Aurora, My Home Town

by , posted on Saturday, July 14th, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?*

Aurora, you once had such promise that it was thought by some that you would be the center of a great rail hub and lead the state. But alas, Chicago earned the broad shoulders and you are but a flickering secondary light now.

My home town’s downtown has been in decline for half a century and there seems to be no end in sight. Many will say that I am wrong. They may be right.

But it is my firm belief that as long as Aurora has an empty core it will not thrive. It will not really live. A few baubles do not a city make.

There are some businesses left downtown but they are mostly due to the industry of Aurora’s Hispanic community and I salute them. There is not one major retail store left. Carson’s left twenty years ago or more and now it’s building stands empty. A rather sad symbol of a time long past.

True, Waubonsee Community College has a new building nearby, but alas no parking. And some will harp that “hey, look there’s a new library on the way”. Yes, new but inadequate. About 50,000 square feet inadequate. $30,000,000 for a building paid for with a 30-year bond issue and projected to be good for twenty years according to the head librarian. She lives in hope.

Elgin’s new library – about 140,000 square feet, Aurora’s proposed library – about 90,000 square feet. Aurora has a larger population but will get a much smaller library. Why? Someone should be asking why and it’s not because of hard times. There is another agenda.

I’ve been back in Aurora now for ten years or so. I had hoped that during the years I was away that things might have changed. I looked forward to coming back to a vibrant city with an active city center. But for that you have to visit Naperville.

The latest disappointment is the new, or should I say old and worthless, idea concerning the parking meters in downtown Aurora. The idea of chalking tires and heftier fines didn’t work thirty years ago when it was tried and it’s not going to work now. One could laugh or cry over this pathetic proposal but to think it will help bring people downtown is simply ludicrous.

Why do people go to a city’s center? Well, because there is something they must do or that they want to do. People go the Paramount Theater for entertainment, students to WCC for education, City Hall for meetings and restaurants if they want Mexican food. I like Mexican food a lot and it shows. But they get in and get out. People don’t stroll down the promenade along the Fox because there is none to speak of. They don’t window shop because there are few windows worth looking into.

The sad truth is that taking the meters away is not enough and leaving time limits, a complex schedule of fines and tire chalking isn’t a solution. It’s more of the same. Yes, people want to go to Waubonsee and the Paramount and the casino but that’s it. There isn’t any spill over to other businesses. But we do have plenty of new “spy cameras” on street corners downtown to watch mostly empty sidewalks. How “Big Brother.”

Downtown Aurora needs large retail stores and attractions (hey, a movie theater?, downtown Aurora once had three) which people want to go to and downtown Aurora needs an overabundance of free, convenient parking. These are the things that will bring life back to downtown and help to encourage and to create the ancillary businesses needed to make Aurora’s downtown live once again.

But wait, maybe the downtown shouldn’t live again. Maybe it’s better if people do all their shopping in sterile shopping malls like good little drones. Maybe it’s better if Randall Road becomes one big, never-ending strip mall avenue that takes an hour or so to travel from Indian Trail to Route 64.

Of course the new entertainment venue along the Fox River will bring people to the city but just like the Paramount and WCC for a limited time and then they will be gone. Where are the boutique shops, the department stores, the quaint book and antique shops to browse and spend money in? Oh, that’s right they’re in Naperville.

Is it that Aurora is just a “blue collar” town with blue collar tastes and a blue collar intellect? Are the citizens of Aurora getting just what they deserve?

The casino, the Paramount, WCC, the inadequate library, a new music venue for old tired acts, none of these attractions have or will spur additional businesses in downtown Aurora. And the downtown won’t come alive. That just might be some local cliques bad idea.

* Taken from an ode by Wordsworth.


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One Response to “Aurora, My Home Town”

  1. Downtowner says:

    Always tough to see a downtown that isn’t what it used to be, so you definitely have my sympathy, but in reality none of them are what they used to be – you can’t turn back the clock to achieve downtown revitalization. Many of us (who are old enough) remember the day of downtown being the shopping core where we found department stores, but those days are over. If it makes you feel any better I truly believe that roads like Randall, or as I like to refer to it “Generica” will soon be over as well – just look at the latest trend in them: trying to add “lifestyle centers” that are doing everything they can to mimic downtowns…and failing. The bulk of shopping is moving to the internet and I think that trend will continue.

    Aurora has made some critical mistakes (one way streets are a biggie, casinos are another) in their attempts to better their downtown – getting rid of either of these would be a huge step ahead. But that’s not going to happen. So you work with what you’ve got. The casino they won’t let go of, because of the revenue (imho its still a mistake on the economics of it, as casinos represent a direct shot of cash to the city coffers, but an economically vibrant downtown – which you can get to a LOT easier without a casino – is the little economic engine that could. Meh. You will never convince the city of that – not in a billion years, so downtown is stuck with it)One way streets are another matter – huge shot in the arm to downtown economic recovery if you can get rid of those, and at little cost to the city. It should be done, don’t know why Aurora (and Elgin) are hanging on to them. So you work with what you have, and what Aurora has is huge, irreplacable, and priceless: a built environment that is not only compact and walkable, but also chock full o’ architectural gems.

    You can’t buy that, you can’t build a fake authentic and unique downtown: keep your eye out for the lifestyle centers to go down like dominos for trying. Geneva’s lifestyle center on Randall? Replacable, AND placable in any other community on earth. Just one of the many unique architectural gems in downtown Aurora? Well, the unique part says it all.

    As for parking: pffft!!! There is not parking management effort the city could undertake that would do more than make a ripple in the pond. Supply is another issue – tear something down to build surface parking and that’s damaging to the fabric of the downtown, and ultimately its economic performance, and that’s not a thing they can reverse when they find out they screwed up. But it makes little difference if a city uses meters or chalks tires. Hell, they could train chimps to poop on the hoods of illegally parked cars and it would not mean a lot one way or the other – except maybe they’d get some great free PR!

    People who are in the business of downtown revitalization understand that once you’ve created a really, really bad parking problem, you’ve done your job – because it means people are driving around and around determined to find that one last place to park to get to your great downtown.

    Aurora is making some good moves now though. Restaurants, good, entertainment, good, library downtown good (and probably is big enough – libraries have evolved to be a somewhat different animal since Gail Borden – a great library – was built in Elgin and are continuing to evolve.), market rate high density housing near and in the downtown, good.

    Some good moves, but a lot more work needed. Patience required however. As you said yourself it took half a century for downtown Aurora (and most of America’s downtowns – they are not alone!) to decline. You can’t reverse a half-century decline in a year. It’s a long-term, sometimes a very long term, job.

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