Thursday, July 20, 2006

Dear Peoria,

Stop apologizing.

Ever since we moved here, Peorians keep apologizing to us for Peoria.

"Oh, you moved here? It's not that great a town," you all say.

Yes, Peoria, we moved here on purpose. We finished up at Duke Law and we had the world at our feet and WE PICKED PEORIA.

We knew we were coming back to the Midwest (well, back for me - new for him), and HE knew that he wanted a smaller city than Chicago. See, I grew up in the Chicago burbs, and always felt a little lonely outside the Midwest. He grew up in small-city Florida, and always felt lonely in big cities. So we compromised: I could come back to the Midwest, if he could have a smaller city. We looked around everywhere -- even Chicago -- for a city where we could settle down.

Much as I adore Chicago (and I frequently appall Europeans by insisting it's the best city in the world), it's friggin' expensive and the commutes are long. For a two bedroom, 1 bath, un-updated house smack up against the Chicago Northwestern Railroad Line with a 45 minute commute downtown, we would have paid $350,000. Plus neither of us was all that excited about 80-hour lawyer weeks.

But Peoria! Mr. McGee's commute downtown is 10 minutes long -- in traffic, with construction, when he hits all the lights wrong. Our house, which is nicer, cost 1/3 of what we would have paid for a smaller house in Chicago.

Okay, so Peoria's not an international center of culture. But dude, I grew up in Chicago. You don't go downtown that often because parking is a pain in the ass. I lived in London (which ROCKED). But the world is available on the internet these days, and vacations to international centers of culture are nicer when you get to go home to a place where everybody knows you and wants to see your vacation pictures.

And Peoria has culture - orchestra (most important to me), and ballet, and Rennaisance Faires - culture with parking that doesn't cost an arm, leg, and firstborn. Culture I can get home from in 20 minutes.

I know it's hard for a lot of you to imagine why someone who didn't a) grow up here or b) get transferred by Cat would move here on purpose. But I promise you, it's a lovely city. A big-city feel with small-town traffic. Enough to do to keep me busy, but always a place to park.

I teach some ACT prep classes, often outside Peoria in the "real" farming areas, and the kids think they must be dumb because they live on farms. I keep telling them, they have experiences and knowledge I never did when I was their age. Sure, I knew a lot about stock markets - I had friends whose fathers were traders at CBOT - but I had no idea what unions meant, and I was nowhere near as involved and interested in local politics and economics: will this factory close? Will that one open? They know things I never imagined knowing; half the class I taught at Princeville High School was on the volunteer fire squad and they all checked their beepers when the siren went off. I can't even imagine that. They know so much more than I did, but they keep saying, "Oh, we're just farm kids." Suburban high achievers are a dime a dozen. Rural kids on volunteer fire squads? That's something special.

So Peoria, stop apologizing to me for being Peoria. We LIKE it here. We like the people. We like the city. We moved here ON PURPOSE, and while I have a certain amount of shock about having a 309 area code on my phone number (WHY GOD? WHY?), we love it. We love it not because we grew up here and feel obligated to do so, but because WE LOVE PEORIA on its own merits. We CHOSE you. We LIKE you. We've lived in world-class cities, and we choose to live here.

With much love,


Anonymous said...

Taking off on a tangent here...

Eyebrows Makes the Point:
"Rural kids on volunteer fire squads? That's something special."

Right there, in a nutshell, is rural life. I learned early in life that if *I* didn't do it, it wouldn't get done. Someone's got to be on the team or there is no team. Someone has got to play the tuba or there is no bass section in the band. Someone has to run the scoreboard. Someone has to serve on the student council or there is no Homecoming.
In small rural towns, it doesn't matter if you have musical talent or not, you best play football or be in the marching band. 95% of my class would be at the football games and 90% were participating in some way.
I think it comes from the farming mentality. If I don't plow today, I am going to have to plow twice as much tomorrow. There is nobody else to do it.
It continues into my adult life. Someone has to coach the kis or there is no Tee-Ball. Someone has to make the schedule or there is no sports league. Soemone has to scoop the manure or we can't have equine therapy for the kids that need it. Someone has to be an organizer, sometimes. Someone has to be a grunt, sometimes.
As you pointed out, someone has to drive the fire engine or your house burns down. Someone has to be the EMT or someone's going to die.

It does no good to have a brain full of knowledge if all one does is sit at home and pontificate.
Too many folks get educated and then see a problem and say "They should...." These kids you taught see a problem and think "I should..."

We all should.

Anon E. Mouse

Eyebrows McGee said...

Those kids were amazing enough that they made me want to move to Princeville for the schools. I seriously want to be like them when I grow up. They'd laugh, but it's true.

And they were just astounded that someone from CHICAGO thought they had something to contribute. It's hard to see when you're in your hometown how very DIFFERENT you are from everyone else, and I think it's much more endemic to these rural kids, who referred to themselves as "hicks" to me, than to suburban kids with self-esteem curriculums!

I do some private writing tutoring, and I basically just ask the kids what they think of local issues (and then make them write about it). They give me an impassioned response, and then get embarrased and say, "But, well, everybody thinks that." I tell them, "Well, I don't, because I grew up in Chicago, and the kids you'll go to college with won't, because they'll have a totally different experience. My dad's not in a union. I don't understand how CILCO's policies impact that. You've got to explain it to me. The fact that you're from Central Illinois makes you different and special and INTERESTING. You know things that we don't know."

But my killer statement - because they never, ever believe me that I don't know things that they do know - is that I never saw a pig until I saw one in the (Lincoln Park) zoo when I was 20. And then I about fell over because WHO KNEW PIGS WERE SO SUPER-GIGANTIC??????

"I learned early in life that if *I* didn't do it, it wouldn't get done."

I think that's it exactly. And they were just so ENGAGED. I was engaged at 18, but not in things I could FIX. I was engaged in abstract questions of politics and in Amnesty International - totally praiseworthy goals, but it NEVER would have occurred to me to SAVE MY NEIGHBORS FROM BURNING TO DEATH.

I remain astounded by their total coolness. They were impressed I went to Notre Dame. I was AMAZED they were volunteer firemen and knew more about how the world works at 17 and 18 than I do at 28.

Pammy said...

Great post, Eyebrows. I feel pretty much the same way about Peoria. It's about 50 miles away from my own 'hometown', but it might as well be 5,000. Coming from a VERY rural village of about 200 (20 kids in my HS graduating class), Peoria is the BIG CITY. As far as I'm concerned, it's got the best of both 10 minutes in one direction, and you're 'downtown' 10 minutes in another and you're in the middle of a cornfield.

Anonymous said...

I was born and raised in Peoria and have always loved this place. At the same time I was able to travel with family to other cities. It always bothered me when friends or acquaintences would make apologies for Peoria to out-of-towners. I could never see what was wrong with this place because there was nothing wrong with this place. Some Peorians liked to compare this small city to larger cities based on what they saw there or on TV, but there is no comparison. Yes the larger cities had FM rock before Peoria. Yes it took Peoria restaurants 10 years before they could serve blackened grouper or cajun food (or french food). It was always a conservative city (not that there is anything wrong with that) and things changed slowly as they usually did pre-internet, pre-global village.
Peoria is a great place to live for numerous reasons and I love it. It's no Chicago, Miami or Philly and that's part of its character and distinction.

PeoriaIllinoisan said...

It is true, there is a segment of Peorians who are not proud of Peoria. I can't quite put my finger on why, though. I don't think it's so much the town itself. It's a great place. Why would someone be ashamed of it? I think the whole "will it play in Peoria" thing makes us sound hokey though. My perception is that those who have never been here think we're a hokey town, and I guess some of the people who live here feel the same way.

How many times have you heard someone who visits for the first time say "wow- I didn't know you had a REAL downtown." (translation: I thought Peoria was just some hokey farm town out in the sticks and you're too far from Chicago to be a suburb.)

I love every chance I get to show off Peoria to those who've never been here.

Anonymous said...

Pammy, that is cool. A graduating class of 20? Mine was 18. Think about it - the Salutatorian (sp?)did not even finish in the top 10% of the class!

Anon E. Mouse

Anonymous said...

Eyebrows --

As a non-native Peorian, I always get asked "Why are you here?" Everyone assumes I came with a husband for his job with Cat. No, I came for my job and knew nothing about Peoria when I came. My friends from Chicago thought I was crazy and wasting my life. Why would I want to give up 80 hour weeks and a six figure salary for PEORIA?? Then they saw I could afford a charming old house (with hardwood floors) with a yard and a garage in a nice neighborhood as a single person. They are living in one room apartments in Chicago where "charm" means something completely different. I drive 7 minutes to work and don't pay an arm and a leg to park my undented car.

Do I miss the culture? Absolutely. But that culture is only a 2.5 hour drive away or a short flight away. And, I can afford to travel because I live in Peoria. I have been to most of the major cities in the Western World and love them. However, in the end, my happiness does not depend on external ideals of the perfect 30-something life. My happiness stems from living a life that is relaxed, with excitment that I create by living it.

As always, great post - keep it up!

Chef Kevin said...

I was born and raised in East Peoria. After culinary school, I came back here after a brief stint on the East Coast. I had huge offers out of chef school and most thought I was nuts coming back here. I was offered high 5 figures to go to Chicago about a year after being here. I just laughed at them. I have several friends who live in the Chi-town burbs. I can put their apartments, them, everything they own, including their car, inside my house and even with (escalating) property taxes, my house payment is less than half of their tiny apartments. And I LOVE to drive. You can't drive in Chicago. And yet, it only takes about 3 hours to visit my friends in Chicago, StL, or Indy. Yeah, I wish our riverfront was more like Savannah, GA's. I wish our downtown was more like Galesburg's. I wish there wasn't a chain restaurant almost every damn corner.

But there is some culture here. It's taking awhile, but its coming. More ethnic restaurants. You see a lot more events in this town than you did, heck, even 5 years ago. There are some talented musicians who have worked and played with some of the biggest names in their musical segment and have been recognized by the industry. But one of the coolest things is all the wineries springing up. I realize most aren't going to have the charm of Stone Hill or Hermannof in Missouri, but in 20 years when these wineries vines start getting some age, hopefully they will be making some serious wines. I'm not saying they are bad now, but they will be better.

Peoria isn't so bad. Live in Long Lake, NY. Oh, yeah, its B- U- T- ful country, but the next closest town is 11 miles and it's smaller. The other two towns 22 miles away (in opposite directions) are equal or smaller, even though they have movie theaters (ooooooo). You have to drive 50 minutes to Lake Placid to be in a "big" town.

Anonymous said...

There definitely IS a "Peoria" attitude among the majority of lifelong residents here. It's a negative attitude that I've never quite understood after being here for 20 years now. I STILL run into people who've never been to the Civic Center!! There are people I know who've never been down to the beautiful riverfront, or to any of the really cool festivals there. We noticed it as soon as we moved here. We were excited, and could see all that was available here. What we heard was "Why the hell would ANYBODY want to move to Peoria???" Well..I gotta tell ya. I'm sure glad my wife and I moved here. We absolutely love it here. And, for those who say.."There's nothing to do in Peoria"... I say "BULLSHIT". Take a look around people, there's more going on in this town, and in this area than most humans can possibly take advantage of. But, again..there is a definite 'downer' attitude from most long-time residents. The people moving here from other parts of the state, or other parts of the Country, for the most part, love it here.

Hypocoristic said...

Having spent most of my childhood in P-town and then having come back to go to Bradley after attending college prep. boarding school out of state, I roll my eyes or cringe whenever I hear flippant untoward comments about Peoria leaping from the mouths of other (mostly Chicago suburban) Bradley students. Anything from the odour of the town to the lack of entertainment is fodder, but you know what? Peoria is not all bad! I am glad to see someone with something different and refreshing to say about Peoria. It's a great place to be from. It's quirky and likeable in its own ways, and certainly has its charms.

Eyebrows McGee said...

It's funny how I define culture as "music" and Chef Kevin defines it as "food." Also that Pammy thinks Peoria is the big city where she can be anonymous and I feel like it's a teeny tiny town where everybody knows you two weeks after you move in. Differences in perspective, indeed.

And as everyone has noted, it only takes 2.5 hours to get to Chicago, and my parents live up there, so I don't even have to pay for a hotel if I wanna suck up some big-city culture!

cgiselle12 said...

I am with you Eyebrows, in that my husband and I "picked" Peoria.
I Love Peoria. And I have lived in Goshen, NY (hometown, 1.5 hrs north of NYC), Montclair, NJ (30 minutes outside of NYC if traffic isn't a mess), the Jersey Shore, Seattle, WA and Tallahassee, FL. I've spent significant time in NYC and my brother lived in Southern California for years. And I still say, I LOVE PEORIA.
No, it's not a big city, but I don't want to live and raise my children in a big city.
I was excited to move here because I'd never lived in "the middle" before. The middle is damn cool. I like it way better than Florida (no offense to Floridians). Tallahassee is, IMHO, way lamer than anyplace I've ever lived. A cultural void. The closest "city" is Jacksonville, FL (2.5 hours east) and Jacksonville is damn lame too. Very little culture.
We got a packet about Peoria from BU before we moved here and the Parks District book alone sent me into fits of glee. Dude, the parks district here rocks the heck out of every other city I've lived in (despite some stupid actions they may have taken lately).
Culturally, there is so much to do. Tallahassee is about the same size and Peoria, but offers far, far less quality activities.
There's a good sized university, it's close to a bunch of big cities (Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis and Milwaukee are in driving distance as far as I'm concerned), there are more festivals in our metro area than you could possibly attend in one year, a nice farmers market every Saturday, a bunch of neat of stuff to visit in the outlying counties, I could go on and on.
So from someone who's been around the block, in terms of living in far flung and variously sized places, Peoria is far from a hick town, as many think. It's got it goin' on, and the locals who trash it should realize this.
The Chamber of Commerce, and City admin is sleeping on the job. Time to get a new slogan. "Plays in Peoria" comes from vaudeville. We're in a new century, dudes.