Location and infrastructure go hand in hand… one influencing the other.
It’s a phrase used by real estate professionals to describe a desirable location for a business or home: location, location, location. It is as true today as it was centuries ago, for the founders of Peoria as well as the industries and communities that grew up in the river city.
Proximity to the River
It is no accident that Peoria is located at the bend of the Illinois River, where it widens. It is also no coincidence that many industries which need water for transportation and the cooling of equipment were located in its vicinity. These industries not only spurred growth and employment, but a need for the development of infrastructure.
The location of numerous coal-fired plants in the Peoria area were as much the result of a need to be in close proximity of the river (to use it as a radiator, until the EPA stopped the practice) as the region’s abundance of coal deposits. When these plants were established, the transportation infrastructure was not as developed as it is today, so they were placed where they had water for cooling, and coal for fuel.
The mines and plants provided jobs, which spurred the population growth of Peoria and the surrounding communities. And mining continued until the Peoria Airport Authority bought the area’s largest mine, the Empire, which was threatening the stability of the airport’s ramps and runways as it progressed beneath them. The emergence of aircraft technology, of course, has transformed the way we travel.
Many other industries were located along the river, including manufacturing plants, breweries and whiskey distilleries, all of which took advantage of their riverfront location for the transportation of goods and materials.
High Atop the Bluff
Many of the founders and owners of these companies chose to build their homes up on the bluff, along High Street and Moss Avenue, overlooking the downtown business area. It was an ideal location to keep a watchful eye over their business interests, as well as the neighborhoods near their plants, where their employees lived.
Most people at that time lived close to work—so they could walk or take the trolley, which ran along Peoria’s streets for 76 years—from 1870 to 1946. These streetcar lines greatly influenced the development of the city’s neighborhoods, though they were eventually killed off by the automobile.
With their newfound prosperity, some business owners hired celebrity architects to design their homes. One of them was Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the Francis W. Little House at 1505 W. Moss Avenue at a time when he was just beginning to make a name for himself. Little was a businessman and one of Wright’s earliest patrons, and the Little House, completed in 1903, was one of Wright’s first “prairie-style” homes.
At the same time, Wright was overseeing construction of the Susan Lawrence Dana House in Springfield—his largest commission to date. As he was building the two houses, Wright would have used the railway and trolley systems to get to the sites. Lucky for him, the Dana House was located near the Springfield train station.
Downtown and the Suburbs
At the turn of the 20th century, we had an impressive, clean, public transportation system. Automobiles were considered a novelty—not serious transportation—due to their unreliability, as well as the lack of good roadways and fueling stations. There were a number of industrialists, however, who intended to change that. Automobile manufacturers and petroleum producers wanted more people to purchase their products, so they conspired to launch a campaign to kill funding for public transportation and encourage the expansion of the road transportation system. And that’s exactly what happened.
As less expensive cars were developed that the middle class could afford, demand for a national transportation system grew. With the expansion of roadways across the country, Americans became more independent and mobile. That led to the development of the suburbs—and a great migration out of the downtown. People began to move away from neighborhoods where they lived close to their work, and started commuting to work from the suburbs.
Today we are coming full circle, as many of these downtown commercial buildings are being renovated into apartments. They are occupied primarily by retired couples and singles, with few married people with children moving back into the downtown—partly because there are few green spaces there.
Into the Air
The widespread use of the internet has not only changed the way people communicate. It is also changing the way we travel, as some of these internet pioneers are investing their newfound wealth into efforts to do just that.
There’s Elon Musk, cofounder of the company that became PayPal, who has bankrolled successful efforts into electric cars (Tesla) and space travel (SpaceX), among other innovations. Google was among the first companies to take on the challenge of the self-driving car, while a number of others are attempting to develop flying cars, including Airbus, Uber and more than a dozen startups. They will have to grapple with the FAA and its regulations, in addition to instructing buyers how to properly use the technology.
For short distances, it is easier and less expensive to take ground transportation. In Peoria, you can drive across town in less than 20 minutes, and with all the amenities available, it’s one of the best cities in the Midwest. And like most communities, it is where it is for a reason. iBi
David Russell Anderson, Jr. is CEO of AndersonBloom + Associates, Inc.