Smile Politely

An improvisational evening in C-U

I’ll admit that I have smirked a few times at the micro-urban marketing being pushed to attract young professionals and employers to the area. What does micro-urban mean really? Can a place be both micro and urban? Is a micro-urban vibe enough to make employable professionals with a choice about where to work and live forget about things that Champaign-Urbana might lack? Where is this article going anyway?

Well, after my improvisational evening on Sunday, which had a very micro-urban feel, perhaps I’m smirking a bit less and smiling a lot more. Usually a personal account of an otherwise unplanned evening doesn’t warrant this much fanfare, but in this case it seemed like a shining example of what C-U brings to the table. The area’s strengths are the large and economically stimulating University, dense development (mostly), active and thriving business districts, and routes throughout that are relatively friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians. All these things came together on Sunday in an unexpected way to make for a nearly surreal evening.

My afternoon started off with my regular volunteering stint from 2 – 5 p.m. at The Bike Project, a cooperative teaching bike shop. After co-op hours I was cycling over to Champaign, when I happened across two friends, Emily and Kelly, who had decided to take a leisurely ride around the cities. Having no other plans, I joined them on their ride. After moseying down the Boulware Trail we headed across St. Mary’s Road through the University South Farms. Our goal being the Pollinatarium tucked into the University of Illinois Arboretum. The muralist that painted the outside of the Pollinatarium had presented his work at last week’s Pecha Kucha and we were motivated to investigate the hidden gem. Alas, we didn’t make it all the way there and were distracted by something even more interesting.

As we passed the Round Barns at the top of the St. Mary’s hillock, we noticed that the barn door of the largest barn was ajar and there were people milling in and out. A detour was in order as we all wanted to check out the inside of the barn. Upon pulling up to the barn I recognized my upstairs neighbor who had just completed her MFA in Dance. It dawned on me; this must be a “site specific” dance department installation.

We were introduced to William Schneider, another MFA graduate candidate whose improvisational work was being performed throughout the barn. There was a large troupe of dancers in dark coveralls moving about, shuffling, sliding, writhing, and plunging in a mixture of zombie-like and playful ways. Almost as interesting as the dancers was the space. The basement of the barn was a dairy operation with eerie metal cages and milking stations set up in a circular array. Upstairs in the humongous domed hay loft a silo formed the center and the curvature of the roof drew the eye upward.

A spare musical accompaniment complemented the improvisational dancers as they were drawn into the hay loft. The audience was mixed in with the performers and they were clearly engrossed in the piece. The dance was followed by a movie of William’s other work, but unfortunately we had to skedaddle as Kelly’s parents were in town and they had to get back for dinner. We had such a fine time with the Sunday evening ride that we decided to start a weekly Sunday bike stroll leaving at 5:30 p.m. from The Bike Project. The weekly rides will be slow, easy, and urban.

On my way back home, I got a phone call from a friend with a broken bicycle. I headed back to The Bike Project to see if things could be made right. After she replaced a missing bolt, lubricated a few things, and adjusted the brakes the bike was running smooth. Following the bicycle ER we headed over to Iron Post to listen to a jazz band that her friend was in. They were playing the music of Django Reinhardt, who I learned was a renowned jazz guitarist missing two fingers on his left hand [Ed. note: and a gypsy!]. The music was a relaxing culmination a surprisingly full micro-politan evening.

It seems like a lot to fit into an evening with an impromptu bike stroll, watching improvisational dancing in a barn, wrenching in a cooperative bike shop, and listening to live jazz. After the evening was over I realized that there weren’t many places that an otherwise empty evening could be filled so readily with such a diverse group of activities, with the added bonus of bicycling to all of them. The cities are small enough that chance encounters while out and about are easy to come by. The downtowns and University supply plenty of cultural events that can be found ahead of time or, in my case, stumbled upon. The streets are generally wide and set up in a grid fashion resulting in many low traffic routes for comfortable bicycle commuting. If some hills popped up and a river ran through it, I might call this paradise. Then again it’s possible that I’m just starting to drink the micro-urban Kool-Aid.

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