I was always a sucker for a carnival.
What 8-year-old wasn’t? The smells and sounds, the brilliant colored lights, the soft mechanical hum of machinery that elevated our scrawny bodies above the mass of humanity that pulsed through the arcades and attractions mesmerized us.
Our parents dropped us off with a dollar to spend _ a princely sum to squander any way we saw fit.
Exhausted, dizzy and full of cotton candy we’d wander home, waving to neighbors on lighted porches.
But that Norman Rockwell painting doesn’t exist anymore. There’s a reason why the North End Businessmen’s Association and others no longer sponsor carnivals, and why when they are held, they are confined to the stagnant backwater of abandoned shopping center parking lots _ they no longer attract the best a community has to offer.
Other forms of family amusement have supplanted carnivals, limiting their appeal. What remains is often the stereotype of a carnival’s worst elements; the detritus of a community, lurking there in the shadows just out of view. And they often beget violence, which is why it is a really poor decision to bring a carnival to a struggling but revitalized central business district.
Carnivals by their nature do not enhance the prestige of a community. They do not attract the elegant, the refined, the people with disposable income who will shop for Burberry or Gucci as long as they’re in the area. And they don’t do anything to elevate the prestige and image of a community in need of both. Whole careers and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been dedicated to reversing the image of downtown Elgin as an area haunted by mental patients and seedy characters.
But yet, several Elgin social service agencies and organizations, perhaps naïve about who does _ and doesn’t _ go to carnivals, used an ill-mannered strong man to exert substantial pressure on city hall to secure a permit for two, 4-day events spanning two weekends in the downtown area.
Applying Cicero-esque pressure, in the words of one city hall insider, the point man cajoled, threatened and attempted to intimidate city officials into granting the permit. He was invited to leave city hall on one occasion and on another, insulted City Councilman John Prigge who raised objections. He also told City Manager Sean Stegall, “Four of your bosses are in favor of it and you don’t have a choice.”
The permit was granted because there were no legal grounds to stop it, although it will be closed down at the first sign of trouble, too late to impress those who carry with them the perception that downtown Elgin isn’t a safe place to visit.
Reversing perception is more difficult than reversing reality. Ask any Elginite in the Providence subdivision how often they visit downtown restaurants and bars. They’ll sniff and fix you with hooded eyes as though downtown Elgin is a scene from “Escape from New York.”
And so with quite laudable skepticism, Stegall was extremely reluctant to permit in the downtown area a carnival which, if all goes perfectly well, won’t result in any stabbings, shootings, gang fights or thefts. When that is the best that you can hope for, your chances to avoid further injury to the image of the city are quite remote.
Employing the same fencing and security measures adopted for the last downtown area carnival (in which one person was stabbed on opening night), Stegall and police chief Jeff Swoboda have put in place every measure at their disposal to ensure that this event does not adversely affect the Elgin Green Expo to be held the same weekend not far away. Hopefully, the event's proximity to the police station and busy intersections will dampen the mischief.
Here’s a suggestion to all the members of the social service agencies and community groups that will benefit from the money raised at this 8-day event: Get a little skin in the game. Bring the grandkids and ride the tilt-a-whirl, buy a little cotton candy and throw the darts at the balloons. Come late and make sure to park a few blocks away so you can walk to your cars. Let your kids roam freely to get the full carnival experience.
And hopefully, your presence will imbue a calming effect and insure that no one has the hollow victory of saying, “I told you so.”