Falling to pieces

Pontiac, IL – Chenoa, IL 11.6 miles

The town of Chenoa is falling to pieces. I do not mean this in a figurative sense. A stroll through the downtown reveals nothing but shuttered businesses, closed signs, and buildings literally falling to the ground. One building in the center of town quite spectacularly has its back end exposed to the elements–the rear of the building one day suddenly gave way and it has been roped off ever since.

While eating lunch at the Chenoa Family Restaurant today, one of the few remaining businesses in town, a local couple told me that efforts to revitalize the town have hit roadblocks. When the owner of the little grocery store went bankrupt and closed the store there was an attempt to reopen the business. Unfortunately, complications in ownership and existing debt, among other issues, made it prohibitively expensive. And so it sits vacant.

Now the hope is that a building in the center of town can be converted into a coffee shop, but there is more talk than action. I told the couple that sometimes all it takes is for one business to get going and others will follow. Though Aliquippa, just north of Pittsburgh, faces many more problems than Chenoa, the opening of a coffee shop that serves as a community gathering space prompted other shops to follow suit. Don’t get caught up in the details I told them, just get it opened.

Pulling off I-55 or the old Route 66, visitors are greeted with a sign proclaiming Chenoa is the “crossroads of opportunity.” And the sign is certainly correct. Chenoa has everything going for it–both the interstate and the historic Route 66, with its flow of tourists, are less than a mile from downtown. And all the bones for a thriving downtown are there. Yet, save for a sad little bar, a hotel, a gas station, and the restaurant, the town has missed these opportunities.

As I walked down Route 66 I passed more than a few crumbling downtowns, each with a grain elevator and perhaps a post office or a church, maybe one lonely bar or restaurant.

I cannot say why so many small towns are crumbling, falling to pieces. Nor do I know the exact solution. I need only look at the small town I grew up in to see that once stores close they so rarely reopen. At one time my little hometown had a grocery store, a pharmacy, a barber shop, a meat market, and ice cream parlor, a diner, two pizza shops and a hardware store. More than half of the shops are now closed, and even the library that was once downtown has been relocated.

But, while revitalizing a city can take a massive community effort, small towns do not suffer this problem. Small steps forward can lead to big improvements. Next time I visit Chenoa I hope to see a different downtown.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper