Vibrant Elgin on a Summer Evening

I was feeling restless this evening, so I set off for a stroll. I meandered through quiet west side neighborhood streets before crossing the Chicago Street bridge into downtown. I passed bars and restaurants, where people were on their way to dinner or drinks. I turned up Villa and back down Division towards the river, into the sunset. I circled Walton Island before settling on the steps, watching the sun set as Iron and Wine flowed through my earbuds.

This evening, from Walton Island, as families and couples strolled and played at sunset.

As I reluctantly headed home through Festival Park, I was thinking of a recent BocaJump column by Mike Bailey. The piece, which has been rattling around my brain since I saw it two months ago , cited vibrancy as the missing piece to Elgin’s revitalization. Bailey explained,

“Vibrancy is hard to quantify and harder to define; you know it when you see it.

Vibrancy is an energy, a sense of purpose that pulsates through the community and, in many successful cities, through the central business district. Vibrancy is a quiet energy, a drive, a feeling of impending success. It is an expectation of excellence that one contributes to and benefits from.”

As I wandered this evening I paid attention to the people I passed. It’s something I’ve been watching ever since I first read Bailey’s piece, because vibrancy comes from people.

On this warm, sticky night, I saw people out walking dogs. Families with young children wobbling on training wheels. Strollers. Serious bikers flying down the bike path. Couples wandering, hand in hand. Solo runners. People fishing at the dam. An older guy watching a heron-like bird. Homeless people. Townhouse dwellers walking after dinner. Casino patrons.

Together, these people contribute to the vibrancy, the energy, that’s beginning to permeate our town.

Bailey pointed to youth as the bringer of the vibrancy we need to nurture. And he’s largely right about the need for a young, energetic populace:

“It is not more parking decks or condominiums. It is not pedestrian malls, covered malls, mini-malls, enclosed walkways, better lighting, dollar days, more fairs and festivals, brick paved crosswalks or tax incremental financing districts.

It is youth. Young people. People who have hope and expectations and embrace hard work and the rewards they believe should come with it. Young families, young college students, young businessmen.”

While Bailey cited the virtues of college towns, that’s only part of the story. Despite ECC and Judson, Elgin isn’t a college town. But we do have young families and young professionals – just the type of people with the energy, the drive, the desire to create and foster that vibrancy. I see them on nights like tonight, or while walking home from my office in the Tower, as mothers lead children to karate or 20-somethings play frisbee or football in Festival Park.

But in some ways, we fight them.

We raise taxes. We focus on the wrong things, battling over bison and pavers, buying crumbling buildings that we can’t afford to fix. Meanwhile, as we’ve debated here, we need to improve our schools and their image. We pay big incentives to international companies after they’ve already decided to locate here, while requiring fledgling start-ups to pay for a license to do business.

We need to court more young families and professionals who will plant roots in Elgin and invest time in neighborhoods, schools and businesses. We’ve got some here, but by making Elgin a great place to raise families and nurture businesses, we can attract even more. How can we take this vibrancy – this energy – and harness it?



9 responses to “Vibrant Elgin on a Summer Evening

  1. I continue to enjoy your words.

    I imagine your comment about buying buildings we cannot afford to fix refers to 302 W. Chicago. That is a cobblestone that is a significant part of our history. It was great of the city to buy it. Too bad they didn’t first look into the cost to rehab. The city does have the money to bring the building back — it all depends on their priorities. They are spending a half million on the new 311 phone system. They are buying a new web site. The bike paths are costing a million. I realize the state is paying for a large part of the bike paths but neither the state nor the city should be spending money on anything but necessities.

    • Thanks for the comment, Dan! I was referring in part to 302 W. Chicago (which I walked by this evening – in fact, I took a picture that I almost added to this post), but also to the Eastside Rec Center, which sounds like a similar situation: the city bought a building in poor repair, without thinking through or fully evaluating the costs to fix.

      I agree it’s about priorities. Why are we spending money on both a new website AND a 311 system? The end goal – connecting citizens with city services – is roughly the same.

      Your last line, “neither the state nor the city should be spending money on anything but necessities,” is so true, but the problem is, we all define “necessities” very, very differently.

  2. Living in downtown Elgin, Sundays are perhaps the hardest day to find that vibrancy, but the calm after a bustling night of disco’s, martini’s, beir-gartens untill 3am in the weee morning… watching the kids run through Festival Park splash pads and folks walking dogs or meandering into many of the churches on the hill… it has it’s own serenity as well for the ‘locals’, although the only retail open in the Antique row of E Chicago on a Sunday is starting to pull in some people a bit more. BTW, the new website will GoLive end of July (a $20k project) – a much needed resource to keep open communication to our residents and help that vibrancy surge all over town. 😉

    • Thanks for the comment, Laurie Faith! I completely agree about Sundays. When I was a student, Sunday was often my study day, and I’d want to get out of the house – but nothing was open in downtown, save the library with its very limited hours, and poor coffee.

      I’m very excited about the new website, as I’m a believer in websites as communication vehicles. I’m less excited about the 311 system, as in my experience with Chicago’s 311 system, the operators usually just told me where to go on the website.

  3. Being in the 50-ish age group (so maybe not exactly who you’re thinking of), I think the way we can bring vibrancy to Elgin is to bring our kids downtown and get them involved. Last weekend, my 16-year-old daughter and I tooled around downtown, checking out the newest shop (Soulful Sparrow), poking around in the antique store, and then to Al’s for ice cream. She loves Elgin, is proud to attend Elgin High School, and we cultivate this love.

    • Moira, this is exactly what I’m talking about – your daughter is a great example of how engaged parents can spark vibrancy that will continue on. Your Soulful Sparrow-antiques-Al’s day is my idea of a great afternoon in Elgin 🙂

  4. Though I no longer live in Elgin, I am still there frequently as family and friends still live there. I hate raising taxes as much as the next person though they are a necessary way of being able to keep things moving and being able to build better services for the community. It seems like this mayor and city council are trying to do a better job of getting the budget under control without sacrificing too many services, activities, and festivals for the community.

    Coming from a completely biased opinion, I think the bison and zoo are well worth fighting for. They were a community institution that was around for over 100 years before the city pulled the plug on its funding. I know the Friends of Lords Park Zoo has done a great job of putting together fundraisers to help cover the costs of fence replacements, etc. In reality, the costs to the city (summer workers, regular maintenance & care for the animals) is a small item in the budget that gets a lot of attention from the community in the summer. Maybe the city should incorporate it into the Elgin Public Museum’s funding as the museum used the zoo a lot for programs and educational purposes in the summer. The bison feeding programs have been a huge success. I surely hope it gets re-opened again in the next year or so. It’s already been closed for far too long.

  5. “We need to court more young families and professionals who will plant roots in Elgin and invest time in neighborhoods, schools and businesses. We’ve got some here, but by making Elgin a great place to raise families and nurture businesses, we can attract even more. How can we take this vibrancy – this energy – and harness it?” Fabulous point, Crysta!

    As a five-year resident of Elgin and a young professional myself, I hear your cries. The hubby and I go on hour-long for walks around the Eastside of Elgin at least once a week and see the potential screaming to be released. I don’t know how many times we’ve started sentences with, “If we won the lottery, we could . . .” But alas, no $300 million lottery winning to transform Elgin into our own “perfect” city, instead a sinking home value.

    Know that despite the economy and confusing-at-best-leadership, you are not alone in your desire for more, better, something.

    On a side note, check out the new Soulful Sparrow in Elgin–shop local!

  6. Crysta,
    I love your web site and it is an example of the vibrancy of young people like yourself that are calling Elgin home. So glad to have you and your family and all others choosing to make Elgin your home.
    Mike Bailey is a very good writer and both he and I go way back as longtime residents of Elgin. I am 59 years young and I remember when Elgin was the place to go to shop. That is long gone and market forces might never bring that back but Elgin in my opinion has been and still is a vibrant city in the suburbs.
    We have high schools that have academies in them. Our daughter took advantage of Larkin’s Academy of Performing Arts. There are countless other public and private schools with a vibrant learning experience.
    We volunteered with Children’s Theatre of Elgin and Fox Valley Youth Theatre while she performed with them from ages 8 – 21. Highlighted by touring The Wizard of Oz to New Orleans on spring break with Jennifer as Dorothy, those years were very vibrant for all those families.
    There are countless other theater groups to get involved with.
    The award winning Elgin Symphony orchestra has given audiences many a vibrant night of listening pleasure.
    We have one of the best, state of the art, and award winning libraries in all of America for a vibrant experience on so many different levels.
    The Centre is another state of the art recreation center second to none for a vibrant experience for young professionals or families.
    There are countless youth sports teams of all kinds. Our son took advantage of all the sports teams.
    How many cities can say they have their own bison feeding program?
    The Gibson group did an outstanding job on our city web site. We have the opportunity to log in to My Elgin and have an interactive experience and give our opinions on a variety of subjects. Take a minute to set up a log in and go in and give your opinion.
    At the end of this month a number of churches are getting together to Love Elgin and the people in need. They hope to double the amount of people they help this year to around 3,000 people I believe.
    I have never been into gambling but for those that are we have our own riverboat to do that.
    Soon the riverfront will be more accessible behind the downtown and we have always had Walton’s Island to enjoy. I would take my kids when young there to feed the ducks.
    There are countless civic and volunteer organizations like Elgin Alive, The League of Women’s Voters, Elgin’s Women’s Club, Kiwanis, and countless others.
    The point I am making Crysta is the vibrancy of a city or town should not be measured by how many stores are available in the downtown to buy more and more things. The vibrancy of a city or town is a measure of the groups and organizations and their purposes you can choose to connect with.
    The other major landmarks of destination like the library and Centre and all that can be experienced at those places also help determine if there is vibrancy to our city. I think we are very vibrant and getting better every day.
    Thanks for reading.
    Common Sense Clarence Hayward
    “A conservative voice in the Elgin community.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s