By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Thirty years ago, Downtown Alton was dying on the vine. A once-thriving business district was going downhill fast.
You could see the difference reflected in historical photos from decades past. Just after World War II, cars, merchants and shoppers would line Third, Belle, State and Piasa streets, vying for the bargains they would find at places like Young’s Dry Goods and Snyder’s Department store.
By the 1980s, though, suburbia had arrived. Across America, malls sprouted up. People moved away from their city’s core. Alton was no different and there was worry that boarded-up storefronts were going to take over a once-bustling commercial district.
A funny thing happened. It turns out the imminent death of Downtown was greatly exaggerated. If you visit today, you’ll again see a bustling hive of activity. There are few empty stores and — many days — few empty parking spaces. A reinvention is underway, and it’s one that many other communities should be watching.
Forward-thinking city fathers and more than a few hard-working merchants made possible what you see today. Almost four decades ago, the city established a special service tax to help finance improvements, paid by the property owners themselves. Decorative lighting was installed. Parking was improved. Sidewalks and other infrastructure upgrades were made. The city made a bet that Downtown still had mileage and — in a city where betting has become a big deal — the gamble paid off. People and businesses started coming back.
I was in the middle of a lot of this change. My career emerged around 1980 at a tiny weekly newspaper located in a Third Street building that later became a popular bar, Catdaddy’s. That lounge is still there and was one of the first of the watering holes that now dot the district.
The paper moved a short distance to the 300 block of Belle Street and ironically was forced to move again for another bar — when Mac Lenhardt began buying up the block for what eventually became Time Out Lounge. Lenhardt’s investment has attracted many others to do the same.
Downtown built its reputation as an entertainment district with several notable changes. The Ventimiglia family made significant improvements to their Tony’s restaurant. Marilyn Carroll made Chez Marilyn’s a must stop. The Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau built its tourism headquarters at Broadway and Piasa. John and Dawn Hentrich established the Riverbender.com Community Center.
Through fires, floods and significant hard times, the Downtown drumbeat has persevered. All this progress came back to me a few weeks ago when I visited the newest establishment, Elijah P.’s Burgers and Brew at 401 Piasa. The owner is an old colleague, Russ Smith, who was a photographer at The Telegraph while I was the city editor. Smith, who has lived in Downtown Alton for years, left the paper a long time ago, started the bar Bossanova in Downtown and added to it with the recent Elijah P.’s opening. The name is homage to abolitionist minister Elijah Parish Lovejoy who died in 1837, defending his newspaper press from a violent mob in Alton.
I was astounded at the crowd inside Elijah P.’s on a Thursday night.
Downtown has hit a steady stride, and it’s not just about bars. There is a very active business trade there. Frew’s Bridal and Formal Wear, Hayner Public Library and New Frontiers Home and Garden Furnishings offer a significant presence, among others.
Downtown has done well by the entire city, and it is going to again be the center of focus on Sept. 12 when a statue to jazz great Miles Davis is dedicated. The memorial to the Alton native is to be located along West Third at the foot of Belle, in the heart of a busy district and amid a jazzy backdrop.
In my mind there’s no other place that statue should be.