After a Saturday night at Downtown bars, my girlfriend and I almost are to my apartment. We just need to cross Main Street. An easy mission — except here’s a shirtless middle-aged man clad only in cut-off jean shorts straddling a stone lion across from the Peephole Bar & Grill. He has my girlfriend nervous, and if I were brave enough to look him in the eye, I’d share her concern. He gawks at patrons leaving the bar, so we do what nervous people do when confronted with an awkward situation: We look over our shoulders and walk hurriedly until we have put a comfortable head-start between us and the would-be attacker. We were paranoid but fine. We walked to my apartment, and for all I know, the man headed to Stephan G. Sanders Custom Clothiers to buy a shirt and a decent pair of pants.
Stories like this often are told about the Downtown. I’ve lived and worked in that area for years, and encounters with crazy kooks, crazy drunks, and the just plain crazy are rare. These stories are told more than anecdotes on the daily humdrum that is my life Downtown because tales of lion-riding men — along with the convenience of living close to work, bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues — are reasons to live here. But, the crazy stories don’t define Downtown.
The casino, Riverfront, and loft developments give meaning to the Downtown, and with the current construction of the stadium, talk abounds about what the area will become. Unlike the unwavering definitions in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of Downtown fluctuates depending on the source (more like Wikipedia).
What also appears to fluctuate: Downtown complaints. In the last few months, news reports proliferated about traffic and loud noise, and when I heard those two grievances, I thought, “Burkhardt Road is a beast.” Then I learned these were problems Downtown.
Two years ago I wrote a story about the influx of loft projects, and when I asked Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, an Evansville native, his memories of Downtown, he replied, “Tumbleweeds blowing down Main Street.” Now, it’s gone from ghost town to party city.
I’ve watched great improvements made Downtown: Patrons socializing at the renovated Peephole park up Main Street between Second and Third streets almost nightly, and Ri Ra Irish Pub on Riverside Drive has a deejay who attracts 20-somethings on weekends. I know this too well. I live a few buildings from the Peephole, and I’d love to be able to park on Main Street after work. Ri Ra — filled with bar tops imported from across the Atlantic — was my favorite hangout until American dance beats replaced Irish authenticity.
Traffic and loud noise? This is progress. I’d like to park on Main Street, but when I can’t, I’m glad my neighbors are making money. I’d like to go to Ri Ra and have an Irish experience, but when I can’t, I’m glad customers fill the two-story bar — shoulder to shoulder — enjoying themselves under the multicolored lights on the dance floor.I strive to think positively about any achievement because when Downtown dwellers look around, they still see so much need for improvements: buildings slowly crumbling after years of abandonment; black awnings (the remnants of a failed 1980s Downtown revitalization project) cracked, rusted, and overgrown with weeds; and, dang, that man needing a shirt. With lofts, a stadium, and an entertainment district, those changes will follow, and for now, I’m stuck in the middle of a story the next generation won’t believe because they’ll only know of a prosperous Downtown.