This is the first column I wrote for BocaJump. I thought it might be interesting, since nearly two years have passed since it was first published. For the time being read this and there will be a new column soon about comedy night in the Martini Room.
There is an ancient, snide joke about global-finance that walks down the pin-striped corridors of Wall Street and mutters in the tweedy mahogany of faculty lounges, and it goes something like this: “Brazil is the country of the future and always will be.”
I get the gag—but believe it or not, I don’t think about Brazil on a daily basis—yet the punch line does express the way I see our own downtown Elgin. And I see that place more days than I don’t.
I am also more than old enough to have seen a much crisper Elgin ‘village’ back in its heydays of retail splendor, then latter in its several wisps of a ghost town, and as / or many tax-subsidized “redevelopment “ projects came and went.
I saw the Eligin Watch clocktower crash to a wrecking ball, the casino ‘riverboat’ float up and down a shallow river for no apparent reason, and now I try to perambulate my wheelchair through the many ditches dug for our new picturesque brick-lane crosswalks and renewed infrastructure.
All this never-ending reinvention, never quite resolved hubbub, and sometimes desolate ambience could taint a jaundiced eye, could provoke a sarcasm of my own, or maybe just an (almost) silent sigh, but I remain the optimist.
It was Jane Jacobs, a writer who wrote so persuasively about the urban landscape, who said with some salience, that “new ideas come out of old buildings.”
And so it is today, here in 2010, pockets of enthusiasm and entrepreneurial chutzpah are poking out from all these venerable brick facades, half-used, but ultimately, quite beautiful old buildings. Our Town is pleasant to look at, but an empty conundrum down at the level of the streets and a mystery up on the story or two above.
But it reminds me that there is no such thing as a “small” business to person who owns one. It reminds me that this is still a working class town, not a suburb of any kind other than the kind I would hyphenate – call it “sub-urban” – a place that can provide the both character and experience of a city out here where the corny plains of Illinois meet the rust of Chicago. It reminds me that this still could be a very good place to live.
So, a few juggled balls tossed in the air about this future of ours that always will be:
1.) Retail is never coming back downtown and east of the river. Department stores and even the once-dreaded indoor mall competitors have gone the way of vanishing species. You can drive up to or down to the Algonquin or Geneva “Commons” and see how retail corridors have been re-invigorated, commodified, streamlined (and quite honestly) improved. Perhaps the only real tyrant in America is the American consumer—so why be nostalgic for something made better—or apologize for how we have chosen to drive to where we shop? The only thing in store for our stores will have to be something more unique than that.
Randall Road is the new Fox River. And what the trendy ‘commons’ won’t provide you, the nearby big budget boxes will. The only type of commerce that will survive downtown will have to be more personal than commercial.
2.) Did you ever wonder why there never was a Starbucks in downtown Elgin? Well, Starbucks does intense research on their locations, so much so, that their competitors sometimes just follow them around. Downtown Elgin was never their kind of place, which as far as I’m concerned may speak well of our essentially blue collar and ‘down market’ nature. Social engineers love to talk about ‘diversity’, but we don’t have to, because we just are that way of the many, the normal, and the unpretentious. So I suppose we’ll never look like Naperville. or even Geneva, but then on the upside we’ll never look like Disney World either. Truth be told, in the end I’d rather do business with someone I know than with a corporate franchise. Sometimes, fewer choices are the better ones.
3.) Patience is a virtue, and I guess in the end, we’ll be glad to have redone so much of our antiquated downtown infrastructure while we had the money to do so—even though all this seemingly random and redundant construction has beleaguered us for years.
But like I said, if it bugs you, you should try it in wheelchair.
So that’s enough for now, even though the surface was but scratched. One purpose of this new website is to discuss. I’ll take my gesture of optimism to open a conversation, and then talk about specific places, people and things downtown and elsewhere in Elgin as we go muddling along through potholes and promise.