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.
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?