Dorothy Parker famously said, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
Well, I would not consider myself a whore in many or any senses of the word, but forcing oneself to think about things seems to be harder and harder these days. (Media saturation does it all for us.) And thinking about ‘culture’ and simply being a part of it are two different things (although not necessarily mutually exclusive). Much of the challenge of this blog for me had been trying to figure out what the context of certain places found locally are and relate them back not only into travel writing in general, but also how these places help shape, manifest, and define the area of Champaign-Urbana; to not simply be a passive entity existing within shops, stores, or other public places of the people, but by participating with them by coming on this blog and trying to come up with something to describe for others.
Much of what I have written is based simply on my initial perceptions of places that I had never been to before. This is often what much of what travel writing seems to focus on: taking a place that is somewhat foreign to the writer and then having that writer relate whatever they choose to focus on for the sake of a certain piece that is meant to have a beginning, middle, and end. But I don’t really feel that this blog represents that approach to travel writing. How do I even begin to fathom a beginning, and especially an end to these two towns? I haven’t even made it to half the places I had originally intended for the sake of this project. All I have here is a middle. And that’s really what travel for everyone is on a day to day basis. All my blog poses to do is to investigate these representations of middle America, and since I live in Champaign-Urbana for the time being, this is my only test subject. But that’s OK, because this place has culture, for whores, college students, and families alike. To bring not only this rambling speech to a conclusion, but also this project, I’d like to focus on one of my favorite, what I’d deem classic, spaces of Champaign-Urbana: Downtown Champaign.
No, the downtown area is not a new place for me. I’ve been frequenting the general facilities down there since I was a freshman. Pekara Bakery and Jim Gould’s were two restaurants that I would make my mom take me to when she’d pay me a much needed visit, or as I would then think of it, rescue mission from the gastronomically illusive dining hall foods back in those infamous dormy days of mine. After my sophomore year I had a summer job at the locally quasi-famous Jane Addams Bookstore. I’d walk there from my apartment in Urbana, eat lunch at Aroma cafe (good quesadillas!) and then head on in to the used (what was once feminist) bookstore to spend four hours organizing, shelving, and straightening one quadrillion books in a space that from the outside looks like it can only possibly house several hundred. Used retro clothing store Dandelion’s, is right around the corner. Want funky sunglasses? How about some cowboy boots? Oh, you want a ’70s era disco gown? Dandelion’s is notorious in these parts for being the go-to for such eclectic and thrifty merchandise. Right next door is a jewelry shop that always has a real live cat lounging in the window.
In a word, Downtown Champaign is charming. It is all in a very confined amount of space, so here is list off the top of my head of the local establishments that are what seem to me to be some of the favorite local hot spots for people in and around the campus community:
The Blind Pig (bar)
Mike and Molly’s (bar)
Jane Addams (previously mentioned bookstore)
Pekara Bakery (previously mentioned bakery, cafe, and eatery)
Jupiter’s (bar and pizza joint)
Boardman’s (independent movie theater, home of the annual festivals such as Ebertfest, the French movie festival, the Korean movie festival, and other such multicultural/independent cinema events)
Aroma Cafe (previously mentioned cafe)
The Furniture Lounge (used, original, snazzy/artistic furniture, jewelry, home decorations, and clothes)
Cafe Kopi (cafe and eatery)
This is all within a couple of blocks radius, but it’s really not all there is to find. There’s actually much more, but the places I listed are simply the ones that I hear about or actually attend to the most in my life. It’s a hot spot for what I would deem culture in the locality of Champaign-Urbana, and it’s a fun place to be. People can study, party, or hang out all in one day, in one general spot. Each store or restaurant has its own independent feel and agenda for its consumers. The workers are almost always friendly and vibrant in my experiences with them, and their stores contain equally dynamic personalities in and of themselves. From cluttered to chic, or relaxing to rockin’, this small space shouts loudly and proudly of what I think ‘culture’ should try to do: enhancing diversity. And Downtown does.
As I was riding the train back from my hometown of Carbondale to Champaign this past Thanksgiving weekend, I knew that I would arrive at the terminal, be picked up by my friend Melissa, and that we would head over together to Cafe Kopi to drink some much needed coffee and chatting that for whatever reason seems harder and harder to get into the schedule of a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Illinois. As I was getting off the train one of my earrings popped out and skidded into a fenced-off snow dune. It was irretrievable, but this is not a completely sad story, since the consumer possibilities for jewelry in the downtown area are so vast and great I figured within a matter of 20 minutes time browsing the downtown shops I’d have a replacement in no time. Which is exactly what happened after we finished our coffee.
To avoid making this post seem more about a glorified earring adventure mission, I should say that my point in reiterating it is the fact that the stores, as far as their differences and various attitudes towards fashion, foods, literature, or music goes, fosters a collective community of culture that all mixes together to give one temporal representation of local consumerism in an area that is close and diverse within that closeness. It’s true that the stores almost seem to blend in to one another (and in fact, they do, in that Cafe Kopi conjoins with a clothing/apparel shop located next door) but this does not detract from each place’s originality. The area of Downtown is not like a mall, where chain stores are all linked together in one convenient spot; it is a unique place that is as intricate as a tide pool. Local culture and life are thriving.
For this project, that is all. But for the future, this is still just the middle part of my journeys, and I hope to keep writing for the sake of exploration and the thoughtful experiences I feel I gain by keeping a blog. Overall, here’s to thinking, ‘hors’ and students of all subjects alike!