“Do me a favor: There’s a bunch of ghosts down on Adams Street. See if they can see Santa Claus.” These were the words of the late Willie York, a homeless individual and one of Peoria’s most famous personalities, during a holiday interview with the Journal Star in 2016. I believe those words—and the man behind them—speak to the collateral beauty of our city.
The term “collateral beauty” was introduced to me by the Will Smith movie of the same name. In the film, it means that we are given strong, traumatic experiences in love, time and death, and that often we can’t see the full picture because of these tragedies. This, too, is the beautiful complexity of loving this great city. To love Peoria can be a great or toxic affair (and sometimes both), but it leaves you part of that collateral beauty. Willie York was often chewed up, overlooked and misunderstood by Peoria, but he still was able to step back and admire that collateral beauty. To see the brightness in dark times and press on… until the light becomes everywhere.
Love, Time and Death
Peoria is not without its tragic moments of love, time and death. With love, our city has experienced tragedies: the loss of our beloved Caterpillar headquarters, our basketball loves in the March Madness and Gus Macker experiences, and many of the shops and stores we grew up with, to name a few. It sometimes has us wondering if we are losing that old Peoria spark—when the city made you feel that so much was possible; so much, in fact, that it made the outside world ask, “Does it play in Peoria?”
With time, Peoria has been ranked one of the worst places in the country for African Americans to live. For years it struggled to honor one of its greatest success stories in Richard Pryor, before finally doing so. It has been segregated racially and financially, and the city itself has struggled financially. Time has not always been kind to Peoria.
In death, Peoria is not without its losses—not only the loved ones we have lost, but ourselves as a city. While Peoria’s growth to the north has its own majestic beauty and great successes, other communities are not so fortunate. Between disinvestment and turning a blind eye, we are losing neighborhoods, communities, people, each other. Homes shuttered, businesses shuttered, abandoned buildings, death.
This all seems doom and gloom, and if we simply left it there, it wouldn’t truly describe the Peoria I know. Sometimes we must step back to see the collateral beauty of loving this complex city.
Seeing the Beauty
Peoria has always been able to rise above its tragedies. That is the full story of this city. It means looking just as Willie York did—one of the poorest, financially speaking, among us. No matter our current circumstances, the beauty is there and we can expand it. We just have to see it.
In reference to Mr. York’s aforementioned quote, I see the collateral beauty in it. This man, who had every reason to be cynical, upset and hurt by his tragedies, wanted to make sure those “ghosts” saw Santa Claus. And I don’t think he was far off or “crazy” with this statement; we just didn’t see the beauty beyond the collateral. The “ghosts” he spoke of? They are us. We are those ghosts who went past him daily on Adams Street. He saw it, and we couldn’t. Ghosts, because at times we have lost ourselves and lost our way.
His reference to Santa wasn’t simply the big guy in the red suit; he just dumbed it down for us. Remember how we felt as kids on Christmas morning? The excitement, the possibilities, the wonder! No matter how many pairs of socks we received, we didn’t just stop opening boxes and lose faith. We kept trying, knowing that the boxes weren’t going to open themselves, and the best was yet to come through our efforts.
That’s what I feel he meant—that he was so concerned about us as ghosts, no matter his own personal “collateral,” he just wanted us to see “Santa Claus.” He wanted us to see that beauty, so we can expand it again. He wanted the “ghosts” to be excited, think of the possibilities, and wonder again here in Peoria. Can you see it now? PM
Chief Demario Boone is director of school safety for Peoria Public Schools District 150 and a member of the 2019 class of 40 Leaders Under Forty.