The Culture section is a unique animal in the Smile Politely world. It's a catch-all category for sure, but it also opens the door to dig into what makes C-U great: the people, the businesses and organizations and the events, the familiar and the obscure, the everyday occurences and the timely topics.
I really do enjoy curating and writing for this section, as it's taken me into corners of the community and led me to people that I might not have encountered otherwise, and hopefully reading this section offers you that same opportunity.
Here are some bits of C-U culture that stood out to us this year.
— Julie McClure, Culture Editor
BEST activists: high school students
This year’s mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida spurred on a national movement of high school students who are frankly fed up with going to school each day not knowing if they will be next. Students across the country organized solidarity walk-outs and marches to coincide with those done at the national level, and our local high school students were no exception. Student activists at several local high schools planned walk-outs, came together for a local version of March for Our Lives, in a blizzard, during spring break, and are continued to affect change through the midterm elections. The power of youth in activism is not new, one can look to the civil rights movement and Vietnam war protests to see such examples, and it’s honestly pretty heartening to see out of a generation that is frequently told they are too coddled, too obsessed with social media, and incapable of thinking for themselves. As Lindsay Aikman, Centennial teacher, says of the students in her social justice seminar class: “I think it’s a misconception of youth today that they’re disengaged and always on their phones and looking at themselves. These are adolescents who are so plugged in, they see the news as it happens with alerts on their phones and in their Twitter feeds. The students who are taking this class, and so many more who are not, feel the urgency of the time that we are in.” These students were also doing things like showing up to hear Me Too founder Tarana Burke speak, organizing voter registration drives in their schools, and volunteering for political campaigns. Let’s not count them out. (JM) Photo by Kwamé Nyerere Thomas
BEST bus stop: Harris and Vine
Just kitty-corner from a currently renovating Spalding Park, sits the best bus stop in Champaign-Urbana. It’s simple, just a bench and a little gravel paved path leading from it to where you step on to the bus, but it’s perfect. It wasn’t built with public funding, so relax, if that’s the type of person you are. The owner of the property, decided to create it after seeing an elderly neighbor stand in four seasons of weather as she waited for her ride to arrive.
Fact is, I love the MTD. It’s one of the most successful of our taxing bodies. But they could take a cue here, and start a program of enhancing neighborhood bus stops in interesting and unique ways. It wouldn’t cost much, and it could be a way to engage local artists and builders in a unique and worthwhile project that would create space in our cities for something memorable. (SF) Photo by Seth Fein
BEST (retired) escape room: The Cabin @ Champaign-Urbana Adventures in Time and Space
As a kid I was ALL about horror movies — Friday the 13th, Pet Semetary and the like, and books (Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine anyone?). The first escape room experience I tried at C-U Adventures in Time and Space, The Cabin, seriously hit all of those spooky scary feels I used to love. Solitary cabin in the woods, clowns, creepy decor, eerie noises, somewhat disturbing disguises (see above)…so great. Unfortunately, this gem has now been retired, along with the Main Street location, but never fear, The Revenge of the Cabin is up and running at their brand spanking new location at 302 N. Broadway. I can't wait to try it. (JM) Photo by Justine Bursoni
BEST Parade: Washington St Parade
Parades are very meaningful and great ways to bring a community together to celebrate or acknowledge important moments and organizations and movements both here and beyond.
The 4th of July is a bit grating in that most everything is rooted in wild eyed nationalism and a false understanding of patriotism. The big parade on Lincoln and Florida is a huge hassle, and it’s generally hot and filled with boring floats and far too many people handing out bad candy.
Might I suggest the Washington St. Parade between New and Lynn close to Downtown Champaign? It’s so adorable, and the people participating organize a potluck afterwards, and despite the fact that it’s technically a neighborhood affair, I don’t think that anyone would be sad if you showed up and made friends. (SF) Photo by Seth Fein
BEST Downtown view: city building through alley of Blind Pig Brewery/Aroma/Pekara/Quality on a summer evening
I love strolling through Downtown Champaign in the summer, and there were a few instances this summer where the weather on a Friday evening was just perfect for such a thing — 75 degrees, zero humidity, light breeze — perfect for taking in a little Friday Night Live and grabbing dinner on a patio somewhere. Seeing our local beer gardens and restaurant patios filled with people just makes me happy, and once the sun goes down I like to take a little pause just outside the Blind Pig Brewery beer garden to take in my favorite city view. We don’t have much for skylines here obviously, but most familiar with our area know just the snapshot I’m talking about. The bulb lights, brick buildings and walkways, city building glowing in the background — it's not anything new or exciting that developed in the past year, but it's simple and lovely, and makes me glad to live here. (JM) Photo by Anna Longworth
BEST chance for a turnaround: Illinois Men’s Basketball
I like the hiring of Brad Underwood. He’s inherited such a mess, it’s hard to believe that just 13 years back, the Fighting Illini were considered to be one of the elite programs in the nation. I think he could return them to their former glory, but not without a full graduation cycle of faith from AD Josh Whitman.
The best programs need time to come back from devastation. We used to give coaches that sort of time, but the carousel that exists now at the end of every season has dismantled that sort of longevity. Blue chip players are starting to see potential. Ayo Dosunmu, a tall combo guard who can run the point, and score at will, is a major get for the program. Trent Frazier is playing at a very high level. Moving forward, everything should run through them, provided they are healthy.
I can’t see them dancing in 2019, not with a 4-7 start to the season, but I also wouldn’t put it past Underwood if he gets the team to buy in, and close a few games you wouldn’t expect by the time the B1G tournament comes around. Young teams have been known to shock with the right coaching. (SF) Photo from Fighting Illini Basketball Facebook page
BEST relocation: IDEA Store
In October, the IDEA Store opened in it’s new home, the space formerly occupied by Art Mart in Lincoln Square Mall. Sure, Lincoln Square has not been a pinnacle of retail success over the last several years, but there are businesses that have found a niche market there, and I think that the IDEA Store will not only thrive, but in turn draw more people to other Lincoln Square businesses as well. They’ve doubled their space, and they will have the benefit of both the summer and winter markets on weekends, as well as traffic from the Co-op. It’s certainly a better space than the original, which they made the best of, but was a bit awkward in terms of both layout and location. (JM) Photo by Melinda Edwards
BEST political tweet: Carol Ammons to Bruce Rauner
Poor Bruce Rauner. He really thought he could walk into the most corrupt state’s highest office and trick people into believing that he wasn’t just the same. Being a multi-billionaire and dressing in a plaid shirt, Carhartt’s, and a big belt buckle doesn’t align you with the “folks downstate.” It just makes you look like a fake.
Our most local state rep, Carol Ammons, doesn’t take bullshit. While riding the bus with Governor Rauner, she snapped a photo of him, while he was wearing one of the most vacant stares you can imagine. She had a moment of tenderness towards the colossal phony. She empathized with how he must be feeling at that moment.
Carol Ammons knows all too well what a politician like Bruce Rauner wants to do to publicly funded services like the MTD. And she knows he never rides the public bus, and never did.
That she was willing to fight fire with fire is a reminder that she’s to be feared, if you are going to hold hostage our social services and essential needs. (SF) Photo from Twitter
BEST parking situation: MobileMeter on campus
MobileMeter has been a marvelous addition to our community, and this year saw the expansion of this marvelous addition to campus parking. I prefer to be able to control every aspect of my life from my phone — don’t we all??? — and this allows me to continue to work toward that goal. In all seriousness, MobileMeter saves me from a couple of situations that could inevitably end in me getting a parking ticket: a lack of change besides pennies, where I decided to gamble and do my business anyway and having to interrupt whatever I am doing to run out and feed a meter. I am for anything that saves me from seeing that dreaded yellow envelope stuck under my wipers. (JM) Photo by Patrick Singer
BEST economic opportunity in Champaign: MTD / UIUC ice arena complex
Downtown Champaign has officially undergone a complete transformation. What was once a small but engaged community of artists, musicians, weirdos, and wannabes, has fallen into complete gentrification, with small high rise hotels and condos presiding over expensive cocktail lists and plated cuisines, almost across the board.
That’s OK. This is what America does better than anything, really. The wealthy invade the affordable space and make it their own. Essentially, there’s nothing new under the sun.
And that is why the proposal to take the south part of Downtown and turn it into three sheets of ice, with a stadium to host a Division 1 hockey team for Illinois, paired with a hotel and conference center is about the best possible situation for everyone here.
Watching hockey live is super duper fun. People who don’t even like hockey like watching it live. This is a community with over 40K students and another 130K residents, many of whom have an affinity for sports in some way. The Illinois hockey club team that plays at the Ice Arena on 4th and Armory sells out most of their games, and does it without much promotion or beer sales. Put some marketing muscle into it, and add a sponsorship from Coors Light, or whoever ponies up, and that will create a lot of economic activity in a downtown that needs more than just places to eat and get boozy.
Personally, I can’t wait to see it happen. I only hope that the City grants landmark status to Tumble Inn, so that it can be incorporated into the design. God forbid we wipe out yet another legendary piece of our past in favor of what’s easy and boring. (SF)
BEST voter turnout: U of I students, and really Champaign County in general
Midterms are notorious for low turnouts not just here in Champaign County, but nationally as well. This year was an exception. A big exception. Overall turnout in the county increased from an average of 54,530 voters in the past four midterms to 80,112 in the 2018 midterms. An even more exceptional occurrence was the flood of student voters resulting in exponentially larger numbers at every campus precinct. This flood garnered quite a bit of attention as it was happening, with several viral videos and photos of voter lines snaking down four flights of stairs at the Illini Union, and has also been a much talked about phenomenon in post-election analyses.
The student turnout most certainly made a difference in the blue sweep of county offices, most of which had been long-held by Republicans, which has led to a good amount of grumbling from local Republican voters. However, more people voting and engaged in the political process is a good thing, no matter what subsect of the community they come from, but especially when it’s college students, who are so often painted with the broad brush of being apathetic toward politics and what’s going on in the world beyond their campus bubble. So let’s praise that civic involvement...and maybe expand campus voting opportunities in 2020. (JM) Photo by Nicole Anderson-Cobb
BEST possible use for Urbana Landmark Hotel: Affordable housing / artist’s co-op
Look, it is clear to anyone with any sort of a brain that the old Urbana Landmark Hotel isn’t going to be a hotel without the unreasonable financial support of the City of Urbana investing into a private developer. That is not the right move for Downtown Urbana or its taxpayers.
What the center of our smaller city needs is residents, and ideally, creatives who will populate the bars and restaurants and venues within its little business district. What it needs are artists, musicians, playwrights, actors, thinkers, and the like, spilling out of a living co-op and into the library, the IMC, the Iron Post, the Courier, Crane Alley, and all.
To do that, Urbana should purchase the hotel, invest enough to make the space livable, and then partner with a developer that will meet certain criteria to envelope a diverse, and robust, array of people to fill the rooms. The space is tailor made for such a project.
It has exhibition space, kitchen facilities, studio space, parking, and is situated close to grocery stores, both high end and affordable. There is room for as many as 150 residents to live and work and create within the space. Leases could be granted based upon application. Cost could be assessed based on ability to pay the rent.
Not everything has to be a for-profit venture to have a profitable outcome, beyond the scope of its immediate owner. That is completely true for a municipality, and especially one that craves a new sense of economic development, and has the right people in place to do it. The entire community wins when we invest into cultural engagement and the people who design it. This is the kind of daring and radical idea that Urbana could pursue, and fundamentally change the face of its downtown forever.
I get that it's sort of a utopian pie in the sky pothead idea, but hey, this is Urbana, and I say it's possible. (SF) Photo by Justine Bursoni
BEST place for a bouquet to inspire all the feels: Fleurish
Fleurish owner Sarah Compratt has a passion for flowers and an eye for what is beautiful, balanced, and unique. These characteristics allow her to come up with bouquets that are breathtaking and completely perfect for the occasion whether you are just interested in brightening up your space or bringing joy to someone’s life. (JM) Photo by Jessica Hammie
BEST export: Janelle James
Janelle James will never claim Champaign-Urbana as her own, and rightfully so, since she isn't from here. But we certainly should speak her praises whenever we can. The comic recently finished her inaugural Janelle James Comedy Festival at the Bell House in Brooklyn, which was handed off to her by Eugene Mirman, who is more than well known in the comedy circuit. Her album Black and Mild was well received earlier this year, and she made her debut on NetFlix as part of The Comedy Lineup. She spent the last year on tour with Chris Rock, David Cross, and Amy Schumer, and she is a comedic writer on a variety of shows, and series, on HBO and BET.
Basically, she has arrived, no matter what happens next. She got her start when she was living here by doing small open mics at Memphis on Main, and opening for acts like Todd Barry and Rob Delaney at local venues.
So we can say she’s from here, at least, as far as her professional career as a comic is concerned. I can just see her big smile now, looking at me like “Pleeeeeeeeeeeease, dude.” That’s why we love her. (SF) Photo by Veronica Mullins
BEST creepy latrine: Horticulture Field Lab basement men’s room
Hopefully you are aware of a delightful little column we have here at SP: A Building, A Feeling, and A Latrine. It is written by Tom Ackerman, who has a knack for pointing out the sometime mundane, sometimes absurd, and often unnoticed oddities here in Chambana. If you haven’t read ever read it, please do. You won’t regret it. Now for the latrine. Each year ‘round Halloween time, Tom finds a local bathroom that brings in an element of creepiness, and this year’s is maybe the best yet. There’s a haunted looking corridor, a locked locker (that may or may not contain a body?), a shower (???), and a frightening medicine cabinet. I’m thinking you must realllly need to go if you have to visit this bathroom. (JM) Photo by Tom Ackerman
BEST holiday decorations: University and Prospect
It’s a small gesture, but each year, the folks who live on the northeast corner of University and Prospect adorn their wrought iron fence in garland and red bows, the whole way around, and I don’t know how else to say this, but it makes my heart swell, and reminds me that not everything is worth pitching a fit over. Thank you to whoever does that work. It’s gorgeous. (SF) Photo by Seth Fein
BEST entrepreneurship: Girl Scouts at NuMed
Well played Girl Scouts, well played. You could totally expand your operation to Phoenix Botanical this year and you’ll have both cities covered. Photo from Spotted in Chambana Facebook group
BEST idea for a new mascot: None, or if we must, The Galloping Ghosts
This is final, my friends. No “new mascot” is ever going to replace the larger than life and deeply divisive identity that Chief Illiniwek brought to this community. When I listen to academic types and transplants discuss the importance of bringing on a new mascot as part of a healing process, I want to remind them that they don’t know fucking shit about the deeper and more historical components of this community, and that they should probably learn to listen more, and speak less.
The Chief isn’t coming back. That’s a really good thing. But a new mascot isn’t going to change the resolve of those who wish it were. In fact, it’s going to throw fuel on the fire, and make it even harder for the administration to move forward. If you think I am somehow flawed in my thinking, please join me at Bunny’s with a large group of my friends from Urbana High School, on any given night, and allow them to tell you the reasons why.
But if we must choose a new one, please let it be this and this alone: The Galloping Ghosts.
By conjuring the spirit of Red Grange, and appealing to the deepest sensibilities of the fanbase, we could perhaps sway enough folks to start forgetting about the past, and embrace the future. His massive full body statue in game mode presides over Memorial Stadium. It would be an impossible situation for the Illini faithful who wouldn’t dare denigrate his name. He is the original football superstar, nationwide, undeniably, and without question. His spectre remains, and it is a looming reminder of a sports program that was once considered to be the best in the entire Big Ten, and beyond.
The idea of a ghost is super fucking wicked. Sports mascots should be awesome, or representative, and even threatening, in how they present in some way, without being offensive. This would give smart designers all kinds of opportunities to create imagery that appeals to the senses of many, without making a nod to the racist and offensive ghosts of our past.
Anything else will be even more divisive and a showcase of the neverending saga surrounding this issue that has come from the past God-knows-how-many administrations. (SF) Photo from Twitter
Contributors to this article include Julie McClure and Seth Fein