by James Kemper
In 1985 my penny loafer wearing group of friends from Delavan Illinois coveted the experience of commuting back roads in a behemoth white 1962 Chevrolet Impala to arrive at the slow moving bumper to bumper traffic that was the attraction at Upper Main Street Peoria Illinois every weekend. Our joy of “cruising” was heightened when the crawl of automobiles was at a pace barely above reverse while we listened to Pete Townshend and Billy Idol full blast from home-made cassette tapes.
Almost 30 years later I now live in the Uplands, a short walk from the once famous intersection of Main Street and University Street, near that place where I fraternized with the Peoria “townies” and young girls dressed like Madonna. Daily I experience the delays caused by the recent roadwork that is the current grievance of many Peoria residents; an odd twist time has played upon the perception of slow traffic. Although I concede that the inconvenience is real, I also foresee positive long term results arising from the improvements of on-street parking, pedestrian friendly sidewalks, and slower moving traffic. Patience for a positive change is an attribute that each of us can exercise to reduce frustration, but not the only one.
Having been a resident in downtown Chicago for ten years, and leading the design of many urban re-newel projects nationally and internationally, I have witnessed firsthand the transformation of blighted neighborhoods into thriving mixed-use developments. The Near South Loop, Printers Row, Andersonville (Clark Street), and Bucktown are a few examples of small boroughs in Chicago that had no quality retail, office, or residential spaces. These neighborhoods were not overly different than the condition of our current Main Street. The once dreary, empty streets of Bucktown now offer upscale shopping and fine dining experiences. The heavily trafficked pedestrian paths have attracted hundreds of stores including many retail boutiques like Marc Jacobs, and Cynthia Rowley. The addition of a Jewel Osco in the Near South Loop, my old neighborhood, changed the daily lives of existing residents, including mine, when we learned that we could buy small folding grocery carts, allowing us to walk to and from the store without ever using a car. After only months many of us frequented the Jewel more than once a week and changed our diets to include far more fresh produce. The urban environment promoted healthy behaviors such as walking and eating fresh food. The air of these environments breathes diversity, tolerance, and creativity.
The two blocks of Peoria Heights includes many of the qualities that one would see in a successful urban borough, and the few blocks of Water Street in Peoria between the new museum and WTVP include similar characteristics. Certainly the warehouse district is a prime opportunity to create a prosperous mixed-use urban environment. The advantage of Main Street is that it already has a dense population of residents, a progressive University aching for more and higher quality retail and residential development, multiple thriving restaurants already in place, and now the infrastructure. I am sure that the current and future residents of the Uplands and the students at Bradley, many of them from Chicago, will someday, and hopefully soon, enjoy the addition of higher quality retail stores like Marc Jacobs.
In the interim, I offer a few suggestions of word to spread to my fellow Peorian drivers that will, once part of our culture, make the driving experience better for our community. I do believe that most drivers will adapt quickly or already recognize the driving etiquette of urban streets. Just as everyone is annoyed with the interstate driver who drives slowly in the left lane, urban drivers are also annoyed with those drivers who obstruct the free flow of traffic. Since pedestrians are allowed to walk while both Main and University Street vehicles are stopped, it is important that drivers be efficient; get through the intersection! Suburbs are less dense than the Cities. Retail areas and restaurants are usually removed from the street with large set-backs, the streets are usually wide with many lanes, and the shops/stores are separated from each other by gigantic parking lots. People do not walk to the store in suburbs. The car traffic and pedestrian traffic do not typically mingle. Urban developments condense the store, the road, the sidewalk and the parking closely to one another. More people per square foot requires greater attention spent while walking, parking and driving. Some people thrive in the environment and culture that is created when many people are in a small area, others do not. The following are a few common sense courtesies that will allow more vehicles to get through the intersection, therefore reducing anxieties and hopefully making each of our days better:
Go when it is green – Do not use the stoplight as an opportunity to check your facebook and get chatty with your friends. The walk sign at eh intersection displays how many seconds are left for the walkers. Watch it and you will know when it is appropriate to be ready to move. Each three seconds that someone sits at a green is equal to one car that does not get through the intersection.
Stay close to the car in front of yours - Urban driving speeds are typically slower than suburban driving speeds, so multiple car length distances between automobiles is not required, and to my knowledge, not enforced. Bumper-to-bumper traffic is common and expected in successful urban environments. Again, each three seconds wasted, causes one of your fellow motorists to sit through a series of lights.
Use your blinker – Many intersections around the Main and University intersection do not have turn lanes. The traffic back-ups at these intersections also add to the frustration in this area. The car that is in the intersection opposite you will be able to turn if he/she sees that you are planning on turning. Allowing that other vehicle to turn at an intersection by using your blinker, often times frees a string of automobiles that want to go straight, rather than waiting though another series of lights.
While I do not expect, promote, or want Main Street to be the “cruising” destination for young reckless men and women like it once was; I am optimistic that the City of Peoria, local businesses, Bradley University and our community will patiently support the growth of the urban environment that is in its early stages of development. Upon maturity, I envision nice restaurants, botique storefronts, higher home values, and a neighborhood culture where the faces and names are diverse and familiar.