I moved to the Peoria area 23 months ago, and since then I have been continually asked, “Why Peoria?” From friends and family in Chicago to Dallas, no one has been able to figure it out.
I grew up in a small river town that was set at the edge of suburbia, which allowed for close access to both urban and rural life. It was terribly pleasant, and was perfectly boring for a young kid. By boring, I guess I mean clean, safe, offered great education, provided me with opportunity, and gave me the leverage to do things further on down the road I never had expected. It preserved its history, has a picturesque downtown, and continues to strive to offer the highest quality of life for its residents.
So why leave? For me, it was because there was more to see, more to explore, more to learn, and many more adventures to be had outside Pleasantville. Chicago, the big city was within arms length, was where everyone went to “have a great time” after college. At the time, it almost seemed forced. They’d say, “I could never live in the suburbs again.” Or, “I don’t know why I’d ever live in ______ again, there’s nothing to do.” Mind you, this is a town with a median income of $95,467, over half of its population with a college education, and less than 3% of its people living below the poverty line [DATA].
But that is safe, that is predictable, and that is what had been engulfed in sprawl as just another standard suburb by the time I left in 2006. The next five years of transition didn’t provide any more of a spiritual journey other than some of the best Tex-Mex and bbq my soul could imagine. I went from small, quaint river town with picturesque downtown to a hyper-suburban, big-hair, big SUV, well to do Texas city. All things considered, it was a chance to stretch my legs, see something different, weather the economic storm that was brewing in Illinois, and experience something I never thought would be in the cards for me.
During my time there however, something struck a chord with me when I was renovating our first house in Dallas. I felt a sense of accomplishment and gratification that hadn’t been unearthed since leaving college. I have worked plenty of jobs before, and I guess where I was at in 2009 was a place of reflection. Outside of what was happening right in front of me I hadn’t given one.single.f#ck. what was going on in the ‘real world’ – but a switch flipped.
I started seeing some cool things being done around the city that made me believe anyone was capable of doing great things. I started Googling, researching, and soaking up everything I could find about things that were starting to resonate with me. I always wondered Where would I live when I grow up (true story). I had always pictured somewhere by a coast, with ‘a job’ and maybe somewhere fun to live. So where the hell is that? East coast, west coast, a college town, Europe?
Sitting in front of Excel spreadsheets got monotonous and I was getting anxious to start the next chapter of my life. This is where I have to mention that my American Dream was achieved in the usual step-by-step manner. I traveled the path of many by going to college, finding the love of my life, getting a dog, getting married, buying a house, driving what I thought was a nice car, and that was by the age of 28. So then what? You can finance your dreams pretty easily, and sometimes dreams are more attainable and surreal than advertised.
I don’t take for granted what I’ve been able to do in my short time here, not by a long shot. In fact, I look at others who are doing far more than I could ever imagine as inspiration and with a competitive eye. But the standard path that older generations have carved for the younger ones is lacks substance and often times not very meaningful. What I mean by that is that it is very consumption-based, consumer-driven, and pretty hollow at the core.
Nowadays, it isn’t as significant to just achieve the American Dream – since we went out of our way to subsidize it to the fullest. What else? is where I’ve moved onto after completing the renovation of our house in 2010 and subsequently selling that house.
It makes you reflect on a lot of things. Did I just get rid of everything I worked so hard for? What do I do now? Although, in a way it’s also refreshing. A clean slate. A new beginning. And on March 13, 2011, after much deliberation, we packed up our bags and moved back north. We knew what we were in for. My wife grew up a stones throw away from Peoria in a nearby town. I had visited the area since about 2001 when we began dating.
Peoria is a gritty, blue-collar, old manufacturing city, and there’s no jobs, no nothing as they say. “What in God’s name could you possibly want with that city?” For me, and I’m sorry to make a long story long – but it is a bounty of opportunity.
As someone who has been interested in real estate for years, and filtering through home listings in the Peoria area 3 years before I moved here, I found that there are some houses that the deal seems to good to be true. Houses from $2,500 and up it seemed almost unreal. Some are in decent condition, others unfathomable how bad they are. Sure, there were stories on MSN’s homepage that told of $500 houses in Detroit, but that was only there right?
Not the case. Despite having the typical amenities that you would expect to find in a region of 374,000 people, rich history, beautiful vistas, and a generous community with hearty Midwestern values. It may have a tough exterior, but it what it won’t tell you is – it needs help. I’ve forced myself to go to meetings I would’ve otherwise not went to, get involved in places nobody else wants to, put my name in the hat for whatever I can. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a range of people from all walks of life in the past 23 months.
To a man (and woman), all have told me they’d like to see things change. Most want something more, don’t know how to do it, or don’t know where to turn. There are people like myself who haven’t lived here for more than a couple of months that want to make a difference. Peoria is a pretty traditional place, and people tend to move here for pretty traditional reasons (family or job). But it is at a tipping point. It has to create more meaningful substance to ensure that it develops into a more prosperous city and doesn’t stagnate any further.
It is because of the potential to rebuild the Peoria of the future and to become something of a pioneer of innovation in an area that isn’t perfect that excites me. My hometown will always be mine, and I’ll be proud of it forever, but my new hometown which is full of unrealized potential, exploration, learning, and adventure is where my future is at. Peoria is a big city on a river, and I see a lot of where I grew up in it. My project Go Urban, Young Man is a call to arms to reclaim those downtrodden areas that no one thinks of as “The Next Big Thing.” The foundation has already been laid in the places that have decayed and been left behind.
Why Peoria? For me, it’s because the possibilities are endless, even if it’s not perfect right now. It’s also a chance to give others the opportunity to make it better for themselves.
Please check out my project here: Go Urban, Young Man donate, share it, Tweet it, Like it, rinse and repeat.