In economic opportunity for all, cultural diversity and urban entertainment, Peoria feels like it’s at a turning point.
Peoria, is that you?
OK, so maybe we don’t look that much different, but Peoria is certainly in a place that could be a turning point. The outlook for 2023 feels quite optimistic!
This shift in momentum is especially true for Black Peorians. For many years, the general consensus was that Peoria wasn’t designed with us in mind. This was evident in the lack of economic opportunities, minimal urban entertainment, and intolerance for cultural expression. It was further realized in the 24/7 Wall St. list of “Worst Cities for Black Americans.” Peoria came in at #1 in 2016, at #2 in 2017, #5 in 2018, #7 in 2019, #8 in 2020, and #5 in 2021 and 2022.
If you grew up Black in Peoria, you knew!
I remember a time when my friends and I had to make sure we didn’t ride with a full car of people or wear our baseball caps in traffic when we saw police, because we were bound to get pulled over. Only three people in the car at a time — max! Certain clothing automatically made us a target.
For a millennial growing up in Peoria, it often felt like Black culture had been illegalized. Now, it seems the powers that be are slowly expanding their comfort zones and beginning to understand a simple concept: You either evolve or evaporate. Meaning, you can’t stay stuck in the ways of the past and expect to flourish in the future.
Over the last 18 months, there seems to be a slight loosening of the reigns. I believe we owe the subtle, positive shifts to two things: new and evolving leadership in both the public and private sectors, coupled with a broad acceptance and appreciation of the arts. And I’d be remiss if I glossed over the national moment of introspection brought on by the pandemic and the George Floyd case.
It appears there’s a city effort to help steer the progress, too. Change starts with city leaders, elected and non-elected. At the moment, Peoria has a number of Blacks and minorities in positions of leadership — a Black mayor for the first time in the city’s history, a Puerto Rican chief of police who embraces Black culture, two Black City Council members, a Black superintendent of Peoria Public Schools, a Black School Board president at PPS, a Black state representative who also is speaker pro tempore of the Illinois House, a Black township supervisor, a Black Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce CEO, a Black director of school safety for PPS, a Black county clerk, a Black county auditor, three Black Peoria County Board members, and a Black editor-in-chief at the Journal Star. We have new diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officers at the city and county. Many of these are firsts. Several of these leaders are under 40.
You can‘t stay stuck in the ways of the past and expect to flourish in the future.
Each has demonstrated a commitment to the communities he or she represents by being present. Chief Eric Echevarria has been spotted at more Black events than I’d expect any police chief to be, including his modeling debut at the Sophisticated Ratchet Art Affair fashion show, put on by The YANI Collective. Though the changing of some Peoria school names, spearheaded by former PPS Board President Gregory Wilson, was met with pushback, the new names now represent a better reflection of our city’s history.
As for the arts, it couldn’t be a more exciting time. Don’t get me wrong, Peoria has always appreciated the arts, to a degree. But now, organizations are inviting young, Black creators to the table that would not have gotten tapped just a few years before. Murals are slowly popping up on different buildings, reflecting the rich, diverse population that resides in Peoria.
Arts Partners and Big Picture Peoria invited artists Kevin Bradford and Brenda Gentry of the Peoria Guild for Black Artists to paint and showcase Peoria pioneers Romeo B. Garret and Valeska Hinton on the side of the Peoria Public Library. Young Black artists depicting Black pioneers on the side of the Main Street library in downtown Peoria 10 years ago? Nah. These public art displays create a sense of pride for those who live here and a sense of belonging for the artists that create them. They also help tell the full story of our city.
The Peoria Riverfront Museum has taken a liking to Black culture, as well, showcasing several Black events and artists from all over, thanks in-part to Everley Davis, the student engagement coordinator there.
Credit also is due to our local media outlets. They have the power and the obligation to showcase the complex, nuanced flavor of Peoria, in a way that represents the city’s population. The fact that I’m writing an article for Peoria Magazine, which is dedicating this issue to the Peoria experience through the Black lens, and that other minorities are being featured, reflects progress.
This is a stark contrast from my time working as an intern reporter for a Peoria media outlet during college. I tried pitching a story about an urban function that was generating a lot of buzz on social media. After turning down my pitch, my superior told me that I needed to think of news stories that “appeal to the average, white, 35-year-old, stay-at-home mom.” It was just an unsavory sign of the times. Now, the River City is fortunate to have a small group of Black and other minority journalists shedding light from more varied angles and vantage points. But, before this, we knew we could always count on Peoria’s oldest Black publication, The Traveler Weekly.
The Black business and entrepreneurial landscape seems hopeful, too. Aaron Kilgore heads his own State Farm agency. Lexii Loushell has started a modeling agency, #SELFMODELS. Riley Greenwood produces culinary creations through Riley’s Vegan Sweets and Eats. Ezra Murray’s business, Joker Visuals, is doing light and sound production for nearly every Black event in the city. Chama St. Louis recently opened her new location for Euphoria Aerial Arts & Dance Studio. Jonathan and Emmanuelle Day of Jingle Holiday Lights helped light up Peoria. In-house catering is alive through Zakiya Floyd’s Mothering Skillet. It’s a family affair at The 9 Lounge with Courtney Mason, who heads the city’s newest late-night hangout.
We’re also fortunate to have a solid network of mentoring groups in Peoria. Carl Halloway has his Male Mentor Mondays. Tahari Nicole has Teens to Queens. Antwaun Banks has his Product of the Project. There’s a 100 Black Men presence here, too!
It is as great a time as ever for Black folks to have a hand in curating their Peoria experience. We’re slowly gaining access to resources, our cultural expression is finally starting to resonate, and we’re building our own tables where the existing ones don’t have seats.
we’re building our own tables where the existing ones don’t have seats.
Peoria still has some knots to untangle to make it a more inclusive and prosperous city for all who live here. But just like slow money is better than no money, some progress is better than none.