On May 18th, I posted about myMAINSTREET, a concept in which I drew inspiration from The Better Block Project out of Dallas. This was to be a working collaboration between the Pekin Main Street and Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce (two organizations of which I belong). The purpose is to revitalize certain blocks of our downtown.
A developer in town had contacted me saying that he was looking to have his buildings, which are located on what is known as the 200 Block, “staged” for an open-house like event that was going to be held during the Chamber’s monthly Business After Hours – a networking gathering of local business folk usually set in a Pekin-area business.
Before Renovation Pictures
First, let me preface the recap of the event by saying this is not a new idea, not all my idea, nor is this a complete version of what other complete/open streets concept projects are. Rather, this was a small seed planted in a city that is unfamiliar with such ideas.
Since moving from Dallas 15 months ago, I have been trying to spread the word about doing a Better Block-esque project and eagerly waiting for a chance to implement it here in town. So I jumped at the opportunity. I had three weeks to make a two-hour impression that would hopefully linger in the subconscious of those who witnessed it for months to come.
To show the community of Pekin, Illinois that with vision, creativity, and energy it can reclaim what has been a lost block both socially and economically for the past few decades.
Using preservation as a basis to stabilize historical buildings and a downtown block, ultimately leading to a more innovative, sustainable, vibrant, and economically viable city block.
History of the Block
The buildings of the 200 block date back to the 1820’s and have gone through the evolution that buildings typically go through when they serve their cities for such a long period of time. However, the 200 block of Court Street has been on an island of its own for several decades. A bridge that was built in 1974 and the need to improve flow of truck traffic in the downtown unintentionally cut the block off from future growth. The block is highlighted in yellow and the red arrows represent several 3-lane, one-way traffic roads.
Traffic coming off the bridge from the West has no option but to speed past the block. The only way to access this 200 block from the bridge is to turn right and cross three lanes of traffic to turn left into the block. From the East, you can circle the block following the one-way roads or directly from Court Street. From the South you have a good view of the block but can get caught in the rip tide of traffic as well. A vacuum is created by the flow current traffic design.
The event itself was born from having a property owner that was looking to display his buildings he had been rehabbing over the past year. By utilizing the Chamber of Commerce’s Business After Hours as a means to do so was a unique opportunity for me to embrace. In order to help promote the event and sell the idea to possible volunteers and pop-up shop owners, I created the theme of “History In The Making” and a flyer to distribute.
The three weeks leading up to the event was a time for me to put my mind, muscle, and money where my mouth was. People had read and heard about what I was trying to do, but there was still a disconnect with what they were imagining it to be. I had set expectations high and was hustling to make sure they would be met. Below are some highlights of what I was looking to accomplish and messages I was trying to send.
Attract small business owners or individuals that might be looking to open their own store to fill in the vacancies on the block. Create pop-up shops not only to show what could be there and do the economic development work to tie the block together as opposed to letting it become a “whatever we can get block.”
Display the storefronts as clean and welcoming.
Highlight behind the building parking as a viable storage for vehicles.
Highlight the use of alternate transportation into the block by bringing in a bike rack and demonstrating a pedestrian friendly sidewalk environment.
Create a true mixture of building uses from residential, office, service, restaurant, and retail.
Improve the streetscape by bringing in softening elements such as potted plants, hanging baskets, and flowers which had previously been absent.
With flyer in hand, I targeted a handful of businesses that I felt would be good to try to relocate for this demonstration. Using Craiglist as a good way to reach out to the local artist community, I was hoping to find some musicians for the event. With a subtle message that I was trying to convey regarding supporting small businesses, I created a sign to be displayed in each storefront window.
I have to say that the results were very satisfying. With each day that went by, it seemed that another business or individual was interested in helping out in one way or another. With a couple of days of preparation left, everything was starting to fall into place. I spent a good three days preparing the empty lots behind the block to show as a possible parking solution to this city’s perceived parking issues. The day of, I spent time cleaning the buildings and setting up for the event itself. It was one of the busiest and craziest days I have endured in a long while.
At 4:00 P.M. people started to notice what was going on and interest was piqued. When 4:30 came around, people came in to tour the buildings and see what had been missing on the block for years. There were smiles and a youthful sense of curiosity which was a breath of fresh air. The evening ended in a flash. Come 6:30, everyone had departed and the event concluded.
Renovation Progress and Event Pictures
The next day I was eager to see the write-up in the local newspaper. It seemed to make a pretty solid impact on those who witnessed and attended. Except for me telling you this here, it was not mentioned in the article that I had a hand in putting this event together. To me that’s fine. In all of this I’m not looking for headlines or a thank you. What I am looking for is other individuals that have vision, some creativity, and the energy to willingly step up and move their community forward. I am very opportunistic, but I am also very realistic. If what was displayed for those two hours is not taken to heart and made permanent, this area will go back to the way it has been for years.
I would like to take the time to thank everyone else who played a part in making this event a success:
The Vinyl Art Studio – great vinyl lettering for the storefronts!
Jake’s Place – mock barbershop and barber to yours truly.
Phat Jax – for our motorcycle shop.
Relics – helping outfit our boutique.
Kountry Nook- adding to the boutique.
CJ’s Cafe – providing the food and beverage for the evening.
The Nathan See Quartet – adding some much-needed soothing sounds.
Little Ade’s – for letting me steal a bike rack for a few hours.
Heights Flowers – added the color and beauty the block has been missing.
…and of course thanks to everyone that could make it, hopefully there will be more block changing events to come!