Smile Politely

BEST 2020

We faced quite the quandary when considering the BEST of 2020. In regular times, we would publish a BEST column for each section, highlighting all the greatness in Arts, Culture, Food and Drink, and Music for the year. These are not regular times. How could we possibly pull together enough material to fill out four articles? Truth is, we can’t, really. In our semi-depressed states it was difficult to even imagine how anything from 2020 could be the BEST.

However, though we’ve endured a lot of awfulness as a community this year, there actually were some good things that happened. It’s important to recognize this. We have to hold on to these bursts of positivity in the midst of despair.

— Julie McClure, Managing Editor and Culture Editor

A view of uplifted arms at a protest march. Signs are held in the air. A visible sign reads

Photo by Anna Longworth.

BEST response to racial justice movement: C-U’s anti-racist organizations

Most of C-U’s response to the ongoing extrajudicial murders of Black people has been swift and unequivocal. (Sadly, we cannot say the same about our governments or institutions.) 

Paign to Peace, an organization founded by young people just out of high school, quickly put together a series of marches attended by thousands. They have recently started curating a monthly entertainment list. 

Champaign County Antiracist Coalition regularly advocates for those who have been disenfranchised, whose voices are silenced, and for what is equitable. 

C-U Stand Up for Racial Justice is a national network of people doing the work to dismantle systemic racism. We’ve been publishing articles from CU-SURJ each month. 

There are so many other organizations doing the good work, and so many individuals doing the same on the personal level. Let’s keep fighting. (JH)

A field of low green plants, some of which have bell shaped blue flowers blooming. There is a row of bare-branched trees along the horizon. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

BEST pandemic side effect: Appreciation for our outdoor spaces

“Outside” has taken on new significance this year. As we slog our way through a pandemic where being indoors in spaces other than your own home carries varying degrees of risk, we’ve become increasingly reliant on nature as entertainment. Our family has spent more time in our local parks, forest preserves, and exploring the trails and gardens of Allerton in the past 9 months then we have in probably the last five years. On the other side of this, as the busy rhythms of our lives slowly creep back in, I hope that we can maintain our regular visits to the wealth of outdoor spaces we have available to us. If you want some in-depth (and amusing) analysis of said spaces, be sure to check out our Year of the Park series. (JM)

The photo is a close up of Siam Terrace in Urbana’s free white face masks. It is packaged in a clear, plastic wrapper with a white sticker reading, “Siam Terrace. Stay safe, we care.†plus a small heart. Photo from Siam Terrace’s Facebook page.

Photo from Siam Terrace’s Facebook page.

BEST food philanthropy: Maize kids lunches and Siam Terrace free face masks with orders

One amazing thing to come out of this year is the response some have chosen. Like Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” Maize was quick to respond to the pandemic by offering free lunches for kids as early as March 16th. And these lunches were not just some boxed foods; Maize served up the kids’ choice of either tortas or quesadilla plus rice, beans, and juice when families needed it the most, and they have continued to be a great neighbor in Champaign to other local restaurants. Siam Terrace started giving out masks in May for free to customers with their orders. Available in adult and kids sizes, these masks are good quality — so good that the Siam Terrace owners ordered for these their staff but also wanted to share with the C-U community. If you need a mask, Siam Terrace is still offering them for free for customers who request them with their carryout order. (AB)

A mural with three bodies hugging one another, colored in blue, green, yellow, and various other colors. Photo by Debra Domal.

Photo by Debra Domal.

BEST new mural: Langston Allston’s mural at North First Street Barbershop

After relocating to New Orleans, C-U-native Langston Allston has been greatly missed. But this past summer, an opportunity to create a mural at the North First Street Barbershop brought him back for a few days. The resulting mural, is, in the artist’s own words “meant to commemorate the challenges and messages of 2020.” And it does. Funded with community support, and installed at a popular Black-owned business, its message of empathy and support stem from its specific site and its visual vocabulary. And yes, this vision of huddled Black bodies stands across the street from the Champaign Police Department. (DD) 

View of Dallas & Company from across the street, viewed through an intersection with stoplights and cars. photo from Enjoy Illinois' website.

Photo from Enjoy Illinois’ website.

BEST retail spots now gone forever: Dallas & Co + Skins N’ Tins 

That both of these legendary spots in Downtown and Midtown Champaign survived as long as they did is a testament to how well supported our local businesses are if they are doing unique and important business that appeals to a big enough demographic. 

In the case of Skins N’ Tins, Liz and Terry Hawkins hung it up after a career of helping literally thousands of drummers find the pocket, and along the way, the collected adoration and kudos from so many famous players that it was sometimes dizzying looking at all the autographed skins in the joint when you were just trying to pick up a couple pairs of 5Bs for your shows that weekend. 

Dallas & Co. and its weird rooms of costumes and deception was the sort of place you took your friends from out of town to watch them go “how is this real?” The namesake proprietor, Andy Dallas, was a legend in his own rite as well, spending time as the President of the Magician’s Guild, and publishing more than a few tricks of his own to be revered by peers the world over. 

Our community, like many, is losing its character in favor of a “new America” where we place value of property over value of business. The cheaper the product, the better it sells. Main Street can’t sustain a green grocer when a supermarket can sell produce at a loss to earn coin on a pair of jeans or kitty litter in the same shop. This isn’t new; the economy has changed so dramatically in the past fifty years and it’s not a discussion for this particular entry. 

But these were some of the BEST spots in Champaign that have closed over the past year, and their legacy will remain intact, even if their doors won’t open ever again. (SF)

Three girls look at the camera, two on the right are sitting on bicycles.

Photo by the Gottheil family.

BEST ex-pat story: Kamala Harris becoming Vice President-elect

The story of Sen. Kamala Harris having connections to Champaign-Urbana was a surprise to most. Even though there are so many human beings that have some connection to our community, mainly because of the University of Illinois, of course, this was such a fun surprise to learn about last year. When it was announced that she would be Joe Biden’s running mate in the 2020 election — representing the first Black woman to be Vice President-elect — is a major step forward for the country. Even though it was only a sliver of her life that was spent here during her childhood, there’s still a lot to be proud of, and certainly it is possible that their time here as a family shaped her in some way, shape, or form. The fact we as community members get to look at VP-elect Harris as “one of ours”, even in the smallest of fractions, is pretty fun. (PS)

Julie Pryde stands in the background wearing a green shirt. There's a monitor to the left showing her likeness as well.

Photo by Champaign Center Partnership.

BEST human: Julie Pryde

Julie Pryde is an incredible human who has been so poised and organized during this shit storm of a pandemic. Pryde for President. Or Mayor?? (JH)

A panoramic view of Krannert Center's outdoor amphitheatre. Photo by Anna Longworth.

Photo by Anna Longworth.

BEST outdoor music venues: Krannert Center amphitheater + Loose Cobra 

Oh, how I dream of simply watching some human perform some piece of art for me and the rest of us! I have a cold drink in my hand, and I look across the crowd to find people of all ages, all backgrounds, smiling, moving, dancing, ingesting, the work of some brave and talented soul. I close my eyes and listen; it is glorious, and I am enraptured. 

In 2020, we lost the reality of this dream. The Rose Bowl did an amazing job doing what they could to make sense of it all, and put on live music to the best of its ability and that is why they are part of this list. 

In 2021, we are going to be more prepared, and more aware, of what is safe and what is not, as far as finding ways to recreate this dream. What we know is that outdoor gatherings are far safer than indoor gatherings. What we also know is that we don’t truly know when we will be able to safely gather inside. 

Thankfully, the designer and architect of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Max Abramovitz, saw it fit to create a gorgeous outdoor amphitheater at the center of the complex. Graciously, Matt Talbott, the owner of Loose Cobra in Tolono has built an outdoor venue in the parking lot of his little dive. These are the best places to see an outdoor show in the Champaign-Urbana area. 

And in 2021, when the weather first starts to turn, when the temperature hits about oh… let’s say sixty degrees or so, you can be sure that these venues are going to be active once again. Whether we have to wear a mask (which is NOT a big deal, Jesus H. Christ) or whether we are free to go uncovered, I can assure you, we will dream no more. We will be awake, and alive, together, and we will enjoy these shows, once again. (SF)

A drive in theater screen against the backdrop of a sunset. There are rows of cars parked in front of it.. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

BEST entertainment option: Harvest Moon Drive-In

While I’ve long appreciated having a drive-in movie theater nearby (it’s possible I was involved in some high school hijinks that involved putting a smallish friend in the trunk to go see a movie there, so we could save… $5?) it has become a lifeline of entertainment this year. They’ve diligently followed pandemic guidelines, which — let’s face it — is an impressive feat in a rural community, and provided an option for a safe evening out. With new features on hold or going straight to streaming, they brought out a slew of classics. Typically we make it out to Gibson City once a season; this year we went five times, taking in flicks ranging from Shrek to Scream. It was great. (JM)

Los Hidalguense taco truck, a black food truck, is parked in the parking lot of Hunter Haven in Champaign. The exterior of the truck has white lettering which reads the name of the truck in addition to “Tacos†and “Tortas.†The lime green menu is visible on the side of the truck, and the sky behind it is a bright, cloudless blue.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

BEST new food truck: Los Hidalguense

Opened this year, Los Hidalguense taco truck is legit. I reviewed the truck in July, and since then, I’ve been back at least twice a month. I am obsessed with the pastor tacos; they are literally perfect: sweet and salty pork with pineapple chunks on double corn tortillas that do not rip or break. Everything on the menu is great, especially the ground beef burrito and/or the nachos. I have no idea how the beef is so amazing, but it really is special. I love how the truck is always in the same spot, how the staff are always masked (and encouraging all patrons to wear a mask when they order), and how freaking reliably awesome the food is. (AB)

Artwork featuring a brown mask with lines in the eyes. THE HARD PROBLEM text to the right.

Photo from 40 North’s Facebook page.

BEST new art programming: 40 North’s The GreatARTdoors

With so many art festivals canceled, C-U artists and art fans were definitely in need of a boost. And 40 North’s new program, The Great ARTdoors, provided that and more. Not only did it offer support to 10 artists, it encouraged them to explore new techniques and materials as they created work to be installed in outdoor locations throughout Champaign-Urbana. But, perhaps even more importantly, it brought art to places where it is rarely found. As examples of site-specific art, these works spoke to and of the communities in which they resided. (DD)

Purple image of a desert. Photo by HUM.

Photo by Hum.

BEST album: Hum’s Inlet 

By now, if you want to read about how well received Hum’s first album in over 22 years was, there are plenty of places for you to do that. The end of year lists they are on says it all, and frankly, it is more than well deserved. That we get to call this band our own, 30 years after it was founded, and decades since they were playing arenas and being touted on MTV, is truly incredible. 

Like any fan of any band that has stayed the course, and stuck around, the idea of a “reunion album” or a new album is always a mixed bag, with the results more often than not feeling underwhelming. It’s hard for artists, especially musicians in a field like “rock” music to replicate the very thing that made them badasses with which to begin; you can’t recreate youthful exuberance or the sort of energy from your teens and twenties or even thirties. 

But Hum wrote and recorded and released what is likely their best and most comprehensive album by doing exactly what they should have done: leaning into what made them influential and exciting to start, and then constructing and deconstructing and reconstructing just nine songs into what is going to be known as a masterpiece from now until forever. 

In particular, and even moreso if you are a Hum fan, the song “In The Den” finds the band in perfect form; the final five minutes of “Desert Rambler” is what a basically perfect song like “I Hate It Too” might have been with years to consider what makes a crescendo into a CRESCENDO. “The Summoning” is actually frightening in some ways, based on how well crafted each part of each section of the song ends up. 

There weren’t a lot of albums released locally this year, and for good reason, as we’re all firmly aware. But honestly, it wouldn’t have mattered who put out what as far as being considered “the best” in a subjective post about such a thing. Anyone with any sense of taste in rock music understands how well regarded and how influential a band like Hum is; that they’ve now just released their magnum opus after four albums of grade A material is a showcase that some bands age like fine wine. Or in this case, like well tequila with a chaser of sativa. 

Indeed, this is rock music as it is intended to be recorded and heard on big ass speakers, and I am grateful to have had these tunes to help me through a very very weird fucking year. (SF)

View of a building with orange and white trim, featuring a bunch of political signs on the fencing. Photo by Boswell Hutson.

Photo by Boswell Hutson.

BEST party HQ: GOP headquarters at Hooters

I initially wrote something about this that was not what you are currently reading. I decided to delete it and start over. I did that because I realized it was rheotrical, and that’s what makes it funny, because we all understand, which is kind of sad if you think about it for too long. There’s not much more I can say about this beyond this being extremely predictable and worth mentioning (again) it as BEST while it is really kind of the worst at the same time. (PS)

Produce is on a counter. There are leafy greens, strawberries in a metal mesh strainer, and lettuces in pink watermelon-printed reusable bag. Photo by Jessica Hammie.

Photo by Jessica Hammie.

BEST way to support local producers: Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) 

I’ve been doing a summer CSA for a few years now, like so many others in this community, so it’s not news to say that CSAs really do help support local producers. But in this pandemic, with changes to our warm weather markets and the way we all shop for groceries, supporting CSAs might make more of a difference than ever before. 

CSAs aren’t just produce — you can sign up to receive meat and flowers and cheese, though right now you might just have to settle for produce and meat. Take a look at our most recent CSA guide for an idea of how and where you can support our local producers, and be on the lookout for registration deadlines in the late winter/early spring. (JH)

Three people are working in a garden. One man to the right is using a hoe. There are trees and white stakes in the background. Photo from Solidarity Gardens CU Facebook page.

Photo from Solidarity Gardens CU Facebook page.

BEST community collaborations: Bucket Brigade and Solidarity Gardens CU

When our worlds slammed to a halt in March, it was amazing to see how quickly organizations kicked things into high gear to fulfill the ever-increasing needs of the community. Within a couple of weeks, the Channing Murray Foundation, with referral assistance from Cunningham Township, launched the Bucket Brigade, providing the most vulnerable households in C-U with food and essential supplies. 

As spring turned to summer, Solidarity Gardens emerged as a large community-wide network addressing food insecurity through gardening. The Township, along with Channing Murray Foundation, Urbana Free Library, Sola Gratia Farm, Carle, University of Illinois Extension, University of Illinois School of Social Work, Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, Four Osprey/Champaign-Urbana City Farms, Urbana Park District, Champaign Park District, Urbana School District, McKinley Foundation, First Followers/City of Urbana, and Lierman Community Gardens helped community members work together to grow fresh food for those in need. 

When we get frustrated with how many generally awful people there are, it helps to remember that there are good ones, devoted to the idea that we cannot succeed as a community if are most vulnerable are not cared for. (JM)

The Bread Company's front patio, featuring a red awning. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

BEST necessary adaptation: Options for eating at restaurants

Restaurants have been through a lot this year, having to adjust their entire business to include better carryout processes and COVID prevention measures. A lot of restaurants are doing a great job wearing masks, having designated curbside parking spots, and packaging carryout to keep the food tasting warm, even after a drive home. The Bread Company made a huge shift from cozy indoor dining to window service. Focused on the safety of their staff and patrons, The Bread Company closed for many months this year and re-opened with a smaller menu and renovated their space to upgrade the window for outside ordering. Hamilton Walker’s has made the best adaptation by updating their HVAC system, offering raw cuts of meat for customers to cook at home, hosting virtual wine tastings, and making fancy carryout cocktails. Lots of places have really stepped up the curbside game and safety measures. Black Dog consistently provides a safe dinner: offering ample curbside parking, a large, heated four seasons porch, and delivery by Black Dog staff. (AB)

Two employees of art coop lay on the ground with the camera view directly above them. They are surrounded by art supplies. Photo from Art Coop's Facebook page.

Photo from Art Coop’s Facebook page.

BEST art business pivot: Art Coop

One of the remaining independent art supply stores, Art Coop has been evolving and surviving since 1971. And that legacy seems safe in the nimble hands of owners Anna Peters and Hilary Pope, COVID-19 be damned. Following the initial lockdown, Peters and Pope pivoted towards an online experience. However, they never lost sight of what made their store special. Their encyclopedic knowledge of all things art was a natural fit for the new concierge-style service that is available online, by email or by phone, and now by in-person appointment. In addition to offering contactless delivery, they partnered with other local small businesses to provide additional pick-up locations. Much of Art Coop’s magic lies in Peters and Pope’s eye for niche gifts, greener products, and inventive tools and toys, all of which translated well into a wide range of pre-made kits. And they did all of this while supporting the community LGBTQIA+ and helping other small businesses transition into a COVID-friendly business model. (DD)

A four-pack of black and white beer cans are sitting on a picnic table. There is a glass of dark beer sitting on top of them. To the left is a bundle of wooden barrel half staves. Photo from Triptych Brewing Facebook page.

Photo from Triptych Brewing Facebook page.

BEST beer release: AJ’s Stout by Triptych

Every year, Triptych celebrates Festivus on December 23rd. A staple of every Festivus celebration, beside the Feats of Strength and Airing of Grievances, is the release of the latest version of AJ’s Stout, a thick and delicious brew that has incorporated such flavors as peanut butter, vanilla, coffee, and more. Of course there will not be a Festivus gathering in 2020, but for a select portion of C-U there will be AJ’s Stout. This year’s concotion was aged in bourbon barrels, and comes in at a whopping 16% ABV. The beer went on sale at 9 a.m. last Friday, and was sold out by 9:17 a.m. Now that is one sought after beer. 

I’d invite you over to share some of mine, but, ya know, COVID. (JM)

A trail in Busey Woods, mostly brown leaves on the ground. Photo by Seth Fein.

Photo by Seth Fein.

BEST place to walk and clear your head: Busey Woods 

Back in April, just as things were becoming clear to some of us that this was going to be a thing for a long time to come, like many of you, I started embracing the outdoors in new ways. I mean, there wasn’t much choice, save for sitting in your home and whiling away the minutes on internet websites like this one, which was only leading to further despair. 

I wrote about what Busey Woods brought to my family because it seemed to mean so much to me at the moment, and upon further reflection, it means even more. Our family trekked those paths multiple times this year, and played pretend, chased one another, got haunted at times, and joyful at others. 

If there is a spot in these cities where you can truly feel like you aren’t here anymore, like you’ve departed the middle of the cornfields for something closer to nature, it is Busey Woods. Whether you stroll the little boardwalk or dive deeper into the heart of the “Big Grove” itself, you can be sure that you will find yourself at peace, even for a little while, if you allow yourself to be there. (SF)

View of the patio of Rose Bowl, and in the foreground, a sign welcoming patrons to the patio, asking them to wear a mask. Photo by Gabriel Solis.

Photo by Gabriel Solis.

BEST at creating lemonade from lemons: Rose Bowl’s patio programming 

Music venues and the hospitality industry have been turned upside down during the pandemic. Most of the music venues in the country are truly mere weeks or months away from closing their doors for good. It is a bleak outlook, and sometimes when you are dealt the most brutal hand you could imagine, oftentimes there’s no fighting back against it. That wasn’t the attitude that Rose Bowl’s crew took on this year.

They faced this pandemic head-on, undergoing many forms throughout the year, from honkey tonk bodega to full-blown outdoor music venue with all of the appropriate social distancing guidelines and rules. It is hard to imagine when we will be spending time indoors experiencing live music again, and while that is a sad prospect to think about, kudos to the crew that saw the COVID-19 troubles and squeezed all they could out of it when so many wouldn’t have blamed them for just closing and waiting until the storm blows over.

Sure, a lot of this is out of necessity, there are bills to pay, but more than that, I think that Rose Bowl’s big heart couldn’t sit back and let people not at least have something to enjoy while everything around us is pretty much total shit.

We are grateful for them and their energy to make the best of the situation. (PS)

Political yard signs are clustered in a grassy parking lot divider. Beyond the signs is a parking lot full of cars. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo by Julie McClure.

BEST way to know which neighbors to avoid: Election 2020 signs

The last five years have been stressful. Are your neighbors secret Trump supporters? Do they believe that All Lives Matter, or that hate does indeed have a home here? It’s been hard to say for sure, at least until the 2020 election was in full swing this summer. 

Once Biden secured the nomination for the Dems, there was a deluge of political signage. The Trumpiest of them all announced themselves quickly (though you probably already know who they were). I saw the big signs, of course, but also some truly hideous flags, and there were, of course, those really lovely signs proclaiming that fetuses would vote for Trump if they were allowed(?) to vote. Sure, Jan.

Personally, I’ve made a mental map of where those Trump signs and Thin Blue Line flags and low-key Republican households are. It’s good to know where you and yours are welcome and where they aren’t. (JH)

BEST initial response to the pandemic: Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen’s Emergency Order

It has been nine months and two days since I wrote this article about the value of Mayor Feinen and the rest of the city council taking decisive action on the the COVID-19 pandemic by passing an emergency order that would give her and City Manager Dorothy David broad powers to act in a crisis without the vote of council, if push came to shove, on any number of potentially life threatening crises. 

At the time, there was no way of knowing what we were going to be facing together. It turns out, it was not only needed, but a necessary step towards making our city safer and more prepared than many others. 

When our Mayor started receiving death threats for it, because human piece of shit Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out in defiance of it, it should have been fair warning to all of us that this wasn’t just going to be political, it was going to get out of hand. 

I, for one, am still grateful for that courageous move. We could debate the merits of how its been executed, and on that, there would be plenty to unpack. But for the sake of brevity and giving credit where it is due, I am glad to have had Mayor Feinen and her consistently steady approach to governance in place during this crisis. (SF)

A graphic with an old computer, the screen saying FLOOR13, a new game by CU Adventures.

Photo from CU Adventures’ Facebook page.

BEST pandemic pivot that will hopefully stick around: Virtual games at CU Adventures

I love a good escape room. There just aren’t that many opportunities to challenge your brain in a fun way when you’re an adult. Given the intricate and innovative nature of the games I’ve experienced at Champaign-Urbana Adventures in Time and Space, I was not at all surprised that they were able to creatively pivot and add virtual games to their repertoire. To date they’ve added two digital games: The Lost Temple, a variation of their long-running in person game, and Floor 13. As in other arenas, adding virtual experiences opens up their business to people beyond C-U, and gives gamers the option of collaborating on games with friends and family that don’t live nearby. 

Of course I love the physicality of the traditional escape room. I love turning things upside down, opening containers, looking behind picture frames, and piecing together paper clues while shouting excitedly at my teammates. And I will do that again. But I hope these virtual options remain. (JM)

On a black table, there are four cocktails from Hamilton Walker’s in coupe glasses. Two of the drinks are a light purple color, and two are a pale yellow color garnished with a lime circle. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

BEST new restaurant concept: Cocktails to go

The new option to order cocktails to go has changed carryout this year. The best cocktails are right here in C-U: so many restaurants are serving up commendable cocktails. The best cocktail in town is the Hemingway cocktail from Hamilton Walker’s; it’s a boozy, bougie drink with a light grapefruit flavor that comes with an amarena cherry. The best margarita in town, hands down, is Esquire’s pineapple margarita, available in carryout growlers. The best martini (and the most affordable carryout cocktail I’ve had all year) is Mary’s Tini from Po Boys in Urbana; this martini is clear looking, but it has a big chocolate taste for only $6.50. The best slushie is definitely Watson’s: I like all, but there’s nothing better than Protect Ya Nectar slush paired with their fried chicken sandwich. (AB)

A blacklit box. There is a glow in the dark skeleton on the bottom left. The word TRANS is up above, spelled backwards

Photo by Salem Turchan.

BEST hidden gem: Blacklight Box UV art gallery

Nestled within the quiet, tree-lined streets of Urbana resides the makings of an art revolution — in a box. Blacklight Box celebrates the power of UV art, provides a mini gallery for Illinois MFA art students, and brings inspiration and conversation to residents near and far. Curator Elizabeth Horan called it a “gathering place, a touchstone,” whose importance only increased during COVID-related museum and gallery closings. Each installation to date has spoken with a powerful and unique voice, and a sense of humor. And like all magical objects, Blacklight Box’s power is greatest at night. (DD)

Photo from Champaign County Forest Preserves’ website.

BEST political campaign: Champaign County Forest Preserves Tax Referendum 

Look, when you win every voting district in Mahomet on a referendum to raise taxes to better fund the preservation of our forest preserves and the facilities that surround them, you know you’ve done a bang up job. 

If you read Smile Politely often enough, you know we are huge fans of the work CCFPD does, and we even endorsed the YES vote to give them the tax increase. We are partners in advertising with them — whoopty doo! — for good reason. 

Their efforts were amazing. They succinctly stated their case, they asked for a reasonable increase in funding, they showcased exactly what the money would go towards, and they humbly asked for people to put aside their partisanship, and to please vote in favor of a bigger budget to better serve all of us, and our guests. 

This was a great campaign that ended with a successful YES vote, and for that, we are all grateful. Nice work, y’all! (SF)

Champaign County Clerk Aaron Ammons, State Representative Carol Ammons, and other Champaign County elected officials pose for a photo around a vote by mail ballot return box. The box is anchored to the ground, bright yellow with blue text that says “Vote Here.†Photo from the Champaign County Clerk’s Facebook page.

Photo from Champaign County Clerk’s Facebook page.

BEST election management: Champaign County Clerk’s office

Simply put: Aaron Ammons does not get the credit he deserves for his track record of work he has done in the community. Carol Ammons is a rockstar in and of herself, but Aaron Ammons’ pursuit of the Champaign County Clerk’s position was challenging enough, but knowing him even a little bit, that’s the work he’s signed up to do, and do well.

Fast forward to 2020, where Ammons and his team were faced with the most challenging of elections to manage, and they knocked it out of the park. Sure, there are small snafus that come along, and in a year where everything has been under the microscope — whether it was warranted or simply tactics being pursued based on Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud — Champaign County Clerk’s office did their job and did it well. Progressive politics are the key here, especially useful when historically voter suppression is such a problem in our country, as the office went above and beyond. Whether it was adding more ballot boxes or being helpful and transparent about mail-ins, or something in between, they deserve the most cred. (PS)

In a large, white tent, a person wearing a bright orange t-shirt that says

Photo from Illini Union’s Facebook page.

BEST attempt at suppressing the spread of COVID-19: U of I’s testing program

To say that I was skeptical of the U of I’s plans to welcome back tens of thousands of young people to a relatively small area during a global pandemic is a bit of an understatement. Testing everyone a bazillion times a week seemed like it wouldn’t work, and I had no faith that young people would abide by physical distancing protocols. Turns out I wasn’t entirely wrong, but the U of I stepped in, and students seemed to step up to the challenge of squashing rapidly increasing cases.

It’s definitely not perfect, and testing does not stop the spread of the virus, but the testing program has greatly helped mitigate unchecked transmission across campus and into the community. The science is impressive, the scale of the operation is impressive, and I am only one of many who are looking forward to having the same types of tests available to the non-academic community. (JH)

A man stands in front of a brick courthouse building, his arms are wrapped around himself. Photo by Andrea Black.

Photo by Andrea Black.

BEST months in 2020: January and February

Remember January and February? Boy, those were great months. Usually the worst months of the year here in Central Illinois — the holidays are over, the weather is shitty — they have now risen to the top of the list in 2020. Remember going places? Doing things? I kicked off the year with a Carnivale Burlesque show at Guido’s, made the rounds for Restaurant Week, saw a wonderful adaptation of Cabaret at Krannert Center, breathed on other Illini fans at State Farm Center… amazing! Tom was even telling us where to make out in public.

Unfortunately, January and February of 2021 are going to go back to being shitty, and will likely be the worst January and February we’ve had to endure, but hey, they had a shining moment this year. (JM)

In front of Blind Pig, there is a giant, inflatable T-rex costumed person holding a growler next to a white man holding a growler. The T-rex’s mouth is open as if roaring, and the man is touching his glasses with one hand and is wearing Teevas. Behind them, there is one chair set up and an outdoor table with chairs stacked upside down on top of them.

Photo from Blind Pig’s Facebook page.

BEST costume: Blind Pig Dinosaur delivery guy

Okay, this was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Blind Pig’s Del the Delivery Dino showed up to deliver beers all around Champaign-Urbana. The giant t-rex costume brought a safe way to bring people beer and a lot of joy. Dino Del is now in retirement, but Blind Pig are still doing beer delivery. (AB)

A graphic of five squares spelling SMALL atop another five squares spelling PRESS.

Photo from Small Press Fest’s Facebook page.

BEST support for local arts through interactivity: Small Press Fest and Holiday Art Pop-Up Palooza

Replacement of in-person art festivals with social media events sounds easier than it is. There are so many things that are lost: conversation with the artist, experiencing the work in person, and most importantly, the implicit call to “buy now,” while you still can. Then there’s the near Sisyphean work of beating the algorithm so that your audience actually sees your content. In far too many cases, social media-based art-selling events were lost to that week’s news feed noise. However, two particular events cultivated levels of interactivity and urgency that helped them cut through the noise. Kudos to Small Press Fest 2020 for their HSN-style videos featuring makers and artists selling their work. And hats off to Holiday Art Pop-Up Palooza 2020 for recreating the excitement of the “buy it now” experience with their limited live sales from individual artists. (DD)

Tom Ramage pictured at his desk, computer screens in the background. He's smiling at the camera.

Photo by Parkland College.

BEST educational leadership: Parkland College’s Tom Ramage (SF)

Over the course of just 53 years, Parkland College has only had five Presidents. That means that through a democratically elected Board of Directors, these people have held the faith of dozens of members to not only keep their jobs, but to be put in the position to guide the college into new and uncharted territory, time and time again. Making it even more impressive, two of those five leaders only lasted one or two years. So, for the vast majority of the college’s history, a single leader was in place for a very, very long time. 

Tom Ramage is the latest in that short line of leaders. When he announced last year that he would retire in 2023 after sixteen years at the helm, passing the torch to current VP Pam Lau, it felt like a no brainer. Not because he was no longer equipped, or didn’t have another decade in him (he will only be 55 years old when he departs the position). It made sense because, by all accounts, President Ramage, like his predecessors, understands the value of staying long enough to be effective, but not long enough to interrupt the importance of changed leadership in order for new ideas and programs to take root. 

I have seen first hand what this type of leadership can bring to a community. Mike Ross at Krannert Center. Joan Dixon at Community Foundation. Bobbie Herakovich at Champaign Park District. Steve Carter at City of Champaign. Ervin Williams at Restoration Urban Ministries.  

It isn’t always a positive thing, of course. But in Parkland’s case, it’s led them to being considered one of the finest community colleges in the nation. President Ramage has consistently been a voice of reason, and has steered the college into greener pastures, through two collapsed economies, and through the heart of the infancy of online education. 

That he was given a chance to voice his feelings about the heir to his time as President says so much about the faith that the Board of Trustees has put into his leadership, and in this moment, it is a breath of fresh air to see that sort of trust at this high level of governance. (SF)

A yellow graphic with a teal state of Illinois, featuring a red heart on top of it.

Photo from CU pARTners’ Facebook page.

BEST business and artist collaboration: CU pARTners mutual aid program

Artists and small business owners have found themselves especially vulnerable during the pandemic. But, as cu pARTners has proven, when they work together, everyone wins. Created by a group of CU artists, this mutual aid society creates collaborative pARTnerships between artists and businesses that inspire limited edition (and quickly sold out)  works (e.g. prints, scarves, t-shirts). While the products speak to the talent in our midst, the core principle speaks to the generosity and commitment to keeping art and small business alive in Chambana. (DD)

Alyssa Buckley, Debra Domal, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Seth Fein contributed to this article.

Top image by Smile Politely.

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