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OFF BEAT: Exploring park's past gives hope for future

After the lights were switched on this weekend for the Vintage Mural Wall in Streator’s Heritage Park, I was reminded just how far that corner lot has come.

In a little more than a decade, it has gone from eyesore to gem.

Beginning in 2005, the Streator Downtown Area Businesses received a $200,000 grant for beautification projects that went into the purchase of new benches, landscaping and the Kerr Clock, which stands on the park’s corner of Main and Monroe.

The clock, erected in 2009, was a welcome addition to the downtown, but it drew attention to a tall, white, crumbling wall behind it. A parade of proprietors voiced their concerns to the council.

To SDAB members’ credit, led by president Jim Pellino, they worked toward a solution.

Pellino and other members of the association met with city officials with the idea of a “pocket park,” which included fencing, trees and flowers. The space, they hoped, would be transformed into usable greenspace and a venue for downtown events, such as the Jammin’ at the Clock music gatherings that have taken shape.

The theme of the park is to bring together Streator’s past, while building a park to stimulate the downtown area for future generations.

Benches made from the former steps of the Streator Public Library and bricks from the former Grace United Methodist Church were included in the construction concept, ensuring pieces of Streator’s heritage were maintained. A boulder was donated by Streator Brick as a centerpiece.

As a truly nice corner park emerged, that darn wall still reared its ugly head, so much so that Mayor Jimmie Lansford referred to it as one of the two regular complaints he heard since he took office.

While the downtown businesses started raising money to remedy the problem, the city reached into its tax increment finance funds for the Vintage Mural Wall project.

The three-story, multipanel, 3-D art depicting 1920s era Main Street storefronts was dedicated in October, with the lights — funded by donors — turned on illuminating the windows of those storefronts this weekend.

Now a unique spot for visitors, the park has nothing but potential in its future.

Reflecting back, I can understand why so many people braved the 30-degree temperatures Saturday night for a front row seat at the wall’s lighting, and why so many people were hopeful.

Through its persistence, the community set a vision, then rallied together to reach its fruition, even despite some pretty steep walls in the way.

With the flip of a switch, there was a feeling of accomplishment. And with accomplishment, confidence.

If the community can turn blight into art, what walls are next?

OFF BEAT is a column expanding on coverage beyond the regular news beat, from ideas to issues. Email news editor Derek Barichello at derekb@mywebtimes.com or call 815-431-4073 with news tips, questions or to chat.

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