For more than a century, the area of Peoria roughly bounded by Prospect Road and Knoxville, Forrest Hill and Glen Oak avenues has played home to the city’s “East Bluff.” This iconic neighborhood boasts a long history of providing a stable environment for people of all ages to live, learn, work and play.
At the heart and soul of this community were established schools, each fulfilling a unique quality-of-life function. Glen Oak, Von Steuben, White and St. Bernard’s grade schools and Woodruff, Spalding and Academy of Our Lady (AOL) high schools all housed East Bluff children. Each provided a unique community atmosphere for families and residents. But over the past 30 years or so, declining enrollments caused White, St Bernard’s, Woodruff and Spalding/AOL to close their doors. While Von Steuben and Glen Oak schools continue to play an essential role in the community, the loss of these other important community hubs—coupled with changing physical, social and economic conditions in the area—created a societal void.
Establishing a Foundation
In 2011, to help address some of those voids, a group of committed residents and community leaders formed a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with the specific purpose of developing and operating a community center in the city’s East Bluff. The group specifically targeted the vacant St. Bernard’s School at 512 E. Kansas as an ideal, centrally located site. With the mutual goal of service to the community and a desire for an improved quality of life, the East Bluff Community Center (EBCC) board and St. Bernard’s Parish signed a lease agreement allowing building occupancy on January 1, 2013.
With seed money from a few friendly donors and a building in hand, the EBCC board and numerous community volunteers set about the task of occupying a building that sat nearly vacant for almost a decade. What followed was indeed magical.
Beginning in 2013, and continuing to this very day, a steady stream of volunteers and donations have led to continuous facility improvements, resulting in an ever-improving venue for dozens of organizations and groups offering a wide range of programs, activities and events.
What started with a single Saturday teen basketball event quickly expanded. Within months, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Peoria moved in, occupying an entire floor with their daily afterschool and summer programs. Other entities soon established bases of operations as well, while the gym became a favorite banquet and event hall for family, church, social and community activities. Use of the gym and kitchen facilities has grown steadily every year since. The East Bluff Community Center has truly become the hub of neighborhood social activities.
In 2018 alone, the Center welcomed more than 13,000 visitors through its doors. Another 19,000 visits occurred with over 75 children participating daily in Boys and Girls Club activities. The YMCA hosted youth basketball programs. Substance abuse counseling services were available six evenings a week. Over 160 families were served monthly by volunteers at the food pantry. The gym played host to a growing number of activities, including wedding receptions, birthday parties, senior lunches, civic events, candidate forums and a neighborhood Christmas dinner. Outside, a large neighborhood garden draws scores of families daily throughout the planting, growing and harvesting seasons.
Positioned for the Future
It is now quite evident that the Center is living up to the early vision and fulfilling many of the quality-of-life needs of East Bluff residents. The foundation has been firmly established—but to continue operating into the future will require some fairly significant changes.
The first years saw many cosmetic and minor repairs, like painting, new carpeting, furniture donations and boiler/freezer repairs. The next generation of updates will be more significant, including an elevator and replacement of the roof, the 75-year-old boiler and heating system, and windows. These changes will make the facility more efficient to operate, accessible for more people and more usable for all. In addition, we must move from part-time volunteer operations to full-time leadership that will allow for expanded operations, increased community relations and achievement of funding goals.
To build on the initial success and position the Center to serve the community even better, the board and a dozen community leaders recently updated its mission and vision and established two five-year fundraising goals: $800,000 for capital improvements and $700,000 for operations. With this new roadmap in place, the board has embarked on a number of actions to ensure the Center is positioned to deliver on these goals. There is a lot more to do, but we are optimistic that the dreams of those founders will live well on into the future. PM
To learn more, visit eastbluffcommunitycenter.org or call (309) 839-0781.
After kindergarten and first-semester/first grade at White School my Mom and Dad (Milly & Gene -- "Fuzz"-- Geltmaker) moved in winter 1959 with me and my two younger sisters Tami, b. 1954, and DeeDee, b. 1955, from Armstrong St (now long since taken over by OSF) to 1003 E. Kansas, having bought that house with down-payment money won in a raffle down at St. Boniface where I had been baptized in 1952. All five of us Geltmaker kids (including Danny, b. 1959, and Matt, b. 1965, then attended and graduated from St Bernard, participating in every activity from altar boys to choir to piano lessons, to basketball/cheerleading, each of us then going on to Spalding & AOL. The East Bluff was the perfect place to grow up, with stores like Haddad's Market, Doc Green's drugstore/soda fountain, Shaheen's hardware, the adjacent barber shop, Little's Kitchen, Trefzger's Bakery (then later the Norge laundromat) along with two taverns and the Wishing Well gift shop, all along Wisconsin from Kansas to Nebraska, stretching down to Frye, where catty-corner from old Glen Oak School was also Thill's florists. And Dr. Roark's medical office first on Wisconsin and later in new building on Kansas was as much a community anchor as it was a place to get well.
The East Bluff might have been not so affluent as the West Bluff but it was a place where families of different wealth (though admittedly not mixed racially) mixed, at least among the Catholics of St Bernard parish. And there was always Glen Oak Park to go fishing, ride bikes, and once-upon-a-time cool off as kids in the wading pool adjacent to the carnival rides. And we could walk down Abington to the big swimming pool, sometimes exploring the "cave" in the woods along the way where there had been a Speakeasy during Prohibition. And, of course, there was the Glen Oak Park Zoo, along with long since abandoned cruel concrete Bear Caves in the woods on the Lagoon side of Abington. As for the lagoon, it was such a great place to ice skate for free in winter (with the warming house and its smokey coal heater).
None of us Geltmaker kids stayed in Peoria, going off to college all over the country (and in my case working in Europe, NYC, and LA where I've lived for decades) never returning to live in the place that made us responsible citizens and -- hopefully -- representatives of all that Peoria taught us. Our mom Milly now lives near our sister DeeDee in Champaign, our sister Tamara (deceased) lived her adult life in Florida, leaving behind a wonderful family, my brothers Danny & Matt live, respectively, in Colorado & San Francisco.
Seeing the two photos of St Bernard brought a flood of memories, including the stage in the gymnasium where each spring our wonderful Dominican nun music teacher held a recital, at one of which I played "Moon River" as my sisters Tami & DeeDee sang the lyrics.
Thanks you for this touching, informative article, glad to see that the place that nurtured me and siblings and so many others is now still vibrant (and -- if I may say so -- interracial).
Ty Geltmaker, Ph.D.