First things first: This is about more than visiting Fort Wayne. How do you condense a place you’ve known for 50 years into a single blog?
That’s the challenge I face with Fort Wayne, Indiana, my hometown. 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 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 sometimes 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.
(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 city newspapers, an esteemed private school and 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 when I’m visiting Fort Wayne from Denver or Michigan 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? There are people visiting Fort Wayne! It’s 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 new brewpubs and wine bars, 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, Wells Street, the ’07, Williams-Woodland and West Central. 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 there and visit Fort Wayne, here are a few places I’d suggest you check out:
Things to Love About Visiting Fort Wayne, Indiana
- Parkview Field is great. 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 easy fun. Get a cheap (like $6) 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 Mercado, Copper Spoon, Baker Street, Paula’s, Club Soda, Henry’s, or Catablu. On the outskirts of Fort Wayne are several wineries; 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 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). The newly revived Landing, marked on one end by a giant mural, is a pedestrian street full of new restaurants, a brewery, coffee shop, pizzeria, upscale shopping and condos. Last but not least, a stop at Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island Wiener Stand on Main Street is a highlight for locals and visitors alike. This 100-plus-year-old business is a classic. (Heather likes to pair her coney dogs with a Faygo Red Pop.)
- 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 when you’re visiting Fort Wayne, 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 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.
- Fort Wayne is home to some beautiful parks. Our favorites are Lakeside Park, Foster Park and Promenade Park, but there are more than 85 parks in the system around the city, each with its own personality and purpose. Lakeside is renowned for its rose gardens and sunken garden, and on any weekend between April and November you’re likely to catch a wedding in action. Foster Park on the city’s south side boasts a variety of flora all summer long, but you can’t miss the tulips every spring. Mixed in among the long-standing lilac bushes, these brilliant blooms signal to every resident that the long, cold winter has almost come to an end. Promenade Park is Fort Wayne’s newest park, located downtown on the river. You can boat, play cornhole (an Indiana favorite!) or ping pong, grab a beer from one of our local breweries, take the kids to a magical playground where the equipment doubles as musical instruments, or swing on the swings along the river.
6. In 2014 Fort Wayne got its first taste of street art when Yis Goodwin (Nosego), an artist from Philadelphia, was commissioned to paint a mural on the side of one of our local pizzerias, 816 Pint n’ Slice (a perfect spot for a pint of beer or slice of pizza!). Since then more than a dozen murals have gone up from local, national and international artists. The alleys through downtown are alight with color and, in many cases, lights!
There are things happening in the city. People are visiting Fort Wayne. And the 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.
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