Since moving back to Illinois last year I have taken on a tourist mentality when going back to familiar places. I now seem to see things through a different lens which is sort of refreshing. I like to head out for a short day trip to a nearby town every now and again. On Saturday, the wife and I took a little expedition to Galesburg.
Years ago, Galesburg really never registered on my radar. It was blip along the way on a three and a half hour trip either to college or heading back home. Sadly, I only knew it existed from the roadside markers. I suppose it’s not fair to judge a book by its cover by what you see from the highway, so I thought I’d take a minute to explain that what lies beneath the surface is a hidden treasure.
Although I have been two other times within the past year and half, I have found more to appreciate each time. Galesburg is a city in western Illinois with 32,193 people as of the 2010 Census [INFO]. Known as the home to Carl Sandburg, the city itself dates back to 1837. Celebrating 175 years of rich tradition [HISTORY] this year, the thing that strikes me each time I have visited is that a wealth of historic building stock still exists.
To touch on what I was speaking of earlier, the highways and by-ways of America have intentionally diverted you away from main centers of commerce as some sort of time-space favor for your journey. For those who haven’t traveled through the Midwest, it’s flat and boring as hell and you want to get from A to B asap. That’s good in a sense, but bad in that it restricts you from really SEEING things. On the map above you can see what I mean. Route 34 expidites your travels north and west around the city and Interstate 74 to the east of the city allows you to fly past north and south.
Ironically, or unsurprisingly, in 1977 Galesburg was chosen as one of the three pilot programs for the National Preservation for Historic Trust Main Street program [PROJECT]. The expansion of roadways coinciding with Americans strong admiration for the automobile would force Galesburg to develop in new and now clearly unsustainable ways. Even though there was support from the local Main Street organization and the City had many profiles, surveys, and studies done – more and more building would continue to spread the city outwards.
Motorists that were on their way either to or through Galesburg would be greeted first by the amenities that continued to be built nearest the entrance/exit ramps off the highway. During the same foul swoop of development which evacuated building around the main core of commerce in the city center, a mall was built to the north of the city located by Route 34.
You can read more about what I think of what malls do to cities here:
Renaissance or Ruination?
As was the case around the country, Main Street lost out to the new and shiny, and downtown buildings would fall into disrepair, neglect, and finally demolition.To be fair, there has been much hard work on the part of citizens and volunteers to educate and preserve the city’s rich culture and heritage. What exists today is a testament to that.
Galesburg seems to me to be a very All-American city. It follows the evolution of American building practices and has gone through the same ups and downs over time that many cities have. What currently stands is an important learning tool to quote unquote, build upon. I am very intrigued by similar sized cities that are located just outside a 30-minute drive from the nearest metropolitan areas. From what I’ve observed, they seem to allow for quick, short-term gains to be had at the expense of the long-term development of the community. They want to keep pace with other municipalities by allowing malls, strip malls, new homes built further away from the core all in an attempt “provide” for their citizens. Those attempts have fallen short and now they have been left scratching their heads and are trying to figure out how to attract new businesses and residents.
I don’t know how Galesburg allowed itself to get into the predicament it finds itself in, but at the same time, as the title of this post boasts – I believe Galesburg is ready for a rebound. Sure jobs have left town, there are some poor displays of urbanism downtown, and yes the mall to the north is soon to be featured on deadmalls.com, but there are too many assets remaining that allow for an easier transition into the Galesburg of Tomorrow.
For starters, what is left in downtown still has that charm and authentic architectural interest that makes you stop and stare. There are a wide range of buildings allowing for mixed-uses and can serve a wide range of options. Knox College, a small liberal arts college has a presence just off the central business district. There is an Amtrak station that gives residents and students an alternative to driving. The majority of residential housing is within walking distance of Main Street. There is even a movement geared (pun intended) towards making Galesburg more bike-friendly with some fun artsy bike racks.
Those may be the physical attributes associated with revitalization, but more importantly it seems that the citizen’s mentality is starting to swing back to a grass-roots, roll up the sleeves, get the ship back on course frame of mind. While the old industry may be long gone, and manufacturing jobs drying up (as they are everywhere for good in America), new businesses are popping up, and the creative and entrepreneurial spirit seems to be resurrecting itself.
It took decades to really understand the consequences that come from when we toss aside common principles of city planning for what has been an experiment of economic development. In the case of a small city like Galesburg, it could prove to be a sign of worse times to come if it doesn’t realize that the future is not in outskirts of town, but in its historical center’s past. I’ll place my bet on on cities of this size that have alternative transportation options, continuing education opportunities, and a strong central nervous system to recover sooner than those that choose to operate under the same status quo as years past.
Honesty, there is too much to really capture in one post. I’ll be posting a couple more times throughout the week in hopes to show all the goodness that is in Galesburg.