This weekend community members will be Building a “Better Block” along Western Ave. to highlight and celebrate its potential as a thriving business district once again. As someone who ‘Hearts’ SB, I heart ALL of South Bend, including the West side, and have been encouraging people to check it out. Many have asked what exactly it is, and it’s been hard to explain. The Better Block event, Al Ritmo de la Western (The Rhythm of Western) is best described as a ‘block party’ but we’ve been warned by national Better Block staff not to describe it that way… so what will be going on over there?
First some background: Better Block is a national non profit based in Dallas that channels tactical urbanism and development to show communities how awesome a neighborhood could be. As Laurie Schrader LaDow, the co-organizer of South Bend’s event noted, “ The event is in part to bring positive attention to the West Side and the wonderful people and businesses there. Also to bring awareness for future business opportunities along Western and to help the area develop an strong identity as a destination within the city for things you may enjoy but can’t find easily elsewhere.” Through the Greater South Bend/ Mishawaka Association of Realtors, a grant was secured to bring Better Block to South Bend. With some guidance from Andrew Howard of the BB staff committees were formed, plans were made and the neighborhood was invited to show the city all the potential this once vibrant area of Western still holds. LaDow points out that this area was chosen especially because of the city’s focus on it as part of the West Side Corridors Plan.
To prep for the main event this weekend, volunteers like myself have been plotting with business owners, spiffing up vacant buildings to attract new business, building pallet furniture, securing landscaping, gathering sponsors (THANK YOU SPONSORS) and planning one heck of a good time. Friday night and Saturday afternoon the community is invited to celebrate Al Ritmo de la Western as the fruits of these efforts are shown off to highlight what a little elbow grease can do in our neighborhoods. Urban Garden Market will be on hand, a pop-up coffee shop, an art gallery in the old PBS building, music, dog park, beer tent, vendors, activities for kids including a bouncy house and more along that stretch of Western Ave! We also encourage you to visit the businesses there that are flourishing like Taqueria Chicago and La Rosita to see the potential for success.
The event is about community building too and getting to know our neighbors in that area. Although I had been to Taqueria Chicago for dinner before, I’d never had the opportunities to meet folks like I have with Better Block. In addition to Laurie, Myron, the planning committee members and the Realtors, I’ve had the chance to get to know Sam of La Casa de Amistad and learn more about the great services La Casa provides to the community. I’ve also had the chance to meet Leti of the Boys and Girls Club at Harrison, and Deacon Atkins at the New Philadelphia Church and Mariano and Juan and a whole host of others who are all part of what makes South Bend awesome, but you might not read about them in the Tribune.
And there has been such generosity! The mexican hot chocolate and sweet breads that magically showed up while we were painting one cold day were indescribably good, and I’ve fallen in love with the tamales at La Central on the corner.
So building a better block has been literal, as we clean up vacant lots and shops, but also a figurative piece of building a better South Bend. My hope is that not only will YOU all be dancing to the Ritmo de la Western this weekend with us, but that you’ll look at your own neighborhood with your neighbors to see what you might be able to do to make it shine with some elbow grease and creative vision.