A month ago, my wife and I were visiting her family up north for a week prior to Christmas. In deciding what to do one night, we settled on going to see a movie in Highland Park, Ill. This small suburban city 15 miles north of Chicago is considered to be one of the wealthiest in the nation; as we walked around its downtown, I literally ran in to Scottie Pippen, who graciously said hello back to me when I addressed him, just next to one of thirty custom designed ice sculptures that adorned the streets as part of the city’s holiday decorations.
Yes, you read that right: thirty ice sculptures. Big ones. Everything from dolphins jumping in the air to reindeer dashing through the snow, these majestic decorations were on just about every corner on every street in Highland Park’s quaint downtown. Add those to the endless strings of lights and wreaths and garland, and well, it felt like I was walking around a truly magical winter wonderland, filled with holiday spirit and hope.
And ultimately, that is what the holiday season is supposed to provide: hope for a better next year, and a cheerful time to reflect on the year that was. For whatever reason, holiday lights aid in our ability to do just that. Being in one’s downtown, streets lit up with holiday lights, families walking about, shopping locally, and wishing each other hello — it’s all part of what is generally the best time of year in many people’s mind, including my own.
But in case you hadn’t noticed, this past year, the city of Champaign had almost no holiday lights up at all. I first wrote about this last year, and was chagrined to find that, this year, there weren’t even the tinsel Christmas trees that generally hang from the street poles. Without being too dramatic about it, honestly, it could have been February on the streets of downtown Champaign throughout the entire holiday season. Outside of the Christmas tree at One Main, and a few strings of lights on some poles, our lovely downtown was left almost bare this past December.
And honestly, it baffled me.
I am the sort of sap that is genuinely excited about each holiday season. As a Jewish man who lights the Menorah on Hannukah and with a deep appreciation for celebrating Halloween, Thanksgiving, as well as Christmas, I was dismayed by the differences between a town like Highland Park and the city of Champaign.
So I got to thinking on it a bit further: what makes holiday lights even possible in a community like ours? Who is responsible for overseeing its direction? And most importantly, what does it cost to implement the program each year?
With the economy still as slow as ever, and with tensions still simmering over a recent tax hike in the State of Illinois, it seems likely that a city like Champaign justifying the use of its tax dollars towards decorating the streets of Champaign might be met with disdain by a certain subset of the population. But to my surprise, the city doesn’t even truly oversee the project each year.
In order to learn more about just what goes into creating our downtown Holiday decorations in Champaign, instead of simply criticizing blindly, I asked city of Champaign planner Terry Blakeman a few questions to help shed some light on the project.
Smile Politely: Who or what division of the City is in charge of budgeting for holiday decorations in Champaign?
Terry Blakeman: No one. The decorations are installed, repaired and cared for by the Campustown Business Group (wreaths in Campustown) and the Champaign Downtown Association (Downtown garlands, tree and building outline lights). About six years ago the city did contribute matching funds to the CDA from the Downtown TIF District to purchase the tree, outline the buildings and purchase the lighted Christmas Tree pole decorations you love so much. I should mention that all of the City Center (Downtown, Midtown, and Campustown) lights will now be under the responsibility of the new Champaign Center Partnership. This is the new organization that has been created to take the place of both district organizations. I should also mention that Midtown is the newly named district along First Street and University Avenue that we use to call East Downtown or East Side. We are trying to more heavily brand the area around the Boneyard Second Street Reach.
Smile Politely: What is the annual budget for said decor?
Terry Blakeman: Pretty much nothing. The CDA had about a $1,000 left in their account which I was able to use for things like repairing the destroyed star on top of the tree and buying new light bulbs to replace the tree bulbs that were broken in last years toppling. We also gave boxes of lights to each property owner who has lights on the top of their building and asked that they make an effort to replace them.
Smile Politely: To what degree does the city believe that decorations help inspire downtown traffic and shopping?
Terry Blakeman: I don’t know that there has ever been a firm statement to that effect but Council did agree to funding six years ago, and I can tell you that here in the Planning Department (the department that oversees Downtown efforts) we understand the value of a festive Downtown. That is why we also support the summer street festivals, the Downtown Festival of the Arts and other special events in Downtown. Public Works also supports the effort by giving us the forestry crew for one day to put up and take down the tree. It all ties together with the parade to create somewhere special that people want to be. Unfortunately, there just isn’t the manpower or funding to create the huge displays that some city’s have.
Smile Politely: Is there any emphasis on building relationships with the shop owners in order to coordinate decorations and perhaps additional financial contributions?
Terry Blakeman: Sure. As I mentioned before the CDA does little things like buying the lights for the business owner with the hopes that they can go up on their own roofs. They also sponsor the window decorating contest and provide the administration and prize money for that effort. I will say that we oftentimes have issues with business owners being willing to go the extra mile to help decorate and participate. That can be for many reasons, such as managing their bushiness with fewer employees, etc., but we have had trouble getting people to see the big picture and understand that the outside of their business affects not only their bottom line but also that of their neighbor. That problem extends to a number of areas we won’t get into.
Smile Politely: Does the city feel as though the notion of Holiday decorations is an antiquated one?
Terry Blakeman: No. I think we all realize the value, but again there just isn’t money and resources put into it. The City believes that a strong, private organization is the best vehicle to accomplish this. If the businesses feel it helps business, then they are the best ones to spearhead the effort; but again, that has been tough to convey.
Smile Politely: What can the community do to help better service the city to help the decorations go up or come down?
Terry Blakeman: Help the Champaign Center Partnership through volunteering and fund-raising. The new organization is going to rely on new faces and those that are passionate about making the center city a great place to be. We need business to be invested in the new organization (mailings about the new org are going out in the next couple of weeks). With the condition of City budgets, this just isn’t something that will be prioritized over a vital city service. I have been leading the charge personally for years on my own time. Sometimes I have an army, some years, like this one, I have about eight people. We need more people that are willing to give something to make it happen.
Ultimately, something like this feels petty in the face of some of the larger and more devastating problems that loom large over a city like ours. Certainly, I’d never pretend to believe that holiday lights hanging from poles in December mean much of anything in the face of hunger, racial reconciliation, addictions, and the like.
But on the other end of the stick, after further examination, I’d like to contend that without things like this — holiday lights downtown, in this case — those who lead healthy lives, and who enjoy what the holiday season represents are justified in feeling like its dwindling importance does matter, even in some small way.
And while I am not quite sure how it might change or get better, I am hopeful that people like Terry will continue to help make positive steps towards restoring what was once an annual celebration of community through the decorating of our town. Just imagine what Walnut might look like if we could return to this:
Photos of Highland Park by Dan Thompson and Ken Lax