Building the Arts, One Brick at a Time

By Karen Christensen

Karen’s story is the latest in the Free River Press series on ideas for building an Agricultural City.   While Karen’s work is not concerned with rural communities, we in rural America have much to learn from what she and her colleagues accomplished in Aurora, Illinois.   Links to past essays in this series will be found at the close of this article.

For the record, I was the City’s Downtown Development Director from 1999 through 2009, and then Neighborhood Redevelopment Manager from 2009 until I retired in 2012. I currently am a member of the board of directors of the Fox Valley Music Foundation, as well as Aurora Downtown.  I serve on the FoxWalk Overlay District Design Review Committee and the Riverwalk Commission. And, of course, I am Aurora’s Poet Laureate!

Since the end of World War II, many social, cultural, political, and economic changes have swept across the United States, at a pace that is often hard to comprehend, except in hindsight.

Returning soldiers, growing families, sprawling housing, migration patterns, affordable automobiles, a desire to break from the past, inventions that made our lives easier – and more complicated – have all had volumes written about their impacts on the United States.

A city like Aurora, Illinois can provide urban planners and economic developers with a case study in how communities might cope with change, and re-invent themselves in a way that keeps them from being bulldozed into just another mass of American homogeneity.

Aurora was established in 1837. It benefited from the desire of immigrants to move westward, and became home to people of all ethnic groups, races, and religions. Though it has some pockets of wealth and poverty, for the most part Aurora is a solidly middle-class community, built on blue collar values.

During various waves of prosperity when local industries and American railroads flourished, many majestic homes were built on the east and west sides of the Fox River, which bisects the community. Development pushed our boundaries east, west, and south; our population now is over 200,000 people, making us the second largest city in Illinois. Two commuter rail stations carry travelers to and from Chicago. Interstate 88 runs through Aurora at its northern end, with easy access from all parts of town.

At the heyday of Midwestern development (early 1920s through the 1950s) many commercial buildings were built in downtown Aurora, designed by prominent architects and standing as a strong representation of civic and commercial pride. Among the gems that still exist are the Paramount Theatre, the Leland Tower, Old Second National Bank, the Keystone, the Terminal, the Hobbs, the Aurora Hotel, the Fire Museum, the G.A.R. Hall, and the Elks Club. Downtown Aurora was a regional hub for retail and professional services and entertainment. Along came shopping centers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and casino gambling in 1993: major catalysts for dramatic changes in downtown Aurora. Other factors precipitated change, too, and not just downtown. Small factories closed, unemployment rose, gang violence reared its head, and new suburban housing developments in close proximity (North Aurora, Plainfield, Oswego, Montgomery, Sugar Grove) drew Aurora residents to seek greener pastures.

City government and the local Chamber of Commerce undertook a number of planning studies, beginning in the early 1970s, to cast various scenarios about how to “save” downtown. The studies recommended a variety of strategies, suggested by a cadre of urban planning and architectural consultants who were advising cities throughout the Midwest. We were told to make our downtown more pedestrian-friendly, to reclaim our riverfront, to preserve our historic buildings, and to use our central business district as an entertainment destination. Later studies (circa the early 2000s) reinforced these concepts, and added the idea that culture and the arts could assist in crafting a unique identity, and in attracting younger residents.

In 2008, city staff convened an ad hoc group to discuss what might be done to support the arts in downtown Aurora. The product of their discussions was a white paper on using the arts as a revitalization tool. Ideas were drawn from other communities that were facing similar challenges.

We were fortunate in many ways. Though the “Great Recession” had hit us hard, the Paramount Theatre had already embarked upon an innovative plan to bring a series of Broadway-quality productions to its stage – and though, at first that seemed risky, that gamble paid off in a huge way. Because our downtown had suffered from disinvestment over the years, much of our significant architectural heritage remained intact. Though many buildings had been neglected, they had not been demolished…so they were “ripe” for discovery once the economy improved. National Register Historic Districts were created along LaSalle Street and Stolp Island in the 1980s. In 1993, the city had wisely instituted architectural guidelines for redevelopment within the FoxWalk Overlay District (downtown), so that as buildings were repurposed, they did not lose their unique architectural integrity, and as new construction came online, those structures fit the scale and character of the existing streetscape.

Probably the most important factor in our revitalization was the fact that we had a strong cohort of believers. Many artists from a wide range of disciplines already made their homes in Aurora. Suddenly, they started talking to each other in ways they hadn’t done before…and a variety of projects began to blossom, including the Aurora ArtWalk, which over time metamorphosed into First Fridays. Though we do not have a movie theatre or book store in Aurora, a group of devoted “cineastes” formed the Aurora Film Society several years ago, and now claim a membership of nearly 100 people who attend monthly screenings of “films you didn’t know you needed to see” in space provided by the Aurora Regional Fire Museum.

A volunteer-run, non-profit used book store, Culture Stock, was housed in a city-owned building for about three years. “Lit by the Bridge,” a curated showcase for local authors, found a home in the shop, as did “Music Mondays.” The book store closed when the city found a restaurant tenant for the space. The musicians were able to relocate to a downtown coffee shop. Certainly not all proposals have flourished, but successes have led to an atmosphere of openness to possibilities; new ideas continue to come forward.

Aurora has had a modest cultural infrastructure in place going back many years, with an opera house located downtown in the late 19th century, as well as several music conservatories. Salons and Sunday afternoon performances were hosted in private homes. The Paramount Theatre was constructed in 1931; the Sky Club atop the Leland Hotel opened in the 1930s, with a studio in which Bluebird artists made over 300 records. A local community theatre, Riverfront Playhouse, has been in operation in a city-owned building since the early 1970s. The Aurora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau has been a champion of the arts since its formation in the 1990s. Several small museums have existed in downtown Aurora since that time: the Aurora Regional Fire Museum, the G.A.R. Hall, the David L. Pierce Art and History Center, and SciTech. With the exception of the G.A.R., all are located in re-purposed buildings, with rehabilitation funding provided by the City of Aurora. After many years of ignoring one another, a wave of new museum directors emerged in the early 2000s and staff began working together on cooperative promotion and marketing. The Hollywood Casino, which opened in 1993, offers live entertainment, and is a strong financial supporter of the Paramount Arts Centre.

Aurora Downtown, an association of property owners located within a Special Service Area, underwent a change in leadership and an infusion of young entrepreneurs who were willing to spend their tax dollars and time to program events throughout the year, bringing hundreds of people downtown. The city’s Special Events Division collaborated and cooperated to increase the number of festivals and parades that took place downtown. The Fox Valley Music Foundation, a group of eight friends who had met while volunteering at Blues on the Fox, decided to form a nonprofit organization and were able to open The Venue, a 200-seat state-of-the art performance space in a city-owned building that had been slated for demolition.

The Aurora Public Art Commission enlisted local artists to paint murals and decorate utility boxes in downtown Aurora. The Aurora Public Library constructed a new facility at the western edge of downtown. Waubonsee Community College, which, in the 1980s had rehabbed two vacant department stores (Carson Pirie Scott and Montgomery Ward) for a downtown school, constructed a new campus along the riverfront. The Paramount opened a school of performing arts in the former college buildings.

The city undertook a major environmental cleanup to build RiverEdge Park just north of downtown in 2013 – an expansive open space along the river which can accommodate nearly 10,000 visitors. Downtown Alive! and Blues on the Fox moved to this site. A major bicycle-pedestrian bridge is currently under construction adjacent to RiverEdge Park, which will link the east and west banks of the river, and make access to the Transportation Center much easier. The historic limestone roundhouse adjacent to the Transportation Center (Route 25) was saved from demolition in the 1990s and converted to a restaurant, brewery and event space owned by the Two Brothers Brewing Company. It features live music and art exhibitions. Once the bridge is completed, its patronage will likely expand.

None of this happened overnight. We have managed to hold our own since the “crash” in 2009. The economy has improved. New condominiums have been constructed at the south end of downtown, along the river. The remaining large-scale vacant buildings are attracting residential developers, which means more people living downtown, with disposable income and the desire for entertainment. New restaurants in rehabbed buildings host live entertainment. Galleries have opened. Vintage shopping is becoming a “thing.” The city’s liquor ordinance is being updated to allow more craft brewpubs and bars without full-blown, expensive kitchens.

 Many visitors would say that there are three great things about downtown Aurora: the arts “vibe”, the architecture, and the fact that so many independent entrepreneurs have been able to succeed. We have no “chain” stores or restaurants downtown – but we do have three independent coffee shops, all of which feature art exhibits, live music, and even poetry readings on occasion.

Here are some takeaways from our experience in revitalization:

—Leadership at the top – from the mayor to city council members to the chief of police.

—Economic development staff who will encourage the implementation of appropriate incentives (Tax Increment Financing Districts, Special Service Areas, Historic Tax Credits, rehabilitation grants, etc.)

—Developers who have experience and the wherewithal to execute projects that will be successful, and can weather economic downturns.

—Business people with energy, ideas, and a financial track record.
Artists who are able and willing to collaborate, and avoid the silos of their particular disciplines.

—The ability to “hang on” until the naysayers (often people who have lived in the community for years, and whose families go back multiple generations) become believers.

—The ability to attract visitors from other communities who are looking for a unique experience. Case in point: the Paramount Theatre’s subscription base is primarily people coming from outside Aurora. The same has been true for those who attend performances at the Fox Valley Music Foundation’s Venue.

—Have a plan. Work the plan. Revise the plan. Revise the plan again.

—Proselytize! Don’t give up!
Good luck!

The Agricultural City Project:

External links: