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BIG CITY: A tale of two towns

By Kirk Ross

Considering that about 75 of our esteemed elected officials and community leaders just spent a few days in the town I’m from, comparing and contrasting this area and the town of Bloomington seems unavoidable.

Although born a few hours to the north and raised in several spots in the eastern U.S., I always say I’m from Bloomington because it’s the place that’s always felt the most like home. My oldest friends are there. It’s where we came of age. You may have seen the movie. I was played by Daniel Stern.

Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the nostalgia and sentimentality characteristic of my fellow Hoosiers and stick as much as possible to the very different progression of the downtown there and the downtown here.

There are numerous physical differences between the two places. As I said in a previous column, Chapel Hill and Carrboro have a very linear set up – just a few streets wide, constrained by topography and a large campus. Bloomington is more typical of the Midwest, with a downtown crisscrossed with wide streets and plenty of alleys. There are not a lot of tall buildings, but in general it’s one or two floors higher than here, with the upper floors usually spacious compared to the cramped upper areas of the buildings in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Today, the upper spaces and the ample room of a bustling downtown Bloomington may be the envy of our delegation, but it wasn’t all that long ago when these same places were scenes of decay, disuse and disrepair.

When I left Bloomington in 1985, what would turn into a downtown renaissance was just getting started. A terrible recession – one that for the most part the Triangle avoided – gripped the Midwest. Like most college towns in that part of the country, Bloomington also has a large industrial base and felt the kind of body blows a factory town takes when the mill closes down. And like a lot of places everywhere, Bloomington’s downtown was already in decline as malls and sprawl drew away commerce.

The nicely spruced-up downtown our delegation wandered around was full of empty storefronts and vacant offices in the ’80s. For my friends and I living the bohemian lifestyle, the decay was a godsend – a source of cheap space for bands and painters and teenage punks looking for a place to hang out. If you knew those times, you have to smile when the town points with pride to its entertainment and arts district, because you know that there in that rotting downtown of the ’80s was where it took root.

There was a chance to experiment, to set up a theater space, a place for bands to rehearse and play or a radio station in a place that was aching for a little bit of life – anything. I give the town leaders credit for two things that laid the groundwork for what they have today. First, they left us alone. Second, they eventually realized what they had and embraced the hell out of it.

Bloomington’s downtown also benefited from some extreme philanthropy and from Indiana University’s foundation, which bought up and fixed up some key spaces.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro, meanwhile, didn’t have anywhere near the same kind of economic crisis. Even this recession, although tough, has not hit this region as hard as the Midwest was hit in the ’80s. There’s never been a huge sense of urgency to fix what we’ve got because of that. And with the exception of parts of Carrboro, we’ve not had the kind of old warehouse district that someone with a dream and big bucks can turn into a 21st-century space.

Our challenge is much deeper than ones presented by structures and layout or even inertia in public and private philanthropy.

I think the lesson from Bloomington, the one I took away after watching the two towns all these years, is to be a good small town, a good college town. Don’t worry about trying to be world-class. Make it work for the people who live there and you’ll impress anyone that visits. All the paint and good intentions are meaningless if you’re trying to be something you’re not.

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