South Bend, public land, and the dilemma of Elbel

When entering the city limits of South Bend, we are greeted by a sign announcing that we are entering a 21st Century City. This strikes me as a statement of the obvious and a mistake. We have no control over our temporal situation; our control is exercised in how we choose to live. The recent issue of Elbel Park speaks to both concepts – what does it mean to be a 21st Century City, and how can we demonstrate that we are choosing to live that way?

I read the South Bend Tribune every day. A persistent link on the website directs readers to an article titled “Can We Dream Big?”, and I think that question is imminently important for South Bend. Dreaming big is seeing South Bend as a creative leader, an innovator, a city in control of its own destiny. It’s perhaps easy to slip into a simplistic mindset where this means action for action’s sake, a kind of machismo of making tough decisions. However, the real challenge is to think things through, avoid panic, and listen carefully before you act.


Frozen lily at Elbel

I bring a newcomers perspective to South Bend, having arrived here just last August. I’ve spent the last few years on the East Coast, in Massachusetts and New York. Many of the towns and cities in New England and the Mid-Atlantic have suffered through changing circumstances similar to South Bend’s – shifting economic and demographic patterns, the decline of industry, the rapid and expansive growth of suburban areas. While in transition themselves, the idea of jettisoning public parkland as strategy for growth would be unthinkable to the majority of citizens in these regions.

South Bend feels like a city slowly starting to recover from a long illness, but probably lags behind many of its Midwestern peer cities in this regard – I think of Bloomington, Grand Rapids, MI, or Rochester, MN. More importantly, South Bend is competing against newly vibrant cities in other parts of the country – places like Boulder, Colorado and Greenville, North Carolina, for example. These cities, and many others like them, are both attracting young people and growing their public parkland, sometimes aggressively. Rochester manages 3,500 acres, Greenville, 1,267, and Boulder an amazing 45,000! By comparison, South Bend manages 1,330, which would drop close to 1,000 with the loss of Elbel.

Winter at Elbel

Winter sledding at Elbel

It is completely reasonable to ask the question – does South Bend need two public golf courses? However, the bigger question is the one posed by the Tribune – Can We Dream Big? Public parkland exists for the benefit and enjoyment of the citizens of South Bend, and all public land should be considered a valuable community asset, especially when it has robust ecological, educational, and recreational value. Our peer cities, our competitors, are growing their public space, with the goal of serving the changing needs of their populations.

And South Bend? The city wants to sell precious public land for a short-term boost in revenue. When I think of what I’ve learned about South Bend over the last 6 months – the industry, the innovation, the creative exploits –  the idea to sell or lease Elbel Park feels like very small dreaming indeed.


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