The Idle: An oasis in the midst of traffic

Indianapolis' Idle, an oasis on the interstate

Tom Battista is the kind of guy who tends to veer off the beaten path. His path is a snake path cutting through bushes and trees in a most off-the-beaten-path place. "When you get into here, all of a sudden you're no longer in the city," he said. "You're in the middle of a forest."

Well, a small forest, in a small triangle of land, wedged between traffic-choked freeways in Indianapolis. That's where, a few years ago, inspiration struck. "There's this hill that's been planted with trees," he recalled. "And it just seemed like, if we could just put some seats out there, people would sit out there and watch traffic."

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In Indianapolis a highway median was the perfect place in which to erect a miniature park, where visitors could gaze upon cars speeding (or crawling) by. CBS News

Battista was walking home one night when he had an idea: Build a park where people could relax by sitting and watching other people sit in traffic. "All these people traveling through our city, our river of cars," he said. "Actually, if you close your eyes, it could be the white noise from the ocean." A shade screen would provide cover from the "brutal" sun.

He even had a clever name in mind for his pocket park: "The Idle." (Get it? Like what a car does in traffic?)

It turns out that Battista never met a crazy idea he didn't like, from living off the land in a cabin he built himself as a 21-year-old, to staging a basketball game on an aircraft carrier that he leased for $1, to doing his actual day job, which is (and we're not kidding) being Jimmy Buffet's stage manager.

So to him, building a park in an overlooked highway median seemed perfectly normal.

"We don't have rivers and we don't have mountains and we don't have oceans, but we do have traffic," he told correspondent Luke Burbank. "I'm not saying it in a bad way. I'm saying this is what we have. Let's use what we have."

Burbank first heard about Battista through his other job, on the NPR quiz show, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," where, let's just say, he was skeptical: "Battista says he got the idea five years ago while walking along the freeway, which, it should be noted, is almost never a sign things are going great in your life."

So, after mocking him to millions of radio listeners, it only seemed fair that Burbank come check the project out for myself.

He asked Battista, "The first time you did this – and actually, maybe even now – were you technically trespassing?"

"I'm not saying!" he laughed.

Battista's idea was actually pretty big – creating this public space, but also reuniting two old Indianapolis neighborhoods that had been torn apart in the 1960s by construction of the interstates: "On this side was Holy-Rosary. On the other side was St. Pat's. And it was an Irish neighborhood."

And it turns out his interest in reuniting people from both sides of the highway is really very personal. "My mother, a Murphy, my dad's Italian, Battista, they would have never gotten married if they didn't meet before that stupid interstate came through!"

"You wouldn't exist!" said Burbank.

"I might not even exist because that interstate divided these neighborhoods."

But, his dream, noble as it sounded, was still at that point just a dream. And then something surprising happened: six-and-a-half years after the first inspiration, after dealing with maddening local bureaucracy, and organizing countless hours of volunteer labor, and getting local artists to contribute their work, Tom Battista actually built the Idle.

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Tom Battista and Luke Burbank kick back at the Idle. CBS News

Burbank asked, "Are you happy with how it turned out?"

"I'm very happy," Battista replied. "It's because you can come here any time of the day or night, and there'll be people that will be here, and you can talk to 'em, and it's refreshing because everyone thought that it would never work. They thought it was a dumb idea. And it turns out it's a great idea."

A great idea that Bashiri and Uzuri Asad appreciate. "It's very much an abstract place to hang out," Bashiri told Burbank.

And how about the noise?

"It turns into, sort of, a lull," said Uzuri. "It's not distracting or annoying at all. It's just, like, air going by."

Attendance is judged by how quickly the trash cans fill up. 

For Tom Battista, this oddball park might be the accomplishment of his lifetime. "I mean, God, who would have thought, you know, a simple thing that we were gonna do with volunteer labor, you know, and now it's this huge thing – it's amazing!"

The Idle is located, along the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, at 800 Virginia Avenue, Indianapolis, in the middle of Interstate 65 just north of the juncture with I-70. 

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Traffic-watching at the Idle.  CBS News

     
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Story produced by Amol Mhatre.