Around eight years ago, I moved back to my hometown of South Bend, IN from Chicago.
I had originally moved to Chicago to make music. But I discovered that the community was severely lacking. It was difficult to book shows as an independent musician, and finding other musicians to play with was almost impossible. I had found one weekly open mic down the road, but getting people to care about what I was doing was a struggle.
Around the same time, some friends in South Bend began talking. They decided that the city could have a thriving arts community—if artists and musicians decided to invest in the city. It wasn't that there weren't talented artists in the Bend. They were just disconnected. If we invested in building eachother up, we could have a thriving arts scene.
I was convinced. I put Chicago to my rearview and moved back home, extolling South Bend's potential to be a better home for my musical aspirations than the Windy City.
And for a few years, people looked at me like I was crazy. Some nights, I thought they might be right. We'd throw a show with a killer lineup, and five people would show up.
But last night, my band played a show with a touring band from Nebraska. On a Monday night.
The venue was packed. The touring band said it was the best turnout they'd had all tour.
On a Monday night in South Bend.
It's been a long time coming, but the city no longer has the potential for a great arts community: it has one. Last year, there were three independent music festivals that were all well attended. One even had the backing of the city itself. I have several friends who make a living making art full time.
But it isn't just the arts community that's thriving: the Bend has become a great place for small businesses as well. My wife opened a makerspace. A friend started a recording studio.
The city has become home to dozens of brewpubs, bookstores, and coffee shops: plenty of places where a restless freelancer such as myself can go to put on a pair of headphones and ignore the world.
Not long ago, Downtown was held together by one non-chain restaurant. Independent coffee shops would take turns struggling to stay open in different locations. Now, you could eat in a different local restaurant every day for a month and not go to the same place twice.
Even some of the long-abandoned hotels and factories in the heart of the city are being renovated and reimagined. Empty hotels are now apartments. The Studebaker plant, which has sat vacant since the company closed, has become home to a number of tech startups and nonprofits.
But the memory of the city's decay is not so distant from my mind. I am full aware that just a few years ago, many of the storefronts in town (including my wife's shop) sat empty. Musicians had a hard time getting anyone to their shows. Artists fled the city like refugees.
And yet, now we are thriving. And hometown pride has never been higher.
It may not be permanent, but I'm certainly enjoying the ride.