Sticking It Out
After one year in Eau Claire, I wanted to leave. After 30 years, I’m happy I stayed.
My wife Jayne and I moved our family to Eau Claire 30 years ago this spring. We both recently turned 60 years of age. That means we have lived half of our lives in Eau Claire. And here I was, ready to move away after the second year of living here.
I did not have a good first impression of Eau Claire. The following observations all took place during my first month of living here in 1986. I passed by a long line of livid protesters in front of Planned Parenthood. I saw a battered station wagon drive by with the words “Kill the Hmong” on its side. Nearby, the spearfishing battles were in full force. I read a bar graph in USA Today that stated Eau Claire had the most bars and taverns per capita in the country. OK, I was more amused than appalled by this last observation. Still, I wondered, “Where the heck did I move my family to?”
The common mantra longtime residents somewhat apologetically told me was “the Twin Cities are only 90 minutes away!” I was ready to move not long after arriving. I saw Eau Claire as a pass-through residence.
We had just moved from Colorado. My wife was incredibly homesick for the Midwest. She grew up in Red Wing, Minn., so I started looking for a job in this area. I had two job offers: one from the Minneapolis Public Library and one from the city of Eau Claire. The Minneapolis job came with a residency requirement, and we didn’t want to raise our family in the big city. Eau Claire was the right size and won. After that first month, though, I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision.
In addition to those initial negative images of Eau Claire, its downtown was dying. In my eyes, it was already dead. There was a definite lack of diversity among the population. I had just moved from a city that was 40 percent Hispanic. I felt a too-conservative vibe going on. I noticed this vibe mostly in letters to the Leader-Telegram, letters with sentiments like, “Why build a bike path? Bicyclists don’t spend money here!” I didn’t find much entertainment to my liking in the area. The common mantra longtime residents somewhat apologetically told me was “the Twin Cities are only 90 minutes away!” Like I said, I was ready to move not long after arriving. I saw Eau Claire as a pass-through residence.
Jayne campaigned for us to stay. We moved here with three little girls, and Jayne pointed out how safe the community was. In fact, it was nationally recognized for being a safe town. Jayne pointed out the high quality of the school system here. She reminded me of the natural beauty of the rolling farmland blending into the forests – and all that water. I’m a big fan of rivers and lakes. I sighed, put on my brave face, and stuck it out.
Now, I don’t want to offend longtime Eau Claire residents who have a lifetime of memories associated with this place. Eau Claire in 1986 looked a lot different for you than it did for me. My nostalgia was anchored elsewhere, and thus we come from different perspectives. And from my viewpoint, I’m going to state: Eau Claire in 2016 is much better than it was in 1986. I’m glad I “stuck it out.”
There has been a huge groundswell movement to re-invent downtown. We see this happening before our very eyes. There is a slight but noticeable increase in diverse populations of the community. In addition to the ethnic makeup, I see more tolerance and support for those who identify with the LGBTQ community. We have our wonderful bike trail system: Despite the initial grousing, these trails are used daily by hundreds of people – bicyclists, runners, hikers, pet-walkers, families, students, seniors – who spend money here. And I found that entertainment I was craving. Not only are we the self-professed Music Capital of the North, but we are the Writing Capital, Theater Capital, and Comedy Club Capital of the North. And while our esteemed educational system does not enjoy the same state support it did in 1986, I see an incredibly vibrant Eau Claire today that I couldn’t foresee 30 years ago.
Looking back, I am glad my wife insisted that we plant our roots here. So glad that when we get a new employee where I work, someone new to this area, I’m the first to volunteer to drive, hike, and bike them around and brag about my city.