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?

 

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Master

I usually rather relish the challenge of being really busy.

The last month has been incredible, though, and pushed me to the brink. But finally, after years of being a “Jill of many trades,” I’m a Master of one.

My final Finals Week included a giant presentation, a 16-page paper, a car accident and a summer cold, which lead directly into NeighborWorks, a graduation pub crawl, my baby sister’s wedding featuring scores of relatives…add in some city council meetings, more pawn shop drama, a big dash of disappointment, an exploding bike tire… oh, and some gigantic (but very promising) changes at work.

But it all came to a head Friday when I rose early and drove the unfamiliar path to Evanston. I parked along the beach, met up with my friend Crystal to claim my cap and gown, and set off for graduation. We rode the Purple Line, which seemed fitting, and navigated the unfamiliar campus, finding the smattering of other classmates who had opted to join the big convocation ceremony in Ryan Field.

It was hot, with unrelenting sunshine. We wilted in our purple polyester and tried valiantly to avoid mortarboard tanlines. But we listened, rapt, as Very Serious People gave Very Serious Speeches, spiked with just enough levity and reality. We watched the creator of Sesame Street, Joan Ganz Cooney, receive an honorary degree. Paul Farmer, the genius behind Partners in Health, spoke about “failures of imagination” and their ability to stifle change and progress. He urged us to forge partnerships and collaborate, and to stay creative and curious. (Seriously, read Mountains Beyond Mountains. Thanks for the tip, Amber. I’ll never be quite the same.)

But as I gazed around Ryan Field – I hadn’t been inside since Marching Band Day in high school – I got chills, despite the heat. I had told my parents not to come to the Friday ceremony, as it was large and sprawling and impersonal. The degrees were conferred en masse, by school, and my fellow Medill students rose in a single swoop, our gowns sticking to our sweaty legs while we beamed for the Jumbotron.

Afterwards, four of us peeled off our gowns and fled campus for a pub where we devoured burgers and beer and plenty of water to try to rehydrate.

Friday night, my house was attacked by the SWAN bandits, who festooned my driveway and steps with streamers and balloons and congratulatory signs that made me grin.

And then… Saturday. Saturday was our small, intimate Medill convocation. My parents picked me up and we drove, again, to Evanston. I pretended to know the campus as we took a flurry of pictures as storms threatened.

The ceremony was perfect, with just 20 students and nearly as many faculty. We laughed and teared up during our classmate’s speech as he traced our journey, replete with the frustrations, challenges and triumphs that bonded us.

Afterwards, new Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications diplomas in hand, we talked and hugged, taking pictures in every possible combination, introducing families to friends. But we were all lingering, reluctant to leave, knowing that this was the end of something magical and big. We’ll stay in touch, of course, but I doubt we’ll ever again all be in the same place at the same time.

Every day, thinking through problems at work or even just consuming media, I’ll remember what I’ve learned and absorbed. And I’ll especially remember those who shared the journey.

Medill Part Time IMC Class of 2012

Stream of Consciousness: The Kennedy

Spring is always a whirlwind. But the last few weeks have been exceptionally whirly. I’m in the last quarter of my Master’s program. (I hand in my final paper in a mere 20 days – not that I’m counting.) Spring fever and senioritis are taunting me. The yard needs work – especially since my neighbors keep beating me in the mower wars. It’s Preservation Month here in Elgin, replete with too many activities. I work full time. And I try – usually somewhat successfully – to balance it all with a social life.

Hence, my thoughts have been a bit disjointed, to say the least. I have scraps of ideas for blog posts, but no time or concentration to actually finish them.

While driving to class two weeks ago, I had yet another idea – I should just jot down all the random thoughts that spring to mind while stuck in traffic. I grabbed a couple of gas receipts from the console and started taking notes.

I hate driving into Chicago when there’s traffic. I’ve always been a train girl and prefer to use commuting time to read or write or just think. But my Thursday class is at an odd time and on the main downtown Northwestern campus near Water Tower. If I took the train, I’d get home at midnight. By driving, I’m usually home by 10:30. This is (mostly) worth the 90-120 minute drive into the city on Thursday afternoons. I make a big mug of tea, turn on the radio, and get comfortable. So here’s a sampling of what flitted through my head (and portions of the soundtrack) for 41 miles and 105 minutes between Elgin and Chicago.

I hate the stop lights along State Street in downtown Elgin. Can’t we synchronize them?

Ugh. Radio traffic people are saying the Kennedy between O’Hare and downtown is 50 minutes. Can’t wait to see how long it takes by the time I get there. No more talk radio for me.

Whoa. Is that a tank? Like a tank-tank? WTF?

Man, this tea is hot. Scalding. I really need to remember to let it cool before I put the lid on.

I’m kind of hungry.

Blunderbuss – Jack White’s new solo album just came out. I keep hearing it’s great, and the first single isn’t bad. I should download it.

I always wonder about the people whose houses back up to 90. Especially at night.

Sometimes I wish Elgin was closer to Chicago. But then it might be Schaumburg, and that wouldn’t be good. At all. Schaumburg is what’s wrong with suburbia.

REM – What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

That little A4 is cute.

Planes – launching into the wild blue yonder. Where are they going? I always try to read the insignia and figure out the airline, and extrapolate from there. And then I make up stories about their journeys. Such a travel nerd.

Tom Petty – American Girl

Cook County gas prices – suckers.

Those almonds are supposed to be for after class.

Tea finally cooled enough to drink. But apparently I didn’t rinse the  travel mug lid out well enough – quite the coffee influence. Yech.

The Grand Victoria’s billboards are very blah. No wonder they’re losing market share. I wonder if they do their marketing in-house.

Stone Poneys – Different Drum. I never knew who sang that song. Huh.

That little package of almonds didn’t have many nuts.

Hey look! The gray A4 again!

MGMT – Time to Pretend – “Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?” Reverse commute, my ass.

Does anyone else flip off the IPASS sensors? At least the “Rod Blagojevich, Governor” signs are gone. I hope he’s enjoying prison.

Why do I only ever see Porsches on the expressway and never on surface streets? Other than the one that parks at the National Street train station.

The United electronic billboard always lists “serving 370 destinations.” I wonder how many I’ve been to. And how many more I’ll get to. Too much world, too little free time.

Grouplove – Tongue Tied

I really need a new pair of glasses. But maybe I can just repurpose my old, post-college pair. They’re suspiciously similar to the hipster Warby Parker ones everyone’s getting now. Maybe I was just 8 years ahead of the curve.

I’ve never seen the “Special Alert When Flashing” traffic light actually flash. I wonder what merits that. And whose job it is to flip a switch. Are there criteria? Who monitors them?

Semisonic – Closing Time – oh, high school

It was so dreary when I left the house, and now there’s full sunshine. Glad I have the old sunglasses in the car, even if they are rose-tinted. They rather fit my Pollyanna side.

The Taco Bell Dorito thing looks so gross. Like stomach-turning gross. But man, am I hungry.

Why do Mini Cooper drivers always look vaguely British?

Touhy – why is it pronounced “too-ee”?

Ravinia tickets went on sale today. I wonder if there’s anything worth attending. I hope Elgin’s budget cuts don’t hit the summer outdoor concerts too hard. When’s the first one?

The Killers – Spaceman

Korea Town… I’ll bet there’s good Korean BBQ somewhere in Korea Town. There’s supposedly a pretty good place in Schaumburg, too. I should investigate.

Central Avenue? Central to what?

Naked and Famous – Punching in a Dream

What’s the first impression people have of Chicago? If they’re coming from O’Hare and get stuck in this traffic…

Brilliant, if a bit mean.

Damn you, Blue Line. And you too, Metra. Mockers.

Though the Montana ad campaign is smart. Get people thinking about wide open spaces during their smelly urban commute, standing in the middle of the expressway. I’ve heard Montana is kind of magical in that sense.

Radiohead – Karma Police

Hello again, little gray A4.

Lalalalalalalala

When traffic finally starts to free up a bit – just past where 90/94 merge – I feel like we drivers get greedy with the sudden movement and try to do too much, too fast. Which actually forces us to slow down again. If only we could just agree: “Yes, it will suck to go 20 miles/hour for the last 10 miles of the commute, but it will be a nice, steady speed,  with none of this braking nonsense.”

I wonder if the other group members in my class actually did the reading for tonight. It’s kind of hard to have group discussions when they don’t. Wish I was in a better group. I’m 7 years older than most of them.

Offspring – Why Don’t You Get a Job

The express lanes are never in my favor.

Ohio feeder ramp, I love you and your blissful lack of traffic. Even if it feels like going through the Disney-fied part of downtown. How long has it been since DisneyQuest, or whatever it was called, closed? Still, tourists, ye gads.

Soundgarden – Burden in My Hand

Michigan Avenue! Almost there! I can tolerate these stoplights. But the cabbies are fearless. Please don’t hit me.

I love how the city nearly falls into the Lake. I loved living so close to the lakefront, even on those awful bitter blustery January days, waiting for the 146 bus. It just stretches into infinity, beyond the horizon, especially on those crystalline summer days. Summer. Soon.

Parking garages still make me nervous, but I’m getting better. And Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” is actually kind of perfect for subterranean driving…

And…park. Thank goodness. Now to find dinner.

April Summer Thunder

Much too dark for 5 PM

I strolled downtown this evening for a Thai New Year celebration with friends. As I left home, the sky was ominous, again, battleship-dark clouds heavy with rain lurking in the distance. I gambled and walked the mile, flipping my music to minor-keyed songs that seemed fitting.

All night, the perfect summer storm had raged, shaking the house and setting off car alarms as July-intensity thunder roared for hours. Strobe-lightning pierced my blackout curtains, lighting up my bedroom like daytime. The cat burrowed her face under a blanket, snoring deeply, but I kept waking, peering out over the river as lightning danced through town.

Before

Typically, I love summer storms, but this one was particularly ferocious, and I fought the urge to go check the basement as sheets of rain pinged against the siding. (In the  morning light, wet pawprints on the basement stairs confirmed what I had assumed. Luckily, the seepage was minimal and quickly squeegeed away. Looks like I’ll be cleaning gutters again soon.)

After

After such a strangely warm spring that brought a blaze of tulips nearly a month early, the summer storm seemed out of place. Nights are still cool, perfect for my lightest flannel pants and deliciously bare feet under a blanket. But the storm decimated the tulips, scattering petals across the yard, and brought down still-naked branches and twigs.

And now, thunder rumbles again, bringing another round.

Trains, Abraham Lincoln and a Taste of History

Today is my sixth housiversary! I closed on this 120-year-old beauty – full of hidden charm and stories – six years ago today. Last year’s fifth housiversary felt like a bigger deal, but I’m still feeling nostalgic today.

As I sit at my desk, I hear train horns echoing across the river as they rattle into Elgin. I chose my location in part for its proximity to such trains, as the 7-minute walk to the Metra station is easy. (While I now only commute one day a week, I have made that walk hundreds of times in six years, from sunrise to sleetset.)

I grew fascinated by the people on the trains, watching the same people interact day in, day out.  I even came up with standard descriptors for the late-night crowd.

I’ve really been surprised by how many other people are intrigued by trains. Sure, little kids’ eyes widen when the see the train, but there are quite a few grown-ups who are also captivated.

Which brings me to the 2015 Lincoln Funeral Train. A group is building a replica of the train that carried President Lincoln back home to Illinois after his 1865 death. Lincoln’s funeral procession traveled 1600 miles from Washington, DC to Springfield, IL, stopping in 12 major cities for memorial services.

President Lincoln played a major role in promoting railroads, and was instrumental in making the transcontinental railroad a reality. And Illinois, of course, was the crossroads of the system. You can still observe this, riding a Metra train as it slithers through the railyards on the west side of Chicago.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the funeral train procession, the 2015 Lincoln Funeral Train group is preparing to embark on a similar procession with a replica train in April 2015.

Right now, there’s a replica of the 1860s locomotive, the Leviathan63, available for viewing at Elgin’s Gail Borden Library on Saturday, April 21. The group is also hosting a fundraising dinner – complete with an Abraham Lincoln impersonator – that evening to raise funds for the project.

Tickets are available online or at Ace Hardware (Spring and Lillian locations), the Elgin Historical Society, and Miller Insurance Services at 1108 Larkin.

I’m eager to see how the procession unfolds.

Donald Duck, Taxes and You

As I grumbled my way through my taxes this afternoon, I kept thinking of a little gem of a Disney video I stumbled over recently.

The government needed to raise money – lots of money – to keep fighting World War II. Though the federal income tax had been introduced via the 16th Amendment in 1913, the Revenue Act of 1942 raised rates, reduced exemptions and added a 5% “Victory Tax” on all incomes over $624 ($7059 in today’s dollars).

To convince citizens of the need to pay their share, the government hired Disney to make this video. After a strong dose of patriotism, Donald Duck walks through the relatively simple income tax form. In 1942, he made $2501 in income, paying $13 in federal taxes (an effective rate of 0.52% – versus about 21% today).

The narrator stresses, “It’s your privilege – not just your duty – your PRIVILEGE, to help your government by paying your tax, and paying it promptly. Taxes for guns, taxes for ships, taxes for democracy… taxes to beat the Axis!”

After the four minute mark, it starts to get really dark. I could dissect it line by line, but it’s really incredible how the government leveraged war and the defense of democracy as a call for taxation. And remember that Disney produced this!

At the same time, I marvel at how far it’s gone. Taxes are too high in general, but I somewhat prefer my local taxes, where I get a quasi-itemized bill showing how much goes to the city versus the schools versus the forest preserve, etc. (Though I quibble with how it’s spent, at least it’s spent locally, where I can see it in action). But the federal taxes I pay every paycheck and reconcile each spring – with huge sums going to the morasses that are Social Security and Medicare – just make me sick.

And the state… well, Illinois is just a lost cause.

It certainly doesn’t feel like a privilege to pay my taxes.

Getting Money out of Elections?

Wouldn't it be nice if a candidate was more worried about filling their "war chest" with ideas and solutions instead of cash?

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Stephen Dubner, co-author of the New York Times best-seller Freakonomics. We discussed “the hidden side of everything,” namely, finding unexpected insights buried in data. (My resulting post focused on asking smarter questions to find answers lurking in piles of data.)

Since it was the day before the Illinois primary, I asked him to expand on a recent claim that campaign spending has a very limited effect on election outcomes. Research by his Freakonomics co-author, Steven Leavitt, found that doubling spending only increased a candidate’s share of the popular vote by 1%.

Recent primaries have reinforced the uneasy relationship between spending and results. Dubner mentioned that candidates who garner more contributions tend to be those who are more active and involved with their campaigns. They’re often more charismatic. These factors contribute to their popularity at the polls, too, making it difficult to separate the effect of spending from other factors.

My curiosity piqued, I asked Dubner whether they had looked at the effect of spending on municipal elections, where campaign “war chests” are often more like piggy banks. The Freakonomics team hasn’t done any research on this aspect, but Dubner speculated that a little bit of money may go farther on the local level, where name recognition is harder to come by.

That makes sense. With national or state-level elections, the media is focused on a couple of big races. At the local level, the media’s attentions are splintered among all the races, especially in a major media market like Chicago.

A year ago, campaign signs were in full bloom ahead of the local city council seats and mayoral election, which got me thinking about the role of signs in elections.

Last week, a Facebook comment about the lack of “re-elect” signs re-ignited the thought. In municipal elections, candidates often face very tight budgets. Unlike at the national level (or state level, particularly in Illinois, it seems), local politicians aren’t in it for a career. Many do it on the side because they want to make a difference. (Call me Pollyanna if you must.) Hence, they can’t afford to sink huge sums of their own money into a race, nor do they have the time or resources to do a lot of fundraising.

Second, many local politicians will run for several different offices over time. Hence, the savvy politician tries to re-use signs, material and goodwill as much as possible. (Plus, I doubt those fancy signs are recyclable.)

Which leads me to this sign I saw while out walking just before the election:

Look closely - the candidate taped the new desired office over the previous sign. On a windy day, the taped piece was flapping around.

So what exactly is the role of money in local campaigns? I think we’d be better off if we could get money out of elections. When I asked Dubner, he said the candidate who attempted to not fundraise – especially at the federal level – would have a hard time finding a staff willing to gamble on such a campaign.

He’s probably right, but I would love to see campaigns focus on issues without worrying about fundraising and glad-handing. Wouldn’t you?

Government budgets – at all levels – are tighter than any time in recent memory. Shouldn’t campaign budgets reflect disciplined, careful, strategic spending? I would be curious to analyze the relationship between those who fundraise more and those more willing to raise taxes. In both cases, the politician is spending someone else’s money – which they tend to treat very differently than their own.

Building Community through Festivals

Fireworks are about more than just the explosions

While sitting at the Council meeting last week, listening to Mayor Kaptain explain the rationale behind partnering with Hoffman Estates for fireworks, I was reminded of one of his campaign themes:

Build community, not things.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Elgin is the sense of community. For a town of 108,000, it sure feels like a small town in that people know and look out for each other.

That’s not easy to say these days. More and more, people are isolated from their neighbors, or skeptical of neighbors with good intentions.

So do fireworks build community? And if so, can we build Elgin’s community spirit by having “Elgin” fireworks in Hoffman Estates?

I was relieved to hear that the proposed cost was relatively low – $15,000 was pledged during the meeting, which works out to less than 14 cents per Elginite. (Staff time, including police to direct traffic, has not been calculated yet.)

A community-planned and run event, such as the Jaycees were proposing, would definitely foster community. Volunteers who invest time and effort build relationships with each other, but also expand their community. They reach out through their extended networks to get additional help and to draw people to the festival. News of such events travels via social networks and through word-of-mouth. People are often proud of their contributions and want to share it with others.

While partnering with Hoffman Estates achieves the goal of blowing things up, I hope that the planners engage community groups to really bring Elgin into the event. Because that’s the point of any festival: providing a place for neighbors to come together and celebrate the community they share.

Any of us could go attend another community’s fireworks, but if we’re paying part of the bill, let’s make sure it’s truly an Elgin festival.

Funding our Fireworks

Fireworks rock. But are they worth the taxpayer dollars?

Last week, Facebook was lighting up with the possibility of Elgin-sponsored fireworks. As proposed, Elgin might partner with Hoffman Estates (and possibly Hanover Park) to put on an Independence Day display at the Sears Center.

We lost our city-sponsored pyrotechnics in 2008, when projections warned of looming budget trouble. At that time, I remember the discussion being framed in terms of necessities vs. nice-to-haves. City officials mused about what citizens would prefer: fireworks or trash pickup. Of course, most rationally chose trash pickup, a “core service.”

I love fireworks. They’re magical, and they inspire awe and wonder.

But we’re broke. Elgin has been refreshingly transparent about just how broke we actually are. We went through a very open, very painful budget process in December that even affected core services. Effective January 1, we’re paying for trash pickup, with $13.25 added to our water bills every month. Older neighborhoods like mine now pay for leaf removal, too. And yet now, barely three months later, we’re looking at spending money on a nice-to-have?

More frustrating is that the news of new spending comes on the heels of January layoffs that eliminated 22 full-time and seven part-time positions. While some of the posts were already vacant, 19 people lost their job to help save $1.8 million.

Granted, partnering with other communities is a step in the right direction. Rather than competing with our neighboring towns, pooling resources can benefit both sides. We just partnered with Hoffman Estates to spend $53,865 on a dog park. (While the dog park will be nice to have, it won’t actually be in Elgin. The money will be spent in Hoffman Estates, instead of in some of our own dilapidated parks.)

There is another way. The Elgin Jaycees are spearheading an effort to fund a fireworks festival privately, through donations, sponsorships and community donations.

Let’s give the Jaycees a shot. If they have the organization and gumption to run this, let them. Rather than spending tax dollars, let’s see if some of our local businesses – say, perhaps the ones getting incentives from the city – might be willing to chip in a bit.

What do you think? How should we pay for fireworks? Or are fireworks even worth paying for? Take the poll below.

The Council will consider the fireworks question at the March 21 Committee of the Whole meeting. I’m eager to hear the discussion.

UPDATE 3/22: At the March 21 meeting, the Council unanimously approved committing $15,000 towards “enhancing” Hoffman Estates’ fireworks display and cooperating on their festival. No cost estimates were given for staff time or potential police time. 

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.