If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. – G.K. Chesterton
In my previous post, I spoke about how the prerequisite for creating any place worth dwelling in is love. I suggested that money without love will lead at the very least to mediocrity and at the worse to design atrocities that are often a violation of the spirit of a place and the people who live there.
South Bend, Indiana, is Pimlico
You have to love to see. When I arrived in South Bend, Indiana, in 2009, its citizens were the worst detractors of the place. The downtown had yet to shake a reputation it had earned a couple of decades prior for being a crime-ridden, unsafe place with little to do. A once glorious downtown had, through terrible urban planning mistakes, been reduced to pawn shops and low-end bars that emptied drunks onto the streets nightly.
And yet, a dedicated group had started loving the downtown years before I arrived, and happily, the city had put resources and money behind them. When I arrived, the old reputation was simply a bad myth waiting to be dispelled. Gone were the pawn shops, the wig shops, and the drunk bars. There were retail shops, restaurants, a pleasant streetscape with newly installed benches and flower beds. Many building facades had been restored through a very successful grant program. There were several popular festivals that brought thousands into the downtown regularly. But South Bend’s transformation was still in its early stages. Many storefronts were still vacant, many facades still needed rehabilitation, and the mega-mall in the next municipality, the one with all the stores that used to be in downtown South Bend, still proved to be a more powerful pull than the collection of stores the downtown had to offer.
Before long, I found myself falling in love with little South Bend, a place that had seen better days. And because I loved her, I could see the city’s potential, the better days ahead. And this seeing inspired my actions. When I walked down the street, the empty storefronts were not merely “empty,” they were an unrealized possibility. It was as though the empty shops were calling out to me to fill them the way a child calls out to a mother to fill her empty stomach.
I was not alone. The as-yet unrealized possibility of South Bend called out to a dedicated core of volunteers, business owners, and city employees. South Bend is turning itself around because people began to love her and continue to love her in spite of her unrealized potential. The historic and once abandoned State Theater in downtown South Bend has become home to a wonderful little brewery, a monthly market, and a series of interesting performances because people loved her and saw the potential. Downtown South Bend is abuzz with people every first Friday of the month because people joined together to create a fun monthly event that has grown in popularity since its bumpy inception. New residences are being built, the empty shops are filling up, and historic buildings are finally being rehabbed. The one-way streets that once directed traffic around the city like a raceway are finally being converted into two-way streets again, all because people loved South Bend and did not “move to Chelsea” — or in South Bend’s case, to the nearby town of Granger. In fact, people are finally moving to South Bend, not merely moving away or visiting during an occasional Notre Dame football game.
Note: South Bend is celebrating 150 years in 2015. The community has banded together to create a year-long slate of activities, celebrations, and projects. The concentration of activity will occur on the anniversary weekend, May 22nd. Find out more at: http://www.sb150.com/.
Galena Park in Texas is also Pimilco
I was recently in Galena Park, Texas, for a meeting. Now Galena Park is not the prime example that would come to mind when the subject is walkability. Galena Park is a small industrial city of just over 10,000 people located on the north bank of the Houston Ship Channel, a highly industrial area given over mostly to rusty ocean-going ships and the facilities to load and unload them. The most common way to enter Galena Park is via Clinton Avenue, a road which the industry in the area backs up onto as if it were a wide alley and not the main thoroughfare though the city. There is little landscape or streetscape to speak of, and the street must be constantly swept to keep it free of the debris common to any area that sees as much truck traffic as Galena Park. There are no restaurants of note in Galena Park — certainly no little gem just on the verge of being discovered by Houston foodies—no cute little clusters of shops or a neighborhood full of pristine expertly preserved historic period homes. And yet I would argue that Galena Park is not only loveable, but loved. And that because she is loved, she is changing.
After my arrival, I stood on the front lawn of Galena Park’s city government building in front of a metal torch mounted on a brick pedestal in the center of the lawn. The torch, a gift from the local American Legion over 50 years ago, used to house an “eternal flame” at its top, which long ago burned out and was never repaired, resulting in a very dead “eternal” flame. With the group that had assembled on the lawn to contemplate the location and design of a new monument to serve as a gateway to the city was a gentleman from the public works department. He spoke of the American Legion with pride. He pointed to a small out-of-the-way historic marker and began to share the history of the city and the important role its citizens had played leading up to the Battle of San Jacinto, those famous 18 minutes during which Texas was born with the defeat of General Santa Anna. This public works official became excited about the idea of incorporating the historic marker into the area by the new monument. Others spoke of incorporating benches by the monument for the frequent visit by the city’s senior citizens, and of wider beautification efforts planned along Clinton Drive which included fencing for industry and an ambitious landscaping plan. The group shared aspirations for a new city hall that would be worthy of the monument they were planning.
Galena Park is loved, of this I have no doubt. How many places can you think of where a town’s retired citizens show up at city hall just to visit, not because they need something, but because they like to go to city hall? We can say about Galena Park what G. K. Chesteron said about Pimlico: that, “If men loved Galena Park as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Galena Park in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.” People right now, this moment, are loving Galena Park into beauty. I have no doubt, given what I know of the people I met there that, given half a chance, they will succeed. Unless, of course, someone who doesn’t love the place, who only wants to use it as a means to some other end, comes in and overrules them in a manner akin to a government bureaucrat taking possession of your child on the pretense that he or she knows better than you do how to plan for their future.
Photo Credit for top of post: Peter Ringenberg, South Bend, IN.