It’s an experience nearly everybody seems to have. A place from our past. Maybe it’s a place we used to live, or a place we used to frequent. But, sometime since the time when this place was an integral part of our lives, it has undergone some kind of drastic change, making it feel completely different from how we remembered it. I’m not just talking about a strip-mall having mostly different stores, a few home additions, or a road widened from two lanes to four. I am talking about a series of changes that makes life itself feel completely different.
For me, that place is Valparaiso, Indiana, where I went to college (undergraduate). Valparaiso University has undergone many changes since my graduation, including a new student union, a new library, several other new academic buildings, and a new more pedestrian friendly campus layout. While this is a drastic change, a drastic change on a college campuses is not really all that unique. Colleges build new buildings all the time, and many of our campuses are in a near constant state of flux.
The changes that have truly surprised me are the changes to Valparaiso the town; particularly Valparaiso’s downtown area, which is located roughly a mile west of campus.
When I attended Valparaiso University, downtown Valparaiso was not a place we frequented. We were far more likely to go to the WalMart for cheap groceries, a few other restaurants either just to the east near the junction of highway 49, or along highway 30, and when we turned 21, go to some bars scattered around town. Downtown was not dingy, or run down, it just was not that interesting. I remember going there every September for the annual Popcorn Festival (held to honor Valparaiso’s most famous resident- Orville Redenbacher), and maybe twice more in a given year.
Today’s downtown Valparaiso is suddenly far more vibrant. Along the Lincolnway, one can now find more bars, more restaurants (and many different kinds of restaurants including sushi), and a significant amount of foot traffic. The storefronts along the main roads in town now often display paper signs in the window, advertising a plethora of upcoming events in the center of town. These are all the kind of things I had become accustomed to seeing in a vibrant neighborhood of Chicago, or even a well put together suburban town center, like Downers Grove or Arlington Heights. However, it was a unique experience to see all of this in a town that I used to live in.
While Valparaiso has added a lot of places over the past several years, the two most major additions appear to be a new amphitheater and event center, and a new microbrewery. The bartenders at Figure Eight Microbrewery told me that on evenings where a concert is held at the amphitheater, a sudden rush of people would often come into the bar at the end of the show. But, the microbrewery is also a place to visit on it’s own. In Denver, we have tons of microbreweries, but in Valparaiso, this is the first one of it’s kind.
Those I talk to around town, including my friends that are still there attribute the change to several factors, all of which appear to be connected to the election of a new mayor a few years back. I had already noticed that the city of Valparaiso now offers bus service both to downtown Chicago and to the South Shore Rail line- both services I wish I had available to me while I was there. They also focused development in the downtown area. However, many attribute the redevelopment to the issuing of more liquor licenses.
No matter how much you pay attention to what is going on around you, there always seems to be at least one thing happening, that has a major impact on your life, that you remain unaware of. While I was at Valparaiso, I actually had no clue that it was nearly impossible to get a new liquor license from the city. For some time, they had been keeping the number of licenses steady, meaning one can only be attained if a different business had lost or dropped theirs. Being under the legal drinking age of 21 for most of the time I was there, I would not have even seen how this impacted me. But it was keeping a lot of Pub type places, which make some of their money on the sale of beer and such, out.
The downtown re-development is actually still taking place today, with more storefronts under construction. I wonder what this place will become.
I had a great experience at Valparaiso University. I loved the feel of the campus. I really liked my professors, and I liked most of the people I was around on a regular basis. When I look at this vibrant downtown, and convenient bus service to get back “home”, I can’t help but be somewhat envious of what current Valparaiso University students have that I did not. But, I do wonder if my experience would have been significantly different had I had access to all of these things. Maybe it was somehow secretly a good thing that I had to scramble for rides to the train station, and we did not have concerts at an amphitheater while I was there. Maybe it made my experience there unique, and distinguish it from my later experience in a vibrant Chicago neighborhood.