LOCAL COLOR/Wonders of the world
For two years, the vestiges of construction became a familiar sight at a busy downtown intersection in rural Carbondale, Ill. The construction equipment remaining from the completion of a railway underpass, a $12 million project, left the tiny area unsightly for the city’s 27,000 residents. To continue Mayor Brad Cole’s downtown revitalization efforts, city officials ultimately decided to turn the area into a useable greenspace with a central theme: international friendships.
Although located more than 300 miles south of Chicago, Carbondale has many elements of a major city, including a culturally diverse community, largely a result of the city’s major cultural and economic mainstay — Southern Illinois University with students, faculty and visitors from the far reaches of the globe. “All of those things mean that this community has a kind of diversity that is unique and something that we think should be celebrated,” says Carbondale’s Economic Development Manager Jeremy Hayes. “It has become a part of our identity, and this project is a way to celebrate that and to commemorate it.”
Friendship Plaza is designed to be user-friendly with walkways that connect the park with the downtown area. Flowers, trees, bushes and benches decorate the 2,500-square-foot area and create a restful park for pedestrians. Mayor Cole dedicated Friendship Plaza to the community on April 22, explaining the necessity of the newly created space. “I chose the name Friendship Plaza as a way of symbolizing Carbondale’s commitment to its friendships in the regions, across the country and around the world,” he said. “We are a diverse community, an international community, a small town with big city ideas; we are a community of friends.”
To save money, the nearly $60,000 project was financed by the city through its Community Investment Program, which provides funding for various city improvement projects. Carbondale collaborated with other local agencies on the project, including Carbondale Main Street, a non-profit downtown revitalization program, and Carbondale Community Arts, an organization that promotes arts and culture.
To represent the commitment to its artistic culture, the city plans to place a sculpture in the center of the plaza next year and is currently holding a contest to determine the piece and the artist. The sculpture also will be a representation of Friendship Plaza and of Carbondale. “[Mayor Cole] has made many efforts to beautify the city, to clean up and green up the town, and public art is a particularly distinctive way to beautify a community,” Hayes says. “Any kind of public art provides a symbol or commemoration in a way that really nothing else can.”
Plans also are in the works to include three commemorative plaques in the plaza with each representing a relationship Carbondale has established with its sister cities — Nakajo, Japan; Shimla, India; and Tainan City, Taiwan. Although the plaques are not yet complete, Hayes says that they, like the sculpture, will reflect the ideals of the plaza and of the Carbondale community.
The remains of the railway construction are long gone. Where debris and equipment once sat, a peaceful symbol of Carbondale — Friendship Plaza — now resides. “I think [Friendship Plaza] adds a quality greenspace that improves the appearance of our downtown, and it’s an opportunity to showcase the kind of cultural diversity and the cosmopolitan nature of a small city like Carbondale,” Hayes says. “It’s another way to promote something that we think is one of our advantages.”