Improving a neighborhood is no easy task, but where there’s a will, there’s a way—one small step at a time.
In 2009, my husband and I took a risk and started a business in what was considered to be a challenging neighborhood. We opened Blue, a bar we wanted to serve as an inclusive gathering place, on Main Street near Sheridan, just up the hill from downtown Peoria. Unexpectedly, we soon found ourselves working, at a grassroots level, on positive community transformation.
When we opened, there was a high perception of crime on West Main, with broken windows, obvious drug issues and empty storefronts everywhere. Nearly a year later, with neighboring businesses moving out or closing up shop, we were also threatened with the very real possibility of having to close our doors.
And so, we reached out to our customers for help and advice. What were we doing wrong? What could we do better? What did they need from us? The overwhelming theme was that we needed to become active members of the community around us. If there were challenges, we needed to rise to those challenges, rather than crossing our fingers and hoping things would get better. From these discussions, and the added influence of Pastor Greg Lynn from the Epiphany Anglican Mission, a community movement was started.
The Power of Community
In our first few years, we focused on neighborhood clean-ups along West Main, establishing a community garden, sponsoring public garbage cans and working with business owners to help with small cosmetic improvements to their facades. There was no real structure, beyond the fact that we met on the first Sunday of every month and went out into the community to try to do something good.
Various business owners, both in and outside of our neighborhood, contributed financially to help us purchase flowers, dirt, mulch, paint, work gloves and more. Volunteers came from all over town. Our own business started to recover, and other business owners began to express interest in the neighborhood. We started to experience a renewed sense of pride in West Main, but we also felt an obligation to serve the community around us in a way that was beneficial to everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or economic status. We believed in the power of community, which is reflected in the name we eventually adopted—The Renaissance Park Community Association.
Formalizing the Mission
In 2014, after four years of being very loosely organized, we made the decision to adopt a formal structure. Membership requirements and bylaws were drafted, a board was elected, and in May, we incorporated as a not-for-profit in the State of Illinois. With these steps came new challenges. Because we were now recognized as a not-for-profit corporation, we were not only morally obligated to protect the interests of the entire community, we were now legally obligated as well.
Our mission statement says:
We, the business owners, neighbors and citizens of West Main Street/Renaissance Park, believe that our values, diversity and community ties are our strengths. Our purpose is to promote a community where businesses and neighbors help each other to succeed, to foster an environment that champions diversity, and to promote community involvement for the betterment of all those who live, work, learn and play here. We will be an advocate for our residents and our businesses, and a liaison to our city’s various departments. Our aim is to unite our members and focus their collective energy on projects and events that improve the safety, health, and welfare of our neighbors and make West Main Street/Renaissance Park a better place to live and do business.
We are guided by our mission statement, and because of that, our personal feelings have to take a back seat to what serves the best interests of the community around us.
As we move forward, we recognize that our workload will only increase, that we will take on more and more challenges. We’ve embraced that and look forward to what the future holds for this neighborhood. We require 12 hours a year of community service, and our members have been more than happy to comply. Most exceeded the 12-hour requirement within a few months, and we have already logged more than 300 total community service hours for the year. We are now in the process of filing for our 501(c)3 status, and in addition to community service, we expect to be spending large amounts of time filling out paperwork, applying for grants and attending meetings.
A Neighborhood Renaissance
It’s exciting to see a community enjoy the benefits of the garden, and watch strangers become friends while painting a building or working on landscaping up and down the street. We’ve made friends through our “Humans of West Main” photography project, which highlights the diversity of the neighborhood, but also give us the opportunity to really get to know the people we pass on the street every day. Each Wednesday, we visit a different restaurant on West Main, and those visits have become like small family dinners, strengthening the bonds we’re creating here.
Our own grassroots work and sense of community have inspired other grassroots organizations to locate in this neighborhood—groups like Bike Peoria and Epiphany Anglican Mission. We’ve developed relationships with our 2nd District Councilman, Chuck Grayeb; resident officer, Ryan Winkle; Bradley University’s volunteer program, SERVE; and the various neighborhood associations around us. We’ve been blessed with the support of long-standing West Main businesses such as The Costume Trunk, Kallister Realty and One World. We’ve also been excited to see the incredible amount of energy that art-based businesses like Studios on Sheridan and The Art Garage have brought to the neighborhood. The crime rate on West Main is actually incredibly low at this point, and more people express interest in locating here every day.
The Renaissance Park Community Association has had its fair share of challenges, and we know there is more work in our future. However, the rewards have always been worth the effort, and we look forward to seeing what the future holds for all of us. iBi
For more information, visit peoriarenaissancepark.blogspot.com.