Notwithstanding John Mellencamp's paeans to its small-towns, Indiana's reputation as a rural state just isn't that well supported by its demographics. For instance, although Illinois has a population of 13 million people, to Indiana's six, the vast majority of the Illini population is concentrated in the immediate area of Chicago.

Take out Chicago, Aurora, Elgin, Joliet and Waukegan and Illinois' population drops to 5 million people. Take out Indianapolis and its surrounding cities, and the population of Indiana drops only to four-and-a-half million, just half a million less than Illinois.

Now factor back in the greater land area of Illinois (53,000 square miles (again, removing Chicago and its environs from the calculation)) versus that of Indiana (33,000 square miles (not counting Indianapolis or its satellites)) and you get a population density of 95 people per square mile for Illinois versus 136 for Indiana.

Stars on the ground

Years ago, flying my Cessna over the two states at night, I used to wonder about Indiana's "rural" status. Even the most casual comparison of ground lights revealed Illinois to be a virtual desert compared to Indiana. A dark tapestry punctuated only by the occasional rural outpost or sodium lamp in a farm driveway vs. the Hoosier state, lit up like a Christmas tree from Elkhart to Evansville.

And I thought about it again, after being directed to SUBURBS WITHOUT A CITY Power and City-County Consolidation (H. V. Savitch and Ronald K Vogel of the University of Louisville). In their paper, which references IU's own Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, the authors argue that the process of city/county consolidation -- such as happened in Indianapolis in the early 1970s -- isn't driven so much by a desire to improve the efficiency and lower the cost of public services (although that's the reason for consolidation often given by its champions) but rather represents a power grab, or shift, from old-guard urban political actors to new-front suburban "elite" (I do hate the term) leaders centered in finance, education and the media.

In effect, consolidation doesn't represent a merger of county and city but rather a political takeover of the city, particularly the downtown core, by the suburbs. For example, in Indianapolis' case, the donut suburbs surrounding the central city had grown to have a larger population than that of the "city" of Indianapolis. This meant that the selection of the mayor of the new, consolidated city, as well as the selection of most of the city/county council members, went to the suburbs, not the city proper.

An analogous situation for us were if the citizens of Ellettsville, Harrodsburg, Unionville and Stinesville were given a vote for who should be Bloomington's mayor in a situation in which there were more people in Ellettsville, Harrodsburg, Unionville and Stinesville combined than in Bloomington proper. In effect, the residents of those "donut" towns would control the political makeup of Bloomington's elected representatives holding a virtual veto power over the selections of the Bloomington electorate proper.

Civic SCUBA

At which point the city proper becomes little more than a cultural, economic and entertainment support system for the surrounding suburbs -- a situation manifest already in the dichotomy between "downtown" Indianapolis and its suburban satellites.

This isn't all bad, for the political leadership from the suburbs will recognize the utility of locating certain amenities, such as sports venues and cultural attractions within the city proper and will champion, through the consolidated government various tax and financing schemes to make such amenities a reality -- again something we've already seen in our neighbor to the north with its brand-new Lucas Oil Stadium.

But its not likely that those same political forces and suburban elites will see amenities beyond those desired by the suburban electorate. Which means that the residents of the central city proper will see a withdrawal of those public services -- everything from mass transit to social services -- that serve only the central city residents. They will be abandoned by the very political process that they were once assured would bring them greater services, more efficiencies and lower costs.

Which brings me back to Indiana's demographic character. If we are indeed an urban state, a series of central cores surrounded by suburban donuts from Evansville to Elkhart, then it's likely that we will see the experience of Indianapolis repeated again and again as power deconsolidates from those central cores and out to their surrounding suburban belts.

It won't be all bad for the urban cores, like Bloomington, but it probably won't be all good, either.

Gregory Travis can be reached at greg@littlebear.com.