Category Archives: Peoria

Let’s chat about University and Main

Introduction

If you follow my Twitter feed at all, you may have noticed some discussion about the University and Main intersection. If you’re not in Peoria, then this probably doesn’t matter to you that much. But if you’re here, you’ve probably seen something about the reaction to the reconstruction of this intersection. Since I have thoughts, I wanted to capture all of them here. My primary audience for this blog post are my fellow Peorians, but if you’re interested in design (especially urban design), you might want to read this anyway. I’ll try to avoid making assumptions and bring you up to speed, so that you can follow along.

Who I Am

I’m pretty ambitious and hope that this blog post carries beyond my normal audience, so I figure I might need to explain a little about who I am and what shapes my opinions about University and Main.

My name is Seth Ben-Ezra, and I am a designer. My primary interaction with the principles of design comes from designing games, but I’ve expanded into process analysis, system design, user experience design, and even party planning and DJing, which is just another form of design. If I had to lump these various disciplines under one heading, I might choose “experience designer.” Yes, I agree, it’s not the best title, but it’s what I have for now.

This means that I’ve spent a large chunk of my life studying the concepts and principles of design, especially how human psychology intersects with designed objects and spaces.

Additionally, I am a Peorian. I’ve lived in this city for twelve years and, more specifically, I’ve lived in the University East neighborhood for the last eight years, having moved into the area back in 2006. I deeply care about this neighborhood and the West Main business corridor. I do what I can do support the businesses in this area, like Blue, One World, Mr. G’s, Leaves ‘n’ Beans, and Broken Tree. I love the ongoing efforts of the Renaissance Park Community Association in their work around Sheridan and Main.

In particular, I want to call out Blue and One World as being two of my favorite places in the whole wide world, and they are within blocks of where I live.

In other words, this area is my home, and I’m deeply invested in the people, businesses, and spaces of my home.

And, quite possibly, the most important intersection in this area is the intersection of North University Street and West Main Street. Two neighborhoods, Bradley University, and the Campustown shopping center all touch here. The rich, the poor, and everyone in between pass through this intersection. This is where the anti-war protestors gather. This is where college students do their fundraising.

I know that I’m biased, but I honestly believe that University and Main represents the heart of Peoria.

So, what’s all the hullabaloo about?

Let’s have a look!

What Happened to University and Main

Through the magic of Google Maps, we can have a look at what University and Main looked like back in July 2011. Click here to check it out. The perspective is essentially from the southwest corner. You can see Avanti’s on the northwest corner and One World on the northeast corner. Nothing too dramatic, right? Four lanes of traffic intersecting with four lanes of traffic.

Here’s another image of the front door of One World. Note those sidewalks. We’ll come back to those in a little bit.

Back in September 2013, there was a water main break at University and Main. It was patched up, but it was a temporary fix. The intersection needed to be dug up to enable a full replacement of the water main. According to Chuck Grayeb, the 2nd District City Councilman, who represents this area, the city manager Patrick Urich suggested that this could be an opportunity to perform additional changes to the intersection.

For a while now, various groups have been pushing to make West Main more walkable. This isn’t just a hypothetical issue. There have been a couple of pedestrian deaths in recent memory at or near University and Main. And, if you’re already tearing up the intersection, why don’t kill two birds with one stone?

Several public meetings later, the designs were finalized, and work began. For most of the spring, the intersection was closed, both for the water main work and the reconstruction efforts. Finally, on May 12, the City held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of the new intersection.

Now, check out the pictures on this article. What a difference! The intersection is raised to slow traffic, and the traffic has been narrowed to two lanes. When pedestrians signal for crossing, there’s an included four-way stop to allow them to cross, including crossing diagonally from corner to corner. Also, the sidewalks have been widened and low walls have been added to increase safety for pedestrians. Now, instead of cars whizzing by just feet away, pedestrians can be at a safe separation from traffic.

For another view, here’s a map of the design for the intersection. They didn’t put the giant Bradley insignia in the middle of the intersection, but it’s close enough to get the idea.

And then, the complaining and arguing began. And I have things to say to both sides!

So, let’s get to it, shall we?

To Those Objecting

Hello, neighbors! (Why do I call you neighbors? Because we all live in the same city and share the same space. That makes us neighbors.)

After having read some of the arguments and complaints about this intersection, I have some thoughts I’d like to share with you. I hope that this will be helpful to you as we continue to work through this issue together.

I’d like to start by discussing a basic concept of design.

When something is designed–an object, computer software, or a place–the design empowers the users to engage in certain activities and constraints them from engaging in other activities. For a simple example, think of a window. On the one hand, a window enables you to see through it. It also stops you from moving through it, as those who have walked face-first into a sliding glass door can attest.

This means that no design is neutral. Whenever something is designed, it is attempting to accomplish certain goals. Always. The old design of University and Main was aimed at accomplishing certain goals. The new design of University and Main is aimed at accomplishing certain goals. That’s what it means to design something.

Over on Facebook, Erik Likerson wrote:

Great! Everyone loves it except the group it should have been designed for. That is called a failure. Spin it how you want.

That’s a premature conclusion. Before we start talking about whether or not the redesign of University and Main works, we need to first ask: what were the goals of the new design?

The answer is found in a philosophy of urban design known as Complete Streets. Wikipedia offers this definition:

Complete Streets is a transportation policy and design approach that requires streets to be planned, designed, operated, and maintained to enable safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for users of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation.

In general, transportation and street design has been mostly focused on the automobile for a long time, making it the status quo. As a result, pursuing a Complete Streets design, of necessity, means that there will be takeaways from the automobile to support alternate forms of transportation. This is because the design features that support high-volume automobile traffic (e.g. wide, multi-lane streets) also threaten pedestrian and bike traffic.

So, Mr. Likerson is incorrect. Or, at least, he is in conflict with the Complete Streets approach that the City has adopted. Who should the streets be designed for? Everyone, not just automobiles.

Honestly, this means that the frustration that many of you are feeling isn’t a sign of failure. It’s actually a sign of success. The design is producing the desired outcome: making it harder to use the intersection as a major thoroughfare.

The design of University and Main is working. It is accomplishing its stated goals.

But are those the right goals?

I’ll admit that’s a larger question. However, I will note that I have yet to speak to any of my neighbors who are opposed to a more walkable neighborhood. In fact, the only neighbor who I can recall has expressed concern has done so because she is concerned that the current design will not produce walkability in the area. Whereas, as I’ve spoken to members of the local business community or the neighborhood association, there is unanimous delight.

The City didn’t foist this idea on us. We wanted it.

And, at the risk of being a bit pointed, we are the ones who live and work here. Please give us the space to shape our home, just as we ought to give you the space to shape yours.

To Those Approving

Hello, neighbors! (Why do I call you neighbors? Because we all live in the same city and share the same space. That makes us neighbors.)

After having read some of the arguments and complaints about this intersection, I have some thoughts I’d like to share with you. I hope that this will be helpful to you as we continue to work through this issue together.

Something I’ve learned in design testing is that a user’s perception of his emotions is always true. His understanding of why he feels a certain way may be suspect, and his insight into how to make changes to the design may be limited, but his reporting of his emotion is always true.

So, when these drivers say they feel frustrated, let’s give them a little space. They really are frustrated, and, honestly, that’s a reasonable response.

After all, their world just got changed.

In their book, Made to Stick, the Heath brothers introduce the concept of the “curse of knowledge”. This is what happens when someone is so close to a topic or body of knowledge and has internalized so many assumptions that they forget what it’s like to be a beginner. This is why many knowledgeable people can be terrible at teaching. They have forgotten about the curse of knowledge.

Let’s be honest. Most of us who are excited about this new development are neighborhood activists, New Urbanists, or simply design nerds. We eat this stuff up wherever we can get it. We understand the goals of walkability. We know the difference between use-based zoning and form-based zoning. We know the advantages of mixed-use spaces, and we hope to encourage more eyes on the street to reduce crime. Some of you may even have learned rebuttals to the concepts that I just outlined.

In other words, we are experts in this area. Some of us have been pushing for these changes for literally years, and this intersection and the surrounding work is validation of a decade spent in the wilderness. (Anyone reading this remember the Heart of Peoria Commission?)

But, most of our neighbors who oppose this development aren’t aware of these larger conversations. And really, do they need to be? I am confident that there are rising schools of thought in engineering that deeply impact work that is happening right now at Caterpillar, and I have no idea what they are and why they matter.

In the same way, our neighbors don’t understand the philosophy and nuance that lies behind the new intersection. All they know is that their world suddenly changed, and it got harder.

So, now, it is incumbent on us to try to be persuasive. In particular, I’ve appreciated the work that Nick Viera has done to inject some actual data into the discussion. Perception can be a weird thing, and sometimes objective data can be just the thing to help someone see the truth.

Also, not to put too fine a point on it, the new design has actually been implemented, for better or worse. No one is going to tear it out and return it to its previous state, at least not in the foreseeable future. Now, we all have to live with it.

So, let’s live with it. Let’s get out into our neighborhood. Let’s walk our streets and enjoy the increased safety that we can now experience. If you bike, get out there! If not, maybe this is a chance to pick it up. (I’m thinking about it myself.) Patronize local businesses by walking or biking to them. Get out to the First Friday events near Main and Sheridan. Let’s live the life that we’ve wanted to live for so long. And maybe, our enjoyment and the giant smiles on our faces will offer more persuasion than any words can provide.

Personally, I am ecstatic about the ongoing changes in my neighborhood, and I am eagerly awaiting the bright future that seems to be heading our way. But, more than this, I want to be able to live at peace with my neighbors–all of them. So, above all, let us be at peace with each other as we continue to live together and share the city that we call Peoria.

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Free Sleezy D

Last Saturday, Crystal and I took one of the dogs for a walk around the neighborhood. As we rounded University and Main–well, more or less, because of construction–I consulted my iPhone to get the correct address. That way, as we passed the unassuming green house, I could point at it and say, “That’s the house that was raided because of the Twitter thing.”

Yep. It’s making national news, and it happened just a few blocks away from where I live, just a few doors down from a vacant lot where once Youlandice Simmons lived.

It’s an ill-omened block, apparently.

If you’re not up on the news, here are some relevant links:

Fake Peoria mayor Twitter account prompts real raid of West Bluff house

THE POLICE RAIDED MY FRIEND’S HOUSE OVER A PARODY TWITTER ACCOUNT

Luciano: Controversy snowballs around Mayor Ardis’ response to Twitter parody

The search warrant, plus an inventory of what was seized in the raid

In particular, pay attention to the Luciano column, because he was actually able to get Mayor Ardis to comment on the record. And, from where I’m sitting, it doesn’t look very good. Mayor Ardis talked a lot about how the content of this Twitter account–with 50 followers at its height, remember!–was “vile” and unprintable in the local news. He talked about the effect on his family. He called out the perpetrator to reveal his name. But he failed to speak to the one thing that is actually on everyone’s mind:

By what right can you do this?

Put yourself in the shoes of the occupants of 1220 N. University (aka the “Stately Wayne Manor”). You answer a knock at the door to find police yelling at you, forcing themselves into your home, searching through your private spaces, and taking some of your most expensive stuff. But that’s not all. For some, police showed up at their workplaces to arrest them. For Jake Elliott, one result of this mayhem is that the job he’s had for twelve years is now in jeopardy. (Source)

Lives have been shattered over this. The sanctity of someone’s home has been violated. Peace of mind has been exploded. Or, to put it another way, their right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects was violated.

And essentially, the only defense Mayor Ardis makes is that he didn’t like what they were saying.

That’s not good enough. As a public official, Mayor Ardis is limited in how he is allowed to respond to such issues. That’s pretty much the point of the First Amendment. Admittedly, most Americans appeal to the First Amendment to argue that they can say whatever they want without repercussion, a belief that XKCD recently skewered. But the First Amendment does mean that citizens are free to engage in speech about their government without repercussion.

You know, like saying that the mayor does drugs.

So, why does this matter?

As I type, I’m just a few blocks from where this happened. The victims of this raid all live in University East. This means that police raided my neighbors. These are my people. And that’s reason enough.

But let’s go a step further.

There’s a famous poem about the Holocaust, written by Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Whenever force is used to suppress political dissent–even juvenile dissent–it harms the entire community and creates a chilling effect on other forms of political speech. Because we all received the message: say something the mayor doesn’t like, and you too could be raided.

There’s a public meeting on Wednesday about the traffic diverted in my neighborhood. Is it safe for me to air my opinion? What if my opinion is that I don’t trust the City to actually finish a project well and that they need to sequence any updates to make sure that my neighborhood doesn’t get screwed by a half-assed job? Can I say that safely?

Some of you might brush that away as hypothetical. Of course that sort of speech is protected. But how am I supposed to know that?

Or, to put it another way, a couple days ago, I mentioned to my wife that I was going to blog about this. And she was afraid, because I was going to criticize the mayor, and I have more reach than this silly Twitter account that we’re talking about. She got the message from the mayor, loud and clear.

But here I am anyways, asserting my First Amendment right to engage in political speech.

Mayor Ardis, you need to fix this. You have overstepped your bounds. I don’t care what was being said about you. You are the public servant holding a sacred public trust. A trust that you have violated. You need to apologize to the inhabitants of 1220 N. University. You need to drop all related charges. You need to return all items seized, plus restitution. You need to go public and admit that you were wrong and acted improperly.

You can still fix this.

Because, if not, I know that I’m not alone in thinking that this incident is reason enough to try to get you run out of office. If we can’t trust you to safeguard our basic rights, can we trust you with anything else?

The city awaits your reply.

The title for this post comes from comments by Jon Daniels, the author of the fake Twitter account.

“Tell them my name. Tell them I did it,” he said, acknowledging the cops have him cornered. “But when they lock me up, tell them to tweet using the hashtag #freesleezyd.”


You are not nothing to me

I ended my Friday night by talking to a stripper.

That should get your attention.

Friday was a great night. For the first time in…you know…forever…the temperature was above freezing. So we went to the First Friday events in our neighborhood. There was glass blowing. There was music. There was a bike collective and a community garden and my favorite neighborhood bar and a feeling of Spring.

And then, we headed out to Morton for a birthday gathering at a bar doing karaoke.

I feel the need to defend myself. I did not do any karaoke myself. Not because I’m snobbish, mind you, because it’s actually not that. If anything, I found the karaoke oddly beautiful–another form of artistic expression among my fellow humans, songs belted out as the liquor flowed and, in that moment, we were all brothers and sisters.

No, I didn’t do karaoke because I’m chickenshit and pretty sure that I’d sound terrible. Also, it sounds horribly embarrassing.

But, you know, it was a party. Therefore, despite my previous visit to Blue (my favorite bar in the whole wide world), I got a shot of Jager and a beer to further find the mood.

And somewhere towards the front, two women were belting out “Love Shack” by the B-52s.

Okay, okay, I’ll be honest. I was also at the front. The birthday girl wanted to see the lyrics, and it was her birthday, and so I got to witness karaoke up close and personal.

They were killing it. They really were. Were there errors? Sure. But they had the house rocking. People were dancing on an improvised dance floor or singing along at the top of their lungs. The party was on!

After the song, I decided to pop outside for a bit. It would be quieter and I thought a couple of my friends were outside. It turns out I followed out one of the women who had just been singing. She needed a smoke break after her public performance.

We started talking. She was sure that she had been terrible. She confided to me that she’d been so nervous.

Which was weird to her. After all, she takes her clothes off in front of people, and that doesn’t make her nervous, but singing in front of people does.

So, yeah, that’s when I realized I was talking to a stripper who also sang karaoke.

And so many thoughts flooded through my mind. They followed two broad paths.

The first was that I refused to identify this woman as a stripper. We often identify ourselves by our jobs. She’s a stripper. I’m a IT professional. But does that really tell who we are?

Is it not better to say that we are both parts of the imago Dei? That she and I are both deeply loved by the God Who made us? That she is more than the fact that she takes off her clothes for money?

And so I decided not to even acknowledge her comment to her. Not because I was embarrassed, because I wasn’t. Instead, because I wanted to engage her as an artist and creator. She just got up in front of a crowd and sang. That matters. And, as I said, I thought that she did a fine job. And that’s what I told her.

Of course, she didn’t believe me. But what artist does? And so I persisted. She had rocked the house, and I could tell. She demurred; her fellow vocalist was so much better than she had been. I disagreed, insisting that the other woman was probably just as nervous.

And I told her that we are often most embarrassed by the things that are the closest to who we truly are.

And here’s the second path my thoughts took.

I’ve lived the working class life. I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck. I know what it’s like to run the moral calculus and decide what you can accept to make enough to make ends meet. There was the time we had to work through the possibility that maybe this massage parlor wasn’t really about providing sexual services, because that might mean I could maybe chase that job. Because we really needed the money.

And I don’t know this woman’s story, but still I felt like I knew her. Just another woman, passed over by life, just trying to make it work somehow.

And still, within, the spark to sing.

I wanted to save her, to rescue her, to tell her that she is so much more than the body that she displays to make ends meet. And I hope that I was able to show her respect and dignity in that moment, treating her like the artist that she is instead of the sex object that she has to be.

In the comic Fell, Detective Richard Fell finds himself investigating a murder outside his girlfriend’s bar. It turns out that the murderer is the victim’s long-estranged son, who had gone looking for his father and found a callous drunk. As the murderer weeps out his confession, he gasps out:

He, he, he, he was my daddy. And I hadn’t seen him since I was a little kind and I, I, I, I just wanted to talk awhile, you know? I just wanted to, to hear his voice awhile. It wasn’t much. Just to hear my daddy’s voice. And he said I was nothing.

And the final panel is Fell, on the roof of his apartment, overlooking Snowtown where he lives. The narration says:

This is where I live now.

None of you are nothing to me.

My supervisor at work has figured me out. He says, “Seth loves people.”

Unashamedly.

None of you are nothing to me. Because none of us are nothing to God.

And Lord, have mercy on a weary stripper in Morton. May she find her way into Your immortal arms.


Sean Thomas R.I.P.

Sean had shitty taste in beer. I remember offering him a microbrew once as we sat on the porch. I swear, from the look on his face, you’d think I was trying to poison him. Only the cheap American stuff for him, though, usually, it was a cheap 40 oz. malt liquor–a “forty”–that he’d be carrying.

I was in the room with him tonight when he took his last breaths. At 5:14 p.m. CST, Sean Thomas breathed his last and died. I don’t know exactly how old he was, but he couldn’t have been more than six or seven years older than me.

Sean and I have history. Yes we do.

His mother Kathey has been a friend of the family for nearly a decade. She is an older woman, frequently on oxygen. We met when she joined the church that we were attending. And that’s how her sons entered our lives, too. Jerry and Sean.

The first time Crystal met Sean, he hit on her.

Yeah, it was like that.

Our relationship was…complicated. On the one hand, I spent a chunk of time trying to protect Kathey from Sean. He’d steal her money or prescription drugs. He’d claim to be doing work around the house while letting it go to pieces. I’ve helped evict him from her house on a couple of occasions.

On the other hand, somehow, I connected with Sean, too. Crystal was probably the initial opening. Sean listened to her because they have similar backgrounds. Growing up urban poor, abusive fathers…they recognized each other. And somehow I got rolled into that. Because if I understood Crystal or was married to her or something, then apparently I could understand him, too.

And, over time, I found that I did.

I was with Sean after his brother Jerry died. He was pacing up and down in the back yard of Kathey’s house, marking out lengths like he was in a prison yard. I walked with him, trying to keep up with his thought process as his rage searched for a target.

I was with Sean when he was helping his mother move a large sofa. It wasn’t getting through the doorway, despite our best maneuvering. So he announced that we were going to do this “ghetto style”, which apparently meant a sizeable application of brute force. But damn, he got that sofa through the door somehow.

I was with Sean when we’d bump into each other in the neighborhood, and I’d hear his side of what was going on at home. He’d lay out the unfolding issues at home and make his famous complaint, “Why’s there got to be so much drama?

I was with Sean when he showed up for one of my birthday parties. He joined in our game of Mafia, not really getting exactly what we were doing but giving it his level best. And then, at 1:00 in the morning, we sat on the porch, both having had one (or maybe two) too many, talking about Jesus.

Sean was scared of Jesus. He was scared of God and Christians and “good people”. There was religion in his background, and it drove the abuse that led to he and his brother ending up in foster care. Yeah, Sean knew all about that “holy roller” stuff, and he wanted nothing to do with it.

For years, he was scared to enter our house. It was like getting a skittish animal to eat from your hand. He’d sniff around the outside, but he’d refuse any offer of entry. Then he came in briefly once for some pizza, as I recall, and then left out the front door, instead of the back door that he’d entered. Progress! And sometimes, he’d come to dinner, but he would flee before any sort of Bible reading or singing or anything. That just wasn’t his thing, he’d insist, as he made his escape.

But, for some reason, he kept coming around. It was like he couldn’t stay away.

Sean died from cirrhosis of the liver. Well, that’s the medical term. Essentially, he drank himself to death. I guess I’m not surprised. I’m not sure I ever saw Sean totally sober, and there were times that he was bombed out of his gourd. I remember one time I talked him into letting me give him a ride home. He was so drunk that he was being incoherent and argumentative. I don’t remember why he was angry or, indeed, if I could have even figured it out at the time. Sometimes, it was hard to keep up with his thought processes. Anyways, he got fed up with me and got out of the van while I was at a stop sign. He just walked off!

Turns out that he left his forty in the side pocket of the van door. The next day, when I opened that door, the forty slid out and crashed on the pavement, exploding shards of glass and cheap beer everywhere. Ah, memories!

One night I got a phone call. Sean had suffered a seizure and was in the emergency room. So, I pulled myself together and went down to the ER. The rest of his family was slow in arriving, so for a while, it was just the two of us. I got him another blanket, when he was shivering uncontrollably in the hallway. I helped advocate for him to the medical staff. And I was there until his family arrived and I could no longer keep my eyes open.

I think that’s how Sean knew that he could trust me. He knew that I had his back. I wonder if somehow I became a replacement for Jerry, the brother that he’d lost.

And so, a month ago, when I heard that Sean had been taken to the hospital with liver failure, I knew that we had to visit him.

And today, when I heard that Sean’s heart had failed and Kathey was asking for me, I knew that I had to go.

Somehow, Sean was still very present, even on his deathbed. He was comatose, I suppose, but even so, he was pretty active. He turned towards those who were talking to him. At one point he did the Sean head toss–if you knew him, you’d know exactly what I’m talking about. He was there, until they removed the ventilator.

And then he panicked. I could tell. His heart rate dropped, and he was thrashing around. So I rushed to his side, and I held his hand, and I told him that he wasn’t alone.

And he calmed down, and he relaxed. His family and friends gathered around him. His mother held his hand.

And, softly, he died.

I learned a lot from Sean. Honestly, all of my efforts to learn to engage with the city and urban life were made practical by my desire to speak to him. Sean was never going to know or care what “ontological” meant, but he understood when I told him that Jesus would carry his shit for him. I learned that people are more important than culture, and that there’s a place simply to accept a Coors Light with gratitude, because it’s a way that people connect.

I learned that people’s wounds run deep, and that years of love and patience are necessary to overcome a life of hurt, abuse, and betrayal.

I learned to value emotional honesty. Again and again, Sean would say, “I’m just being real.” And he wasn’t content unless I was being “real” back.

Kathey told me that they had reconciled a few days before he died. He told her that he was sorry for how he’d treated her, that he thanked God for the time they’d had to be together. She says that it’s a miracle, and I think that’s right. He made his peace with Kathey, and I feel that he made his peace with God.

Maybe, by the end, he wasn’t afraid of God anymore. Maybe, when I walk through those pearly gates, he’ll be standing there, saying, “What do you so damn long?” And then, regardless of whatever lame excuse I offer, he’ll pshaw and toss his head–like he does–and then we’ll embrace.

Until then, Sean, I’m keeping it real. Like you showed me.

Rest in peace.


Dance Party!

In one week, my family will be throwing our Spring Equinox Dance Party. This has settled into something of a tradition. On a quarterly basis (give or take), we have a dance party. You’ll find me on the decks, playing loud music loudly. Flashing lights, bubbles, fog…the whole nine yards. There’s an open bar and drinking and celebration. People stay up too late, talking about things profound and frivolous.

It’s a deeply spiritual thing, really. But perhaps I should explain.

In 2010, music saved my life.

It’s February. We’re just coming off the initial impact of the house fire that made us homeless for a month. Depression has me deeply in its grip, and I couldn’t shake it loose. Crystal was at a loss.

And DJ Hero was available for the Wii.

At some point, i’m going to talk about Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and DJ Hero as part of the “My Life with Games” series. For now, I’m just going to note that part of the appeal of these games is wish fulfillment. Most people want to be rock stars. That’s their wish fulfillment. For me, I wanted to be on the wheels of steel. Mixing and scratching seemed much more appealing than shredding on a guitar. No doubt this is the result of having been more connected to trance, techno, and other forms of dance music more than rock or metal.

Playing DJ Hero reawakened these desires.

Crystal saw what was happening. She knew that I wanted to begin to explore this new hobby. She knew that I was agonizing over the expense. She also knew that I was tired and lonely and depressed and struggling. So she did everything in her power to make this a reality for me. She researched color-changing LEDs for our front room. She pulled together funding for stereo equipment for me for my birthday that year. She pushed and encouraged me to pursue this new thing.

She wanted me to be happy.

I already had a significant musical collection that I’d built up over the years. But I started paying even more attention to the music around me. Somewhere in here I discovered dubstep and other bass-heavy music like Sub Swara. I brushed off my old trance tunes. I started casting the net wide and seeing what I could find.

And one night, we threw a dance party at our house.

I don’t remember the exact genesis of the first party. I do know that it was just the people living with us at the time. It just kinda came together. I played the music, and everyone else danced. Glowsticks were probably involved at some point, because the local dollar store has a constant supply, and, well, glowsticks!

It was a big hit. My children loved it and demanded more. And so, periodically, we would. Some of my children began to explore breakdancing, the better to bust out their moves at the next party. I ended up discussing music and the theory of DJing with a couple of my children. Traditions began to emerge, like ending every set with “Go to Bed!” by the Beatnik Turtles. Anthems began to develop, like “Eastern Jam” by Chase & Status, “Fireflies” by Owl City, “Jump Around” by House of Pain, or “Scatman” by Scatman John.

And then, the fateful day: we invited some people from outside the family to one of the parties. It went smashingly well. So, we started making it a habit to invite other people. And the guest list seemed to grow, and grow, and grow….

Each time we run this party, we experiment with a new tool. We added a moonflower light, a fog machine, and a bubble machine. This time, I’m going to see if my computer can play the music and run visualizations. That should be way cool if it works.

And each time I play out, I plan out the music I’m going to focus on. I assemble a pile of music that I will theoretically work with. (Like any good plan, this often goes out the window quickly as I try to adapt to what the people on the dance floor want.) In particular, I plan my opening and closing tracklists carefully. Starting off well is important. Ending well might be even more important. Besides, there are themes I’m wanting to weave into the music, and that’s where they usually live.

You see, I look at each of these parties as something deeper than just getting together and making noise. Each of these parties is a celebration. A celebration of being alive.

Each of these parties is another milestone on the long, slow climb out of the rubble of my former life. Each of these parties is a reminder, to myself if nothing else, that God has been good for the last season and that He’s still going to be good for the next season.

And so, every time, I’ll play the songs that express these truths to me. Songs like “Still Alive” by Lisa Miskovsky, “Meteor Shower” by Owl City, “Oh! Happiness!” by David Crowder*Band, or even “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz or “We Found Love” by Rihanna. Songs that tell me to rejoice that God is good and full of grace, that He brought us this far and that He will take us the rest of the way, that I should cease my striving and rejoice in the life that He has given me.

And when I say “rejoice”, I mean shaking the house with the bass while the room fills with people who showed up at my house to celebrate the same thing, whether or not they know it.

Our dance parties aren’t about drunken carousing. They are about declaring joy and celebrating life. In other words, they are about embodying the Gospel to anyone who wants to see it.

And if you can’t see the Gospel in a room of joyous people, you’re doing it wrong. Oh so wrong.

I’ve really been looking forward to the next dance party. The winter has been long, and I’m ready for spring. I’m want to jump around and celebrate, and I’m excited to be able to continue sharing this joy with as many as I can.

The party starts at 7:00 on March 22. And yes, you’re invited.


Mr. G’s is back

Mr. G’s closed last fall. A little girl down the street cried when she heard. That’s fair. I was pretty upset, too.

A little bit of context might help here. About four blocks from my house is a small restaurant called Mr. G’s. It’s a Chicago-style hot dog and fries kinda place, although the most important item on the menu is the Beef & Sausage combo, which is an Italian sausage garnished with Italian beef on an Italian roll. That’s right: meat garnished with meat. Wonderful.

Mr. G’s was a highlight of the neighborhood for as long as I’ve lived in Peoria. Its only problem is that it wasn’t open late enough for me to be able to take advantage of it as often as I’d have liked.

And then, one day, it was closed.

Of course, with the post title, you’ve already figured out that this is no longer the case.

Last week, Crystal and I were at Blue (our local bar) with another couple, and we got to chatting with Jessica, one of the owners of that fine establishment. She has a day job working at One World, and so she let us know that Bob Eid, the owner of One World, had bought Mr. G’s and was going to reopen it. And there was much rejoicing.

But, of course, we figured that would still be a stretch of time. So I was caught off-guard and surprised to see the announcement on Facebook yesterday that Mr. G’s was open again. Conveniently, Crystal and I were going on a double date with James and Theresa to various locations in our neighborhood, so we quickly settled on dinner at Mr. G’s.

And, oh my….

I think it’s even better than before.

All the signature items are still present, as far as I can tell. At least, the most important one was still present: the Beef & Sausage combo. The fries are still hand-cut, and there’s still malt vinegar to put on them.

Oh yes.

Right now there’s only outdoor seating, though this didn’t bother us any. Last evening was a beautiful time to sit outside and eat some great food.

There were a couple of hiccups with service, but they were recovered with style and aplomb. We had just sat down to eat with the manager came out to our table and told us that they had messed up our sandwiches by putting Polish sausages on them instead of Italian sausages. They were already making us new sandwiches, and we were welcome to eat the ones made in error, but she wanted to address the problem immediately.

Well, we hadn’t even unwrapped our sandwiches yet, so this was actually a pleasant surprise for us. I’ll admit to being amused to discover that the sandwiches were actually lacking any sausage at all, but I consider that to have been a win for us. Instead of just getting a Beef & Sausage combo, I also got an Italian Beef sandwich and experienced quality customer service. Win!

The manager came out after the meal also and solicited feedback. She actually said that she was afraid that we were the kind of people who’d write a review on UrbanSpoon or something like that, which, in retrospect, may have actually been fishing for us to actually do such a thing. If it was, it was accomplished with care and subtlety.

As a matter of fact, I regret not getting the manager’s name so I could praise her by name. I was quite pleased with our interactions with her. She seemed quite interested in what we had to say, especially after we explained our history with Mr. G’s. She is also going to take a couple of business risks with Mr. G’s by experimenting with later hours. Weekdays they will be open 11:00-9:00, and on Fridays and Saturdays (IIRC) they will keep the drive-through open to 11:30. This is all subject to getting enough business, which is totally fair, but I’m really pleased that they are making the attempt.

And, to top it off, friends of ours saw my jubilation on Facebook and one of them decided to try to get some food, too. Even though he arrived after 9:00, when they were technically closed, they still made him a sandwich.

I think Bob Eid made a good hiring decision on this one.

So, yes, Mr. G’s, a Peoria tradition, has returned. And good luck to the team getting that off the ground again. You’re off to a good start.


Words are failing me

(So, I’m typing on my iPhone. Apologies for typos.)

I’m sitting in front of the PeoriaNEXT Center, which is about a block from my house. I’m coming from Blue, our neighborhood bar, after spending time with some guys from church. I should be home. It’s getting late, and I’m tired.

But there are these benches in front of the NEXT Center, and I’ve always thought that someone should stage some really cool and artistic event right here, and so I stopped to take a picture, and then I got caught up in the play of light on the building and in the trees, and I snooped in the window of the coffee shop that should be opening soon nearby and I love where I live and somehow I’d forgotten how beautiful all this was. And that doesn’t really convey what I’m feeling and maybe I can’t and really that should be okay, because it feels like maybe finally coming home again to the place I live and finding it patiently waiting for me wondering where I’ve been, and I don’t really want to talk about that and it’s all okay as I sit here caressed by streetlights as I sit by the stream of traffic that rushes by.

I’ve missed you. I’ve missed you so much.


Little girl lost (part two)

Because there are two sides to every story….

Thursday night, our neighborhood came together to find a missing girl.

I’m not sure exactly how the word spread, but it seemed like everyone on the street knew what was going on, and most of them were helping in some way.

For a couple of hours, everyone you saw was a fellow searcher. There were people with flashlights, people on bikes, people in cars. Cops drove around, using their searchlights, while others walked down alleyways normally abandoned to the night or trespassed into yards to extend the search.

We didn’t know each other. We didn’t share the same skin color or culture. We may never see each other again. But, for that short time, we knew who we were.

We were neighbors. And one of our neighbors was missing.

And in that moment, that’s all that mattered.

It was beautiful.


Little girl lost

Tonight, Crystal and I spent about 90 minutes wandering our neighborhood, looking for a dead toddler.

The heat has been brutal here. It was over 80 degrees and oppressively humid around 11:00, when we first heard about the missing girl. Kristi, a neighbor across the street, got in touch with us, asking us to pray, and saying that her husband Cole was out looking for the little girl. So, out we went, into the night.

The neighborhood was out in force. All kinds of people were roaming the streets, alleys, and yards of University East, looking for this missing child. As we interacted with people, more information began to emerge. The girl’s name was Pierre. She was two years old. She was wearing pink shorts, no shirt, no shoes. She had left her uncle’s house and walked around the corner back to her house to use the bathroom. She was last seen at 10:10.

Wait a minute. 10:10? By the time we heard that piece of information, it was nearly midnight.

Two hours? There were fifty people or more roaming the streets, not to mention various cops and even firefighters using their spotlights. And, in all this time, no one heard the crying of a scared two-year old, lost and unable to get home?

I was thinking about Gone Baby Gone. Crystal was thinking even worse.

We checked inside dumpsters. I’d ease open the lid and look inside, braced for a horrifying discovery. Nothing.

We walked to a nearby park. As best we could, we shone our flashlights down the tree-covered embankment that led down to the interstate. No small form could be discerned.

We wanted to find little Pierre. But, increasingly, we were afraid that if we found her, she would be dead.

Eventually we gave up and wandered back towards the house where she’d disappeared. There we heard the good news. An older sister had driven off with Pierre, and they were in another part of town. There had just been a miscommunication. Is there more to that story? Could be, I suppose, but Pierre is alive, and that’s what we cared about.

So we headed home, and we could finally relax. Crystal was particularly shaken. This wasn’t the first time that she’d gone out looking for a missing girl.

Many years ago, back in Erie, a little girl disappeared. Crystal and her family jumped in the car and joined the search efforts. They didn’t find her, but someone did.

She was dead, dismembered, and dumped in a dumpster.

I don’t really have a point for this post. I guess I’m doing what I’ve always done on this blog: process through things I’m thinking about. And, right now, I’m thinking about how dark and evil the world can be, and how thankful I am that Pierre is safe and alive.


Vote C.J. Summers!

At last, C.J. Summers of the Peoria Chronicle announces his candidacy for Peoria City Council.

It’s late and I’m tired. Otherwise, I’d have some glowing words here about C.J. When he announces more details on his candidacy, I’ll say more about why I think voting for him is a no-brainer. But for now, I’ll just say that I’m really excited to have a candidate on a ballot that I can actually be excited about voting for.