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Drive-Through or Destination?

You can always tell when there is a train blocking East Eldorado.

East Prairie Street (or Avenue, depending on block or sign) transforms from occasional to frequent vehicles getting through to destinations in downtown or points past the former Illinois Central railroad corridor. Most turn down Jasper Street from Eldorado via the Illinois Street bypass to East Prairie, or from Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. to Prairie to the Prairie St viaduct built in 1915. Those who discover this brief subterranean short-cut and never blocked pathway around train traffic often discover a handy way to avoid the East Eldorado or Wood street railroad crossings altogether.

Knowing this shortcut and driving frequently down East Prairie Street (Avenue) from east to west was actually how I first discovered my home in 1999.

But as I sit on my porch swing watching the drive-through traffic clearly pass through block after block of Clokey Park neighborhood, I realize many encounter our neighborhood not as a destination, but some place that one has to get through to get to their desired destination. Most every place in the Decatur metropolitan area is reachable from my home within 17 minutes, even with trains. Our proximity to downtown and the amenities of Nelson Park/Lakeshore Landing should encourage those desiring to have a little less commute or drive-time to make Clokey Park their home.

Perception may misinform reality to the commuter traffic of Clokey Park neighborhood. If the commuter would observe the surroundings while traveling east or west, they would notice residences which unfortunately are pass the point of livability and whose best future is elimination from the streetscape. They would also notice several residences that need repair, new roofs, and landscape improvements. It would be easy, based on mere observation, to declare the "neighborhood" as "bad"or "troubled."

What the common train-diverted commuter would not see is that 1) this neighborhood was among several neighborhoods whose home values crashed below the amount on their mortgages in the housing crisis of 2008 2) conventional methods of home improvement financing are impossible on said "underwater" real estate 3) costs to repair are greater than the property's worth.

When it is easier to just walk away from a property needing $20,000 to $30,000 in repairs but that is currently appraised at $13,000-$27,000, you get the very visible evidence of disinvestment.

Yet the utilities still run pass abandoned houses and empty property. The water lines and sewage access is still there, as it has been since the early 20th century. But the market for in-fill redevelopment must be there. Short of not needing a "return on investment," there is little incentive for any developer or potential resident to build a $100,000 home in a neighborhood of home with an existing appraised value of $27,000.

With our wide boulevards along East Prairie, I have been tempted to draw attention to the unseen value of the Clokey Park Neighborhood with a little signage: "If you lived here, you would already be home." I've seen this kind of sign dotting the outside of a new suburban subdivision on the arterial or by pass superhighways on the edges of large metropolitan areas. You wouldn't have to drive day-in, day-out, avoiding blockades of trains on the drive-through thoroughfares bisecting our city. While there will always be a market for the suburban dream, in many cities there is just as strong a market for urban living. In some cities, urban living desirability is greater than suburban development.

Clokey Park has the very visible scars of disinvestment. Those must be removed.

But Clokey Park also has the resources and assets to change from drive-through neighborhood to destination neighborhood. As a neighborhood we must make sure that our government regulations, zoning do not block the very forms of development needed in an urban environment. We also need incentives and rehabilitation programs that recognize the "underwater" status of our neighborhood it is currently experiencing, yet also anticipate the subsequent value of stabilization and increase in taxable value over the next 5-10 years.

Just like there is a point where there is no return for a neighborhood to come back, there is also a point where the market finally rewards the consistent investment made for the long term rather than short-term profit. Where the quality of life has improved, and homes do not need blue tarps as roofing supplies.

As I look at the traffic swiftly passing my front porch, I see the future of Clokey Park. And with the right combination of strategy and plan, investment and targeted removal, it will no longer be merely the short-cut route to better destinations. It will be a desired destination.

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