A Publication of WTVP

‘West Bluff, Best Bluff’

by Scott Fishel | Photos by Ron Johnson |

One of Peoria’s most iconic neighborhoods is energized by its progress and emboldened by its potential, among some challenges

A mural on the east side of One World Café sums up how many residents of Peoria’s West Bluff  feel about their neighborhood: “West Bluff, Best Bluff.”

It’s certainly the sentiment of the mural’s creator, Jessica McGhee, who has owned a business, lived and made art in this community for decades.

McGhee currently lives in West Peoria, but she visits the West Bluff almost daily for walks in upper Bradley Park. She is not shy about sharing where her heart lies.

“I love the West Bluff!” she says without prompting. So much so that she is leasing studio space on West Main Street for her online jewelry business, Hey Lola Art Co. She’s been a vocal advocate for the neighborhood since the 1990s.

Jessica McGhee works on one of her murals on a wall of One World Café
Jessica McGhee works on one of her murals on a wall of One World Café

McGhee’s enthusiasm is not uncommon among West Bluffers, but even after years of renewal efforts, there are still challenges. Rough-and-tumble West Main runs through the heart of the neighborhood, while High Street and Moss Avenue, with their historic homes, cling to the southern edge. Depending on the map, the city within a city is bordered by Nebraska and McClure Avenues on the north, Knoxville Avenue (including the historic Roanoke-Randolph District) on the east, and Western Avenue on the west.

The Gem on the Hilltop

Bradley University draws thousands to the West Bluff daily, be it faculty and staff or 4,000-plus students from around the world. The 87-acre campus is steeped in tradition, home to numerous architectural treasures, old and new, and one of Peoria’s major selling points.

Had Lydia Moss Bradley not founded the school here in 1897, the character of the area would almost certainly be different.

The Uplands District across Main Street from the Bradley campus was Peoria’s first “planned” residential development, said Beth Johnson, a volunteer with the Peoria Historical Society.

Carved out of land known as the Bradley Farm in 1902, the Uplands’ neat streets, alleys and wide boulevards were laid out and curbed, trees planted and public art commissioned before a single lot was sold. Today, the mostly well-kept, older homes are a reminder of Peoria’s turn-of-the century growth and prosperity.

Bradley administrators are well aware of the critical role the university plays in the life and character of the West Bluff.

“This is our home and it always will be,” said Bradley President Stephen Standifird. “We have a big footprint here and everything we do has an impact.”

Standifird said many faculty, staff members and students live in the neighborhoods surrounding campus. “It is more than just our campus, it is an extension of our home,” he said.

“One of the values we add to the community is a level of vibrancy,” said Standifird, mentioning sports, music and theater performances, lectures, art, business functions and cultural events enjoyed by the entire community.

Meanwhile, Bradley recently purchased the former Avanti’s restaurant at the busy corner of Main and University. A working group is gathering input to come up with a community-focused use for the property. Another initiative in its early stages would convert Lydia Moss Bradley’s historic home on Moss Avenue from a rental property owned by the university into a community space.

Homeowners Hold the Key

Like many older neighborhoods, the West Bluff has its share of crime, neglect, gap-tooth vacancies and resident apathy. The empty lot at the corner of Main and High streets, where the historic Hale Memorial Church stood for more than a century, is a reminder that good intentions aren’t always enough to bring change. The structure was demolished in 2022.

The Peoria Historical Society’s Pettengill Morron House on Moss Avenue
The Peoria Historical Society’s Pettengill Morron House on Moss Avenue
Mark Beiser runs the Peoria Bike Co-Op
Mark Beiser runs the Peoria Bike Co-Op

Still, residents and business owners have been chasing a vision for years with the intent of bringing people, commerce and more visible prosperity back to the neighborhood.

“It’s not Shangri-La and it never will be,” said Brian Buralli, a resident of the Cottage District since 1989 and a homeowner there since 1995. “I’ve watched it transition from a dilapidated neighborhood with drug traffic and crime to a fairly stable neighborhood.”

Buralli is president of the Cottage District Neighborhood Collaborative, a homeowner’s group. He purchased his home through the Moss-Bradley Revolving Fund, a private investment fund created by the Moss-Bradley Residential Association to promote single-family homeownership. Although some properties have returned to rental since the program began in the 1970s, Buralli said its goal has largely been achieved.

“For the most part, you can walk down the street and know your neighbors and they know you,” Buralli said. “It’s easy to strike up a conversation and engage people.”

Mark Beiser planted roots here 22 years ago.

“I bought my home with the assurance that this neighborhood would eventually turn into something better,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s all the way there yet, but it has definitely improved.”

In 2014, Beiser started the Peoria Bike Co-Op at 612 W. Main to “help people who can’t otherwise get around because they can’t drive a car.” Donated bikes are repaired and given to residents who need transportation. Beiser also helps at-risk kids through the Bicycle Empowerment Program at Dream Center Peoria.

“I’d like to see some of the businesses along Main Street revitalized somehow,” he said.

Jan Krouse, president of the Moss-Bradley Residential Association, walks by one of the mansions on Moss Avenue
Jan Krouse, president of the Moss-Bradley Residential Association, walks by one of the mansions on Moss Avenue

Serious Business, No Bluffing

Empty storefronts along West Main Street are offset by an eclectic mix of businesses that lend character to this well-traveled stretch of pavement.

Steve Spain and his venerable The Costume Trunk have anchored the Sheridan/Main intersection since 1981. The business is for sale — Spain wants to retire after 40 years – but he has no regrets about his choice of location.

“I have always thought this business was unique and that it fit better in a neighborhood like this than in a strip mall,” he said. To survive today, “you have to be Amazon-proof.”

Also facing Main are Lit on Fire Books and My Writing Shed, a shared space for local writers. Just around the corner is Urban Artifacts, a purveyor of “antiques, souvenirs, vintage and nostalgia” for 11 years. Owned and curated by Jon and Angie Walker, the store is part of a network of interconnected shops and art studios that draw curious browsers and serious collectors, lured to the likes of J. Draper glassblowing studio, MoonDancer gifts, Restoration Studios and Escape 60.

“There are some empty buildings around here that haven’t been very aggressively marketed,” said Jon Walker. “There could be some really nice projects if we can get motivated sellers and buyers together.”

Just to the west is Bradley’s small business incubator, Peoria NEXT Innovation Center, 801 S. Main, a modern facility with several success stories since opening in 2007.

The corner of University and Main, including Campustown, boasts multiple dining experiences — Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican cuisine, sushi, vegan options  and more.

The urban adventure is further enhanced by the likes of the Church Mouse Thrift Shop, Habitat for Humanity Restore, Ribbon Records, Primitiques Market, Haddad’s well-known Lebanese restaurant, The Basket Case pub and others. 

The mom-and-pop-dominated neighborhood is “super walkable,” said McGhee, who loves the multiple lifestyles and artistic visions represented.

‘I Know My Neighbors, and Not Just by Name’

The Moss-Bradley District bumps up against the southern edge of Bradley and brags some of the most prestigious homes in the city.

“We are kind of an old-fashioned neighborhood,” said Jan Krouse, president of the Moss-Bradley Homeowners Association. “I know my neighbors, and not just by name. I really know them. You don’t find that often in newer neighborhoods.”

Krouse is the lead organizer for the annual Moss Avenue Sale, which has evolved from a high-end neighborhood garage sale into a much-anticipated annual festival.

Short-term rentals are a hot button issue throughout the West Bluff. “Personally, I’m OK with someone turning part of their home into an Airbnb rental, but I wouldn’t be happy with a hotel in the neighborhood,” Krouse said.


The Moss-Bradley Council, made up of representatives from homeowner groups, businesses, university officials and students, annually recognizes individuals who work to “make the area better.” This year’s Pillar of the West Bluff Award went to Peoria City Councilman Chuck Grayeb.

The 2nd District representative grew up “in the shadow of St. Mark’s Church,” walked to classes at Bradley, and has lived on the West Bluff most of his life.

“The people of the West Bluff are very resilient, very dedicated to their neighborhoods,” said Grayeb, who hinted at a $10 million project set to begin soon on Main Street between Sheridan and High streets. “It will be a vitamin B12 shot for the area,” he promised.

He also spoke of the $25 million already approved by the Illinois Legislature to repave Main Street and rebuild sidewalks and curbs from Farmington Road to the Illinois River.

“Once we put in the new Main Street, it will raise the bar and bring even more investment,” predicted Grayeb.

While many West Bluff residents are forthcoming with their views, at least one long-term resident remains mum. But if the massive, 500-year-old bur oak tree in Giant Oak Park on High Street could talk, it might very well agree with Grayeb’s assessment: “I truly believe that the best days for the West Bluff and Peoria are still ahead.”

Scott Fishel

Scott Fishel

is a senior communications executive with WTVP