Richard Pryor’s Peoria, an Online Archive
June 12, 2015 3:52 PM   Subscribe

Fans of Richard Pryor (previously) may be interested in a new, free online archive devoted to providing a peek at the Illinois town where the comedian spent his first two decades. “Richard Pryor’s Peoria,” a collaboration between biographer Scott Saul and Stanford University’s Spatial History Project, "digitally unites 200 primary sources—from aerial maps of Pryor’s hometown to his elementary school report cards—for anyone with an internet connection to explore. The site ... presents one of the first full-fledged extensions of a traditional biography onto the web—an affirmation of historian Edward L. Ayers’s suggestion that “history may be better suited to digital technology than any other humanistic discipline.”
posted by MonkeyToes (8 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
This is very exciting and I can't wait to check this out. Ayers is right; this is exactly what the Internet is for.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 4:00 PM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Peoria. I find it indescribably delicious that the racists in my home town must deal with the fact that Richard Pryor is their most famous and celebrated native son. They even named a street after him and erected a statue.
posted by caryatid at 4:49 PM on June 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

Did someone flash my bat signal?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:32 PM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

From the "schooling" page:

"At the same time, Richard was unusual in having attended some schools, like Blaine Sumner and Trewyn, that were among Peoria’s “whitest.”"

This is moderately fascinating to me, a relatively recent Peoria transplant, as Trewyn is now among Peoria's blackest schools. It is 74% black (compared to 56% district-wide) and 92% below the poverty line. 11% of students at Trewyn are homeless. (Blaine Sumner is closed.)

The 1960s lawsuits to desegregate the Peoria school districts, mentioned on the page, eventually resulted in a federal consent decree in 1968, which the Peoria district still operates under today and accounts for its unique-in-the-state method of electing its board. I take particular interest in that federal consent decree as I was elected, and then later defeated, under its rules!

(The City of Peoria operates under a similar consent decree that is unique in the NATION for how it elects city councilpeople -- there are five councilpeople elected by district, and five elected at-large. For the five at-large council people you get five votes per voter (essentially -- it's a bit more complicated in practice), and you can distribute them among five candidates or give them all to one, or divide them up any way you please, so a small group of motivated voters can push a single candidate up the rankings by all giving him five votes, but widely-popular candidates tend to pick up a lot of one-vote votes too. It does not actually do what it's supposed to do, which is to increase diversity on the city council, but it's interesting!)

One of the white school board members from the 1960s who voted to in favor of desegregating the schools actually contacted me when I was going through all my school board shit, to let me know he felt for me, and that he'd actually had to move his family out of Peoria right before the vote because militant racists were threatening to firebomb his home because he was a "race traitor." It was REALLY INTENSE back then.

I went to a funeral at the historically black Catholic church in Peoria not long ago, which is now located on Richard Pryor Place, and it just delighted me to be at a church service on Richard Pryor Place. It's not a very long street (it's the one the community center Pryor went to was on, and that's why that street was chosen) and there are multiple churches! The Carver Center, Pryor's community center, has really struggled for funding in recent years.

A statue of Pryor was unveiled last month, in Peoria's downtown, sculpted by a friendly acquaintance of mine, Preston Jackson. It's been exciting to watch him work on it (on and off, depending on funding) over the past 9 years, and to see the process that goes into making the statue.

Really interesting site, thanks for the post!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:57 PM on June 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh man the Saturday Evening Post article [PDF] is both informative and hilarious. She's trying to build up Peoria, but she can't resist taking constant pokes at its promoters' puffed-up boosterism as compared to the actual chaos that reigns.
To understand Peoria, it is necessary to understand this usage of the word "liberal." In Peoria, as in Springfield and south to East St. Louis, "liberal" does not mean what it means to the rest of the country. When a Peoria official says that he assembled a group of liberal elements in the community, he does not mean that he called a meeting of presumably forward-thinking folk from church, labor and business. He means that he rounded up the free-and-easy boys from the back room. ... As one liberal put it, "Peoria was always a nice, sociable town. That was the old Spanish custom, and frankly it isn't possible to clean it up; there aren't enough police in the state of Illinois to do it."
It has been said of Peoria that "aside from the vice and graft, it's a fairly efficiently run town"
One of Peoria's more energetic do-gooders remarked not long ago that "it's a wonderful place for anyone interested in community betterment, because there's so much to do"
and finally
Doctor Vonachen is an impassioned, energetic, rather cherubic-looking man who feels very strongly about everything, including overeating. In the executives' dining room at the Cat plant, he snatches desserts from the hands of sputtering vice-presidents whom he regards as too corpulent
Also the long section describing just how many of Peoria's leading citizens engaged in beat-downs, extortion, and gangland-style executions (including, eventually, their own).
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 9:01 PM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

(This is pretty amazingly great stuff. Thanks, @MonkeyToes!!)
posted by old_growler at 9:57 PM on June 12, 2015

This is fascinating stuff, especially as I've been here for a while and have gotten a few bits and pieces about the more sordid aspects of Peoria's past (such as that there are still remnants of the booze-smuggling tunnels down by the riverfront that were used during Prohibition to take liquor from the riverbank to the warehouses on Water Street), but nothing like this treasure trove. I was confused at first at the references to North Washington Street, since there basically is no such thing, but then I got to the part where the Murray Baker Bridge (where I-74 crosses the Illinois River) construction wiped out the red light district, probably not by accident.

I was also interested to see a reference to Aiken Alley, where the whorehouses moved after North Washington was demolished. As it turns out, I have a story about Aiken Alley myself, from over thirty years ago. I was a student at Illinois State University then (about 40 miles away in Normal--yes, that's the name of the town), and there was (and maybe still is) a program in which students in some of the more people-helping-oriented majors--education, psychology, social work--could get some credit hours and practical experience by volunteering at different social service agencies in Peoria; aside from the community service aspect, the program aimed in part to give students some field experience in their chosen major and a chance to decide if they really wanted to do that sort of thing for a living, rather than dive in all idealistic after they got their degree and burn out within a few years. (Here's a description of the program, although it makes it sound like it was education major-only, which it wasn't, at least in the mid-eighties.) It certainly helped me decide if I really wanted to be a counseling psychologist--in short, no--and therefore was kind of a major turning point in my life.

Anyway. Part of the Summer Urban Field Experience, as it was called, was a ride-along with a cop for an eight-hour shift, and let me tell you, it was just about as boring as the descriptions of typical cop work would have you believe. The officer I was riding with did catch a ten-year-old shoplifter, caught lugging a bag of clothes almost as big as she was out of Sears, and then there was the citizen complaint delivered when we stopped by police headquarters on Adams Street. This guy with a big beard and overalls walks up to the officer and wants to make a complaint about a woman who offered to give him a blowjob for $20, but took his money and split. The officer (just about as dumbfounded as I was, I think) asked him where the woman was. He points across the street--remember, this is at police HQ--to an establishment called the Slipper Club (I'd remembered it for years as the Slipper Inn, possibly because that's funnier) where a couple of women are lounging outside. So the cop dutifully calls her across the street and talks to her for a minute or two; she's not at all outraged at the implication that she's a prostitute, but simply insists that she'd never seen the guy before. The cop then spends several minutes patiently explaining to the man that, if he bought the guy's story, he'd have to arrest the guy for solicitation. The guy is very persistent and says that he just wants his money back.

In case you're wondering, Aiken Alley is now a thing of the past--sometime before the nearby minor league ball park was built, those buildings were demolished as well. There has been some street renovation a bit south of that location and in the neighborhood in general, new urbanist stuff to try to encourage pedestrian traffic and bring business back to the area. I wish them luck.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:02 PM on June 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

"such as that there are still remnants of the booze-smuggling tunnels down by the riverfront that were used during Prohibition to take liquor from the riverbank to the warehouses on Water Street"

The recently-restored Pere Marquette has, in the top-floor presidential suite, a Prohibition-Era secret booze closet that was for important guests to whom Prohibition obviously didn't apply.

(Not so secret now since it was included in the state historic renovation grant application and is a bragging point for the hotel. :) )
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:15 PM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

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