Smile Politely

A Building, A Feeling, and A Latrine: Urbana Edition

It has come to my attention that my column has largely focused on Champaign and Campus (which I count as its own entity) and ignored Urbana despite the wealth of eccentric buildings, feelings, and latrines there. So, to rectify this oversight, the entire column this month is about downtown Urbana. Savoy, maybe I’ll even write about you one day (if you work really hard and believe in yourself).


The County Plaza (aka the grey thing across from the courthouse)

Tons people stop me on the street to ask, “Tom, what’s the worst building in Urbana?” Alright, nobody has asked me that, but here’s the answer anyway.

The County Plaza is the worst building in downtown Urbana. It’s a lifeless block of corporate power carved from grey stone that now has a bunch of gross black grime on it. Sure the Busey Bank building across from Siam Terrace is also cold, characterless, and militantly angular, but at least it has the decency to not be quite so tall.

County Plaza is what they thought respectability and productivity were supposed to look like in the 80s. It is clearly designed to be filled with fax machines and businessmen shaking hands. It doesn’t fit in at all with today’s Urbana, and that’s probably the worst thing about it.

Just look at this photo of County Plaza facing the Champaign County Courthouse (or the Justice Castle as I like to call it). This building might not be so bad if it weren’t in downtown Urbana surrounded by red brick castles and quaint storefronts. County Plaza is the building equivalent of wearing a suit to Disneyland.

And take a look at the benches they have out front. These things look like modern art commenting on the eternal nature of human suffering. 

Walking around the building though, I spotted something peculiar. Are those… leg lamps like from A Christmas Story?

Weird, what is this place?

Art quilts? How the heck is this in bottom level of County Plaza of all places?

Some not-very-intense Google searching informed me that this space is PaleGray Labs, where Nina Paley (of Sita Sings the Blues fame) and Theodore Gray (of the Periodic Table Table fame) create math and science inspired quilts. I dunno how I hadn’t heard of this project before, but it seems pretty cool and very Urbana.

VERDICT: I guess this is a classic case of “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” However, despite the presence of the quilt labratory, County Plaza is still clearly terrible and should be flattened.


Saying goodby to The Jolly Roger, a restaurant that died long before I moved here

As I was wandering around downtown Urbana, trying to figure out what to write about, I saw something I’d seen many times before, but never given much thought.

The ship stern shaped facade of a now defunct establishment called The Jolly Roger. In my mind’s eye, The Jolly Roger was a pirate-themed sports bar where people could go and sing sea shanties while pounding back rum and watching football. Every night after close, the pirates from the Jolly Roger and the bikers from Bunny’s would have a great big chaotic 1950s-Western-style bar brawl in the middle of the street where many bottles were broken but everyone remained friends in the end.

Well, it turns out none of this was true and The Jolly Roger was a pirate-themed Italian restaurant known for its thin crust pizza. I never in a million years would have guessed that. The place closed in 2007 under mysterious or totally non-mysterious circumstances (depending who you ask), and a couple years ago the owner opened a new Jolly Roger in Florida where its nautical theme makes somewhat more sense.

The old Jolly Roger building finally got demolished this week, so I asked some friends and acquaintances from the CU area to share their memories of the place. Here is what they said (heavily paraphrased/edited by me):

  • “Never heard of it.”
  • “My dad hung out there.”
  • “Some of the most world-weary servers I have ever seen…..”
  • “My favorite place as a kid. Best taco pizza I’ve ever had, and there was a treasure chest full of Dum Dum pops.”
  • “Got food poisoning twice, puked in their parking lot.”
  • “Make sure to mention they had mounted fish on the walls BEFORE Big Mouth Billy Bass was popular.”
  • “It was always dark and dusty and full of cranky old people.”
  • “Never went there. Loitered in their parking lot as a teenager though.”
  • “Dude, the chest full of Dum Dums.”
  • “RIP Jolly Roger.”
  • “The chairs were cool.”

So there you have it, The Jolly Roger was many things to many people. Regardless of what it was, the building was a weird cool artifact in downtown Urbana, and if it is not replaced with an equally cool thing (like a viking-themed sushi joint), I’ll be somewhat disappointed.

VERDICT: Even though it was an Urbana staple for over 50 years, I never went there so I’m going to continue to believe that The Jolly Roger was a piratical bar in central Illinois whose patrons were prone to singin’ and fightin’.


The men’s room in Pizza-M/Flying Machine Coffee

The Cafeteria & Company space, occupied mostly by Pizza-M and Flying Machine Coffee, is something that downtown Urbana really needed, namely, a space for grad students, professors, and Urbananites of all walks of life to loiter and pretend to work on stuff.

To be a good pretend work space, a place must have the right kind of bathrooms and Cafeteria & Co. delivers.

This bathroom is dimly lit. Its grey walls and black partitions urge you to give in to your melancholy, and the hum from the heater vent and noises from the kitchen one wall away are sure to drown out your sobbing. Yes folks, this is a bathroom for crying in.

This is a bathroom that says, “come on in James, it will all be okay. Just let it all out James, there you go. I know you’ve been sitting out there for four hours through six cups of coffee and have only written 22 words of your dissertation, five of which you’ll likely delete in a fit of anger mere minutes from now and three more that your advisor will probably cross out as being superfluous, but that’s fine Jimbo, that doesn’t matter. You know what else doesn’t matter Jimmy my boy? Ooop, wait, somebody just came in the bathroom door, pull it together Jim, pull it together! …. Alright Jim, they left you can let the tears flow again. Where was I? Oh yes, you know what else doesn’t matter Jim? It doesn’t matter that over Christmas everyone is going to ask you when you’re finishing your PhD and you won’t have an answer. You know why that doesn’t matter Jimbo? Because you’re doing what you love gosh darnit!  Now dry your eyes on this toilet paper, and don’t you come in here again until you’ve written at least 22 more words! I believe in you kiddo!”

Well, maybe the bathroom doesn’t say all that, but it’s clearly a good place for crying. It’s important to have a bathroom in your life where you can let your dark thoughts in while you let other stuff (poop and tears) out.

VERDICT: B+ Weeping Hole. My favorite part of this bathroom though is the fact that there’s one of those tree shaped air fresheners for your car hanging on the shelf.

This is genius. Why don’t more people use these in their bathrooms? I could make my own bathroom smell like new car. Hell, I could make my WHOLE APARTMENT smell like new car! This will be great.


Think there’s an uglier building in downtown Urbana? Got stories from The Jolly Roger? Been a while since you’ve had a good cry? Post about it all in the comments below.

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