Tag Archives: bloomington downtown

Bohemians in Bloomington, 1990s (from the journal)

Bloomington's courthouse square. Image lifted from indianapublicmedia.org.
Bloomington’s courthouse square. Image lifted from indianapublicmedia.org.

Jan. 17, 1994. Free Speech Night.

We attended Free Speech Night at the Rose Fire Bay, a group of presentations designed to test the First Amendment. Part Two was memorable. A so-called performance artist got up to engage in the sort of free speech which done thirty years ago would have been sufficient to either get him arrested or else thrown into a mental institution. He had one side of his face painted black, the other side normal, and wore army fatigues with a swastika on one arm. A male buddy at the back of the stage contributed ear-splitting arrhythmic noise and feedback from an electric guitar, while a female friend provided horrible blood-curdling screams. He lit incense, drank liquid from a glass bottle and appeared to be pretending to throw up into a bowl, ranted and yelled, turned his back to the audience and dropped his pants so his bare butt glowed in the spotlights, then turned around to reveal that he had a rubber chicken stuck on over his penis. He then ran through the audience, tearing pages out of a Bible and throwing them at the viewers, his chicken bobbing and swinging from side to side. He removed his chicken, put his pants back on, and ended the act. “Whoa!” yelled Bill Weaver from the back of the room, in the somewhat stunned silence that met the end of the performance. People then began applauding, politely but without enthusiasm. Bill took the stage to read from Henry Miller. His first words into the microphone were “That fellow on before me should’ve used a LIVE chicken.” (Laughter from the crowd.) “But then,” he pretended to reconsider, “this isn’t NEW YORK. This is only Bloomington.” He read the “Georgia Cunt” section from “Tropic of Capricorn,” another piece that would have pressed buttons four decades ago. He read it well and was warmly applauded.

The evening’s impresario, Steve Gardner, mentioned to us after the end of the show that the performance artist was renowned for drinking gasoline and throwing up on stage. I was thunderstruck. “You mean that stuff in the glass bottle was gasoline?!” Steve shrugged. “He didn’t really tell me beforehand what he would be doing,” he explained. Frank told me, “Didn’t you see him throwing up into that bowl?” “I did, but I thought he was faking it,” I said.

[I was deeply disturbed and followed the above journal entry with a three-page musing on the meaning of “art.”]

Aug. 13, 1996. A Memorable Art Show Opening.

Frank and I went downtown to the opening of the Big Little Art Show at the Daisybrain Gallery. Three of Frank’s pieces were on display in this show, hanging alongside big art-scene names like David Ebbinghouse. Paul Smedberg also had two pieces hanging, computer-altered color photos with some degree of talent. Outside, three kinetic sculptures were on exhibit. There was a crudely-articulated cow skeleton mounted on roller skates and driven by a battery so that it would slowly inch its way along the sidewalk, with a brass cowbell around its bony neck ringing, with intermittent “moos” coming from a boat-horn mounted inside its foresection. At intervals it would piss from a sack of water slung underneath its pelvis. Another sculpture was a mannequin with a torso and head and one mechanically-driven arm which regularly lifted and lowered a steam-iron onto a raw steak draped over the top of its head. The name of this piece was the Sade-a-tron. Another mannequin torso, headless this time, gyrated rhythmically from side to side flailing at itself with chains for arms which would strike tambourines mounted on front and back. It provided a steady percussive beat to the proceedings.

The art scene crowd was spilled out onto the street, for the Gallery next door was also having an opening. People were milling around talking, commenting on the kinetic sculptures, introducing themselves to artists; we stood on the sidelines enjoying the scene. A group of four or five undergrads rounded the corner and stopped in astonishment at the sight of bovine bones half-visible behind all the moving, mingling people. “What’s that?” one undergrad spoke aloud to no one in particular. “It’s a cow,” I said, “and it moos and skates along and pisses.” “Oh,” said the kid in relief, “that’s cool.” Another classic moment from the Bloomington streets!

[Did anyone else out there attend these two events? I’d like to hear your own memories.]

Bloomington’s bad development decisions

Maple Grove apartments dwarf the surrounding houses, as you see to the left.

For at least forty years, the neighborhoods bordering the university have been home to dozens of iterations of ugly boxlike student housing. These buildings appear to have been built with little or no design oversight and were inserted into what had been residential neighborhoods. Any newcomer to the city today would agree that they are a visual blot on the surrounding residential zones.

Ugly from the front, ugly from the side, ugly from the back.
Ugly from the front, ugly from the side, ugly from the back.

You can actually date them by their ugliness, after a fashion: the first-generation rectangular plain boxes with balconies were built earlier in the 1960s, while the faux mansards came somewhat later. But all of them appear to have been built by the early 1970s, at which point the neighborhoods of Elm Heights, Cottage Grove, and East Second, Dunn and Grant (just south of Third) had all been marred beyond recognition.

What were our planners thinking? Was there even city planning back in the 1960s and ’70s? Did anyone protest at the time as their neighborhoods were being uglified? It’s not as though high-rise apartments benefit the overall tone of a residential district, and parking has always been an issue. It’s pointless to argue with the fact that they exist, but when my daydreams turn to what I would do if I were a billionaire, I know at once what I would do. I would buy up every box apartment in order to demolish them and construct new-tech but retro-look foursquares, bungalows and cottages that would restore those neighborhoods to their original look.

A contender for the ugliest apartment building in Bloomington.
One of the bleakest exteriors in Bloomington.

Apparently our community has learned nothing from the repeated mistakes of the past, because our city planners have repeatedly approved poorly conceived high-rises throughout our downtown core.

I mean, WTF? Who thought this was acceptable in terms of looks????
I mean, WTF? Who thought this was acceptable in terms of looks????

Although Bloomington does have design guidelines, the city planners have granted so many exceptions in the past decade that it basically amounts to spot-zoning….which was what the design guidelines were originally put in place to avoid.

Rated 1.5 stars by Yelp.
Rated 1.5 stars by Yelp.

Don’t get me wrong; I think compact urban form is a good thing in general if it follows New Urbanism principles and involves visually attractive units that have diverse and sustainable populations living inside them. But why did the city fathers in their wisdom believe that any multi-story monolithic structure automatically qualified as New Urbanism? Why did they think it would be constructive and healthy to create a monoculture of young, randy, drunken people concentrated in the city’s core? Good oversight and good planning would have required developers to set aside a proper percentage of each building for families, professionals and/or retirees. Each development also ought to have contained a number of affordable units for the poor.

The lower high-rises generally look better than the really tall ones, although there is too much surface contrast.
Many of the new downtown units contain high-contrast materials on their facades, which is not necessarily a good thing.

These towering apartments in the city’s core have created many ripple effects, one of which is the ongoing parking problem. Certain city council members cherished the misguided hope that if apartments were constructed without adequate attached parking, it would encourage students to use bicycles instead. But since the majority of the 2000-plus renters already owned vehicles, and because all of their visiting friends and lovers also drive cars, this was a myopic approach to reality. The shortage of parking led the city to bring back parking meters, which in turn severely impacted downtown businesses. Has anyone else out there heard the rumors of the official parking survey whose findings were so anti-meter that the city suppressed the news?

A somewhat more successful attempt at modernity; but will we view it kindly in 30 years?
A more successful attempt at contemporary style; it helps that it’s only four stories high. But will I still view it kindly in 30 years?

It’s not just parking that has impacted the business environment downtown. Boutiques and shops that appealed to non-student clienteles went out of business. In their place many new bars have opened up, which is why puddles of barf on the sidewalks are a daily sight. The downtown core’s entire feel is completely different than it was a decade ago.

A planning choice is more than a drawing and a presentation. A decision must not be limited to the single block where the development will be built, but should take into consideration every possible long-term repercussion to the community at large. It should affirmatively answer the question “is this building going to be good for our community for years to come?”

Because the vast majority of the apartment buildings downtown are ugly and detrimental to the quality of life, it’s clear that the current batch of city planners have not done a good job . Now that we will have a new mayor this fall, think carefully about how your vote will determine Bloomington’s future. Will your candidate continue on the current path, or will he replace the planners and make an attempt to correct the damage? Time will tell.

My vote for ugliest apartment building in downtown Bloomington. Yechhhh.
My vote for ugliest apartment building in downtown Bloomington. Yechhhh.