Text by Jason Hillenburg – Images by Jeremy Hogan
I remember my dad and mom often tell me over the years how Indiana University students seldom traveled west of the courthouse square. Undergraduates venturing that far risked their physical well-being. We live in different times today. Copping an arrest for assault costs ample money and time. The middle-class and working poor descendants of the generations who worked the now-shuttered or long-vanished factories of Bloomington’s west side gorge from a smorgasbord of enemies these days. They call the student body sir or ma’am for minimum wage.
Times change, but some things stay the same. Born in 1975, I can still remember students self-segregating themselves to the city’s east side. Seeing them rent housing west of North College Avenue, almost as rare as a Republican mayor, remained a Bloomington staple. An inevitable collegiate crawl, however, crept westward. It covered the city over time, not in some wave, but infiltrating one-time enclaves for large families and weaving into the tapestry of Bloomington’s life.
Old knots and tears in the metropolitan tapestry remain. I recall former mayor John Fernandez remarking years ago how he heard Rogers Street constituted an invisible border demarcating one half of the city from the other. It isn’t a lie. You drive west on 5th, 6th, and 7th streets and see the stores, banks, hotels, bars, and restaurants of downtown cede way to residential blocks of often weathered A-frame houses. The parked cars flanking the streets are ten years old or more.
Anyone new to the city hears about Pigeon Hill sooner or later. I knew Indiana University students in the late eighties and early nineties who claimed others told them to avoid the area. I spent almost thirty-five years walking the sidewalks of my home turf in an assortment of conditions and never had a single negative encounter. Your mileage may vary. There is no question, however, Bloomington at the corner of West 13th and Illinois Street is a much different experience than the corner of West Kirkwood and Indiana Avenue.
There is no question, however, the west side has changed with the rest of the nation. Shrill screaming fills the media echo chambers, lies and distortions pollute the public discourse, and social divisions are sharper than ever before. The enraged and disenfranchised scale the Capitol walls and brawl with police in the same hallways trod by former Presidents and other statesmen and women. These are desperate times.
I am a night owl. I will drive Bloomington’s darkened streets, my meditative mood soaking up the silence if the late hour finds me restless. A recent cruise around Pigeon Hill at night revealed stark differences from my younger days. I saw walking wounded shambling dazed on the neighborhood sidewalks, half-seen shadows emerging from side streets and alleyways. I saw a city police cruiser roll slow past the one time 7-11. Lights are on everywhere I look. No one sleeps at night here. There’s too much going on.
A single drive downtown underlines how beholden the local economy is to Indiana University. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, Bloomington, without the cachet afforded by hosting a major Big Ten college, is a mail-order city – you can find everything it offers better from someone else. Some holdouts are lingering from my youth, but for each Café Pizzeria, Book Corner, and Trojan Horse still open, the ghosts of Ladymen’s Diner, Ben Franklin, and Farris’ Market waft through my memory. Modern culture has lost their appetite for the hunger those businesses satisfied or else demand a much sleeker presentation. Connecting the bygone downtown Bloomington to its contemporary west side isn’t without its challenges, but it is possible, however tenuous. Finding common shared tissue between Bloomington’s two halves is impossible today.
How do we unknot our connections? We can’t on the current path we follow and, moreover, and the needed changes every stratum of our fair city seeks out will only result in a city just as divided and fragmented as ever. Don’t kid yourself otherwise. We are, like every other city in the world, microcosms of the larger community, or nation, we call home. No matter where you turn in January 2020, you hear the clattering death rattle of empire from the shouting of people storming the Capitol rotunda, the local snarling disdain of white men threatening a black man on video, and the body Endless elections, social movements, smiling political saviors, and none among the best and brightest will turn back the withering tide of human nature. The knots choking every facet of our lives cannot be broken.
We can only tend our own garden in times such as this. Our sole hope is that each of us minding our own purview, cleaning our side of the street, and enriching the lives of those we love spills from our days into the lives we touch. No transformational change, short of an alien armada landing on the National Mall and declaring global game over, is forthcoming without seeing division and fragmentation multiplied by a factor of 100 and, invariably, accompanied by bloodshed and casualties. From the invisible borders of this city to the national stage, our only chance is to first foster an ongoing revolution within before we can fire any meaningful figurative shots in the larger revolutions we seek.