere is "the ultimate torture, destined to chastise these men for their sins."  Pep pills were the drug of choice in that era, "capable of making a corpse jump out of the casket like an acrobat."

I had visions of reading the book in a one hundred-year old Carnegie library, but I surmised that Carmel had long ago outgrown its Carnegie the instant I passed its welcoming sign and biked past palatial estates and saw a handful of twenty-story office buildings as I approached the town center.  But at least the old Carnegie still stood, looking as proud and regal as any Carnegie, even in its present incarnation as a restaurant, a restaurant though that fully acknowledges its heritage with the name "Woodys Library Restaurant."  There is a plaque at its entry describing its history and another plaque inside the door seconding it.  There is a bar on the lower level and an outdoor patio added to the side.  Book shelves remain on the upper level.  It has been a restaurant since 1998 after serving as Carmel's City Hall for a spell when the town outgrew the library in 1972.  The plaque even describes the huge community involvement transporting all the books from the old library to the new.

The Carmel Carnegie was the first in a series of three Carnegies to the north of Indianapolis that no longer serve as libraries in communities that had grown vastly since their Carnegies were built a century ago.  The Carnegie in Westfield has housed the Cave and Co. Printing Company for a couple of decades.  The red brick building had a slight addition to its rear fourteen years after it was built in 1916, but otherwise it looked as it has for decades with "Public Library" still chiseled into its front.

The Carnegie  in Noblesville bore no hint at all of having once been a library, as it had been overwhelmed by a huge City Hall addition.  But it was redeemed by the small town of Atlanta, twelve miles to the north.  Its Carnegie was still in its original state and was in no imminent danger of being tampered with.  It is only open twenty hours a week and has an operating budget of just $30,000, including the salary of the librarian, who said she earns little more than minimum wage, but has no problem with that.  It was an hour until dark.  She said the town had a haunted hotel if I needed a place to stay.  At one time the town had eleven taverns, but now just one.  I told her I wasn't done with my biking for the day, and that water was my beverage of preference.

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