The Rear End

I Wish It Was Livelier

a newcomer`s one-sentence summary of downtown

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Ryan Carpentier |

So I was hanging out at a barbecue eating grilled meat – as I often do. It’s kind of my thing. Anyhoo, I was chatting with a recent transplant to the Chippewa Valley when downtown Eau Claire came up. He and his wife had just seen a movie at the Cameo Budget, and then they had taken a stroll down Barstow to check things out. She had gone to college here, but hadn’t been back in a while. This was his first time downtown.

At one point he remarked, “Downtown’s nice, but I wish it was ... livelier.” And suddenly, from across the city of Eau Claire, thousands of citizens gasped in unison. And then came a colossal chorus of muttering, as if everyone in the surrounding neighborhood had fired up their riding lawnmowers all at the same time. Within the multitude of voices I could make out certain phrases, like You need to got there more often, and Haven’t you been to the farmers market? and You should have seen it five years ago, man, and Go to Phoenix Park on a Thursday night, Bucko.

We spirited him into the basement as packs of annoyed downtown supporters formed in the street (holding yard tools) peeking over hedges and searching for whoever the hell said that.

But hey, the guy was right. Spot on, in fact. For all of the good in the downtown area, for all of the hard-working business owners, for all of the new development and city programs – and despite the invincible spectacle of geography that is Phoenix Park – downtown still seems a little flat. Sure, there are certain areas and certain establishments that are positively bangin’ with life, but you kind of need to hit those spots at the right time. And how’s a newcomer to know where to go, let alone when?

As usual, it takes an outside perspective to see how things really are. Downtown still has ground to cover.

I need to be careful here. What if I say the wrong thing, and then you, the noble reader decides that downtown is not worth the trip? What if my amazingly crafted sentences somehow accidentally convince you that the heart of the city is totally lame? I’m not real worried about that. I’ll just go ahead and assume that you’re not a five-year-old and can catch my drift.

Personally, I believe that things are changing and getting better all the time. I’ve been working in and living near downtown EC long enough to see the last five years’ momentum. But it’s happening slowly. And people don’t like “slow.” Unfortunately, real, solid, long-lasting change takes time. It sucks, I know.

If any of you are shaking your heads and thinking things like “instant gratification” or “culture of entitlement,” just go ahead and keep those thoughts up in your head where they can keep collecting cobwebs. I know good things take time. I’m willing to wait. But it still sucks – and the time-honored art of complaining helps pass the time. Like so:

What’s up with all the empty shop space? Where are my mixed-use buildings with cool shops tucked beneath? When will that restaurant with the cool/vintage buggy elevator open up? Why doesn’t somebody just open up a good Indian restaurant downtown, how hard is that? When will someone finally open the Battlestar Galactica collectables and memorabilia boutique that everyone around here totally wants? When, I ask, when?!

I guess it’ll just take a little more work on my/your/our part to figure out when and where downtown is the kind of downtown we want. Once you start finding those temperamental pockets of place and time, you can start fitting them into your life; and thus, downtown can start to work for you.

Of course, it never hurts to get down there more often. Or go to the farmers market. Or Phoenix Park on a Thursday night. And hey, there’s gonna be a big summer festival down there on August 9. You might want to check all that stuff out.

I’ll close with some curious news ... the wind has been whispering strange rumors, wafted gently over from the land of downtown Chippewa Falls. People talk quietly of redevelopment proposals and site plans and snazzy-looking light posts with matching trash cans. Behind closed doors, Eau Clairians say, “Chippewa would be a nice place to live.” I wonder what it all means ...