Reinventing Elgin: Icing on the Cake?

My recent Perceptions & Pawnshops post has gotten a lot of attention, with several great comments. (Thank you!) A lot of the comments touched on a common theme: when there are bigger, deeper, systemic problems, image is moot.

Commenter Beth, a non-Elginite looking in, summed it up best with an analogy:

“While I think aesthetics are extremely important, they are merely the frosting on the cake and we all know that you need to bake a good cake first before you put on the frosting. Frosting an old piece of bread is not going to fool anyone once they take the first bite.”

She’s right, and I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve written before about some of the bigger, structural issues that affect our city and its image. Indeed, I make my living creating, massaging and maintaining images. Marketers know that if the product is crap, the best marketing plan in the world is for naught.

We do have our problems, but we can’t neglect our image as we work to fix things.

We have a large low-income population, which is why we have pawnshops, payday loans and their ilk. As commenter Chris pointed out, pawnshops are a better option than payday loans for people in financial distress.

Our schools continue to struggle mightily. To really shine, a city needs good schools. For families with children, the local school’s reputation and test scores can be one of the biggest factors when picking a home. And having poor schools often presents a “hidden tax” when families feel they must pay for private school on top of property taxes.

But crime isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be – in fact, we’re now statistically safer than Schaumburg. As we slowly turn the corner on the recession, businesses are cautiously launching or expanding – sometimes even without government incentives.

Another commenter on the pawnshop post, Chuck, was right when he argued, “The pretense that we can buff our image up into a gleaming city on a hill is delusional.”

However, I’ll argue that we still must be mindful of how our actions affect that image. The bread may be stale, but we shouldn’t sprinkle it with arsenic. Presentation matters. And a decent image will entice people to take a bite or investigate further.

Chuck also mentioned a disparity at the recent special city council session:

“[A]t one time, the discussion was focused on just letting Elgin be Elgin, we are what we are. But in minutes, the discussion was how to improve our image.”

And there’s the rub. Elgin can’t just be Elgin. Elgin’s very soul isn’t content with stagnation and just being. Elgin is an urban city amidst the suburban sprawl, an old industrial city trying to reinvent itself. That reinvention is the key. Long after the factories left, we’re no longer settling. We’re reaching and striving for more.

As Paul Challacombe recently wrote, “[S]omething incremental but fantastic is going on here in downtown Elgin. A ghostly canyon of bricks is being animated, through restoration, human imagination and something resolutely American— entrepreneurs.”

That reinvention entails – requires – crafting a new image rather than accepting the image of who we used to be.

We do have to fix the core. The focus on image won’t fix our schools, and we still have residents who need the services provided by pawnshops and their kin. But talking about our low crime rate and celebrating the good do help bolster our image – which, in turn, attracts more people willing to work to improve our town.

So let’s keep crowing about the good and working to cultivate the kind of image that attracts good, solid residents who will help our town thrive. But at the same time, let’s roll up our sleeves and help solve those structural problems.

We’ve got the ingredients. Let’s make some cake.


17 responses to “Reinventing Elgin: Icing on the Cake?

  1. You mention that we have poor schools. There is nothing wrong with our schools, the books and the teachers. My daughter went thru U-46 and had a much, much more rigorous education than I had in a Lillie white small town Wisconsin school. Thru her advanced courses she was able to test out of 17 credits at the U of I. That was a tremendous advantage for her as you register according to how many credits you have and it allowed her to take a lighter load and or more electives. A good friend of hers that was the valedictorian of the class went on to graduate from the Harvard Medical School. He is now a full fledged surgeon. Several of her class mates are very successful business people and teachers.

    A big part of why people are down on U-46 is prejudices. So many conclude that if there are a lot of blacks and Hispanics then there are gangs etc, etc. My daughter went to school with other races of kids. That was a good learning experience for her as the world today is filled with a lot of races of people.

    You can’t judge a school by its test scores. How is it fair to compare the test scores off a high income all white school like Oak Park with Elgin High? The average of our test scores is low but if a person is not proficient in English how can he or she test well???

    Any student and any parent can get as much from any school as they are willing to put into it. You insist your son or daughter do well, help him with homework, check on his homework and communicate with the teacher, you are going to get a top notch education. We talked every night at the dinner table about the importance of an education and asked her about what she was doing in school. We expected the best from our daughter an her teachers and we got it because we were involved.

    I taught at Lake Park HS in Roselle for 33 years. My classroom was overcrowded on parents night for every class. When we went to parents night at Elgin High, each class would have two or three parents. That is not the school’s fault!!! The parents that were not there do not take an active role in their kid’s education. Their kids are going to have low test scores. You cannot blame the schools for that.

    There is nothing wrong with the U-46 schools!!!

    • Great, well-reasoned comment, Dan – thanks for making it! Admittedly, I don’t have kids of my own, so my experience with U46 is based solely on what I’ve heard in the traditional media and from friends and neighbors who wrestle with the issue. But that’s part of the problem: a lot of the zeitgeist around our schools is less than ideal. Again, perceptions matter. Any time I try to get friends to move to Elgin, they start looking at test scores and school reviews – and look elsewhere. While test scores certainly don’t tell the entire story, and I know many teachers who detest the process, they’re often the best way to compare schools on a level(ish) playing field.

      I think you hit the nail on the head with this, “Any student and any parent can get as much from any school as they are willing to put into it.” My mom was a teacher and always had so many stories about the impact of parental involvement – or lack thereof. Engaged citizens who care about the community are often the most engaged parents.

  2. Hi Crysta – I was going to take umbrage with your comment about poor schools, but Dan Miller beat me to the punch and said everything I would have said (and probably better than I would have said). My daughter is currently a sophomore at Elgin High School and went to Lords Park Elementary and Larsen Middle School. She is now in the honors program. As Dan commented, parents who are engaged and interested and invested in their child’s education will ensure they get a great education at U-46. It’s there for the taking – grab it!!! And please, stop buying into the rhetoric that U-46 is a poor school district. It’s not. You do none of us any favors by repeating that lie.

    • Hi Moira, thanks for the comment – I always appreciate them! In this case, hearing from parents with kids in schools is so helpful, as I lack kids of my own. See my reply to Dan above, but the gist is that engaged parents who are invested in education are the ones that make a difference, regardless of the schools. But people considering a move to Elgin (or anywhere, for that matter) look at things like test scores and reputation. While they certainly don’t tell the whole story, they do matter. As a community, any work we can do to improve them will help.

  3. I am on the other side of the fence on this school issue. I do feel that Elgin has a terrible school system. I pay out of pocket for private Montessori school for my children, as well as driving 15 miles away to get there. If for some reason I could not afford to keep them in private school then I would home school. Also, once the economy improves and we can sell our house we will be moving out of Elgin.

    I went through Elgin schools and I had a very involved mother. Honestly that can only go so far. When the teachers hate their jobs because the district has little for them to work with then they just don’t care. Like any job…if the person doing it is not passionate then you end up with a low quality outcome.

    My neighbor is a teacher at Elgin High and she hates her job so much….she only does enough to get her paycheck. She does not care about the children, and from talking with others she is the “norm” in this district.

    • Shame on her if she only does enough to get her paycheck and does not care about children. You need to encourage your neighbor to get out of education. It is hurting her mental health and without a passion for her job, she is hurting kids. She is not the norm in this district. We all need to stop spreading these nasty, unsubstantiated rumors about U-46. If U-46 goes down the tubes, our house values will go further down the toilet.
      My daughter went to Elgin High. She talked about her education and teachers daily at the dinner table. In four years she only had one teacher that she did not have full respect for. He was in his last year before retiring and was coasting. A bad teacher can happen in any school. If our kids get a bad teacher we as concerned citizens and parents need to work to get he or she removed or remediated or reassigned.

    • Oh my gosh Cassie, if you think for one minute that I would force my child to go to school everyday with teachers who didn’t care (like your neighbor), you have another think coming. Your neighbor is the exception, not the rule, I will add that my daughter aspires to be a high school English teacher at Elgin High School. She has been set on this course for quite a while and generally, when she makes up her mind, she’s set. She can’t wait to educate young people the way she has been educated. THAT’S what you get from a U-46 education.

  4. My daughter is about to go into Kindergarten this year and she would attend Washington Elementary. My wife and I are very concerned about the education she would receive in U46. I believe very strongly in public education and I would prefer that she attend a public schools. But I just heven’t heard anything good about our schools here on the west side; Washington, Abbott, and Larkin. I believe in the ideas that Dan presented in his post about being an involved parent and my wife and I plan to do so regardless of the school my daughter attends. My concern is that I have not heard enough good things about the schools she would attend. As Crysta pointed out the message that is getting out is that the schools are sub-par. My wife and I are tempted to sell our home and move from Elgin to get in a better school district.

    • To sell your home you will have to take a huge loss if you can sell it at all. Most today can’t even pay the remaining mortgage. It would be much cheaper for you to stay and get involved in your schools and your daughter’s education. You can make a difference. It is very satisfying.

      • You’ve made a strong argument Dan. Selling the house right now is clearly not an option and being very involved is the only way to ensure she gets a good education. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Based off of your input I will at least make decisions based off of experience not just hear-say.


  5. Crysta,
    I loved the last two paragraphs of your blog. Great advice:

    So let’s keep crowing about the good and working to cultivate the kind of image that attracts good, solid residents who will help our town thrive. But at the same time, let’s roll up our sleeves and help solve those structural problems.

    We’ve got the ingredients. Let’s make some cake.

  6. There is something wrong with U-46, but as mentioned by other posters, the problem is not the standard canon generally given by people. Its not low-income. Its not “diversity” (aka ethnic or racial background). Its not the teachers and their union. The problem with U-46 on a very basic level is class size (a reflection of the size of our district and the way it is forced to spread funding, IMO).

    The reason why our kids will be going to parochial schools is that I know they will find themselves in an academic environment in which they will have a class size around (or even less than) 20, whereas if we sent them to Lowrie they’d be one of 30 (!) in the first grade.

    (I also like the idea of them not being trapped by the state and their standardized testing methodology of categorizing students, as well.)

    • It was reported in the paper today that Jack and Marlene Shales won an Elgin Image Award for decades of service to Elgin. They really deserved it. I think it is important to note the quote that was given by Jack, “We always said, if you are going to complain, you’ve got to do something about it.” If you don’t like your neighborhood school, you better get involved and work to change things. Our house values are going down the toilet. If we all do not work to improve the image of our schools, our neighborhoods will not keep or attract middle class people.

  7. Though, statistically, there is a striking correlation between % low income students and % of students that meet state standards.

    While I also agree with a lot of what was said regarding the frosting/cupcake analogy, there is also something to be said for making a delicious enough frosting.

    If we can make our frosting tasty enough, people will still eat our crappy cupcake. Take those Lofthouse Cookies, for example. Everyone in my family loves them and its the worst tasting cookie EVER. Has to be the frosting.

    • Aesthetics are everything! Our entry way into Elgin on Villa looks terrible. That gives people coming to Elgin their first impression.

      If the homes in our neighborhoods all look terrible people leave with the impression that Elgin is a slum.

      The way a meal is presented at a restaurant is all important. I am more likely to try the vegetables if they are presented to me in an attractive manner.

      Even if Elgin and our schools have perception problems, people are more likely to buy a home here if the aesthetics of the neighborhood are attractive.

      Our historic architecture is a huge asset to Elgin. People will move to a neighborhood even if it has stresses if the architecture is special. People will stay in a neighborhood even if stressed if their house is special. When a house is remuddled, everyone is hurt. We are only temporary stewards of our historic homes. We have an obligation to keep those fancy details for future generations to enjoy. The Preservation Ordnance protects our historic architecture in our Historic Districts. We need more Historic Districts to protect more of our homes. It is actually all about aesthetics. Had we put a large deck on the front of our house instead of an appropriate porch our little area would have a completely different image.

  8. Rachel Anne Mencke

    I think that you very eloquently make the point that Elgin not only can be, but needs to be honest about what it is while striving for more. For instance, I love the fact that I live in a neighborhood where people play pick-up basketball in the street, and my neighbors shout out and invite me over for a beer occasionally. I’m less keen on the litter blowing in front yards and the hip-hop music that one neighbor blasts from his car speakers in the evening hours, though I suppose it sort of goes with the same semi-urban feel. I don’t think that I have to learn to love the litter or Payday Loan leeches in order to enjoy the panaderias and neighborly chats. Sure, to a degree you take the good with the bad, but there’s also nothing wrong with civic pride and wanting to be the best community you can be, any more than there’s anything wrong in trying to get rid of ones own bad habits.

  9. Pingback: Vibrant Elgin on a Summer Evening | The Adventures of Elginista

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