A Bridge, A Rainbow, and a McCommunity of Choice

After avoiding the heat and the crowd at the Taste of Tippecanoe for a couple of years, I was pleasantly surprised at the size of the event and the mix of folks it drew to the downtown district last Saturday. It was a good time — there was a lot to see, tons of food, excellent people-watching, fireworks, and live music. One major feature was thanks to Mother Nature, a double rainbow that lasted an hour and was occasionally cut through with a flash of lightning, sparking so many Taste the Rainbow jokes on Twitter and Facebook the next day. Later I reflected on the Community of Choice project and the conversations we’ve been having about how to make our community more appealing, not only to outsiders, but to ourselves.

First, I was also struck by the challenges faced by local restaurants trying to modify their food to present something representative of their menu that was also serveable on the street. I tried various things from Uncorked, the new wine and tapas bar downtown in Main Street, and Baja Peninsula, a wonderful brunch and dinner place on 52 in West Lafayette. Neither of these restaurants are known for street food staples like mystery fritters or meat-on-a-stick, and nevertheless the food was wonderful, just as it is in their dining rooms. The local restaurants that were represented at the Taste truly deserve a hand for meeting the challenge.

The rainbow over the pedestrian bridge in downtown Lafayette.
The rainbow over the pedestrian bridge in downtown Lafayette during the Taste of Tippecanoe 2012.

All evening I wondered why wasn’t there more action on the pedestrian bridge. Part of me believes that the Community of Choice project is designed to pave the way for more riverfront development and that we’re going to see more business and retail space carved out of the floodplains in the downtown area on both sides of the river. I’m of two minds on this, especially with the question mark hanging over the Levee revival project after the closure of Borders, not to mention the ancient skating rink vs. skate park debate which is so perfectly illustrative of the generational divide in this community that it’s due to be the subject of another post. I question what exactly will make future riverfront development more appealing to the masses than the dead retail space that’s already out there. Better planning? Anyway, we have a fraction of the riverfront developed, and it’s not really utilized by either city except for hosting for a handful of events or catching a train to elsewhere.

Hanging out on the bridge the other night, I felt a real affinity for that place, and there is something to be said about the Wabash river as one of the only real natural features in this immediate area, and the shame is that most folks never look at it unless they’re joking about three-eyed fish. This year, while there were businesses on either side of the river, you could only buy tickets, beer, and neon toys on the bridge, and otherwise it was just a path from here to there. Next year, I’m envisioning a giant beer garden on the bridge, or a small stage, or a performing arts troupe, temporary art, something to get more people to walk the bridge, park there, and spend a minute enjoying that spot. Maybe the Community of Choice committee should explore rebranding the Wabash. Have a local designer draw up a flashy logo. It might include a rainbow.

Finally, as someone who is proud of the growing food scene in Lafayette, it was disappointing to see a McDonald’s truck featured prominently on the corner by the Courthouse. The conspicuous presence of McDonald’s, the go-to corporation for anti-corporate activists to sneer at and a company whose name has become shorthand for everything opposite an artisan culture, was symbolic of the corporate hand ever-looming over the downtown revival project.

Hang out downtown long enough and you’ll hear about corporate chains trying to capitalize on the success of the downtown revival project.  Which, hey. Let’s officially call the revival project a success. But, corporate scouts, be prepared to tear down a wall of hostility if you ever intend to follow through with your ideas. Downtowners are not amenable to a corporate chain ruining the local scene. As an example, search out some of the wistful and angry reactions when Black Sparrow — for an April Fools Day joke this year — hung up a banner saying they’d been bought and resold as an “urban-style” Applebee’s.

Several folks argued passionately about the corporate presence at the Taste on my Twitter feed this weekend. Why not eschew the corporate dollars and make this an all-local event? To McDonalds’ credit, insofar as the accusations that McD’s poached money from the local businesses  at the Taste, they just served free samples of a promotional drink. There were other corporate vendors other than McDonald’s as well, as well as some corporate franchises owned and operated by local folks. It’s tricky. This is a community where the Reader’s Choice polls pit Outback Steakhouse against West Point Steakhouse and TC’s in Battleground for the best steak in town (my money’s on TC’s), and Outback, with pre-marinated, cryovac-ed steak, has a decent chance of winning.

(This is another post for another time, but the Reader’s Choice awards sometimes make me doubt the sanity of my neighbors. Best Buy is really the best we have for computer repair? Petsmart is better than Buckles? Coldstone Creamery over Frozen Custard or Silver Dipper? Really, Lafayette?)

Personal taste aside, this seems like the time to really highlight what we’re doing locally that is above and beyond what big box stores and fast food restaurants offer. Yes, yes, the Taste is ultimately a fundraiser for the Tippecanoe Arts Federation, a wonderful organization of people who provide funding and organization for the arts across Central Indiana, and they need to do what they need to do to keep their programs flush. Yes, green money is green, and it’s good business for charitable organizations to shake hands, smile, and play nicely with big money donors, no matter how TAF’s individuals may personally or politically feel. But it’s also a question of who we are and what we want to be, and what it costs the community to invite corporate entities into our small business districts. To some of us, a food truck is a food truck.  To others, it looks like a Trojan horse.

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