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All-American city

Malcolm Phelan | Tuesday, September 11, 2012

One month.

I was supposed to stay in South Bend for one month before heading east to get into trouble until my real job started in January. I had a job lined up with a consulting firm in New York upon graduation, but when they presented the new hires with five possible start dates, I leapt at the chance to forestall my impending adult life and took the January option. That left me with six months to do something fast-paced, exciting and vaguely irresponsible. All through senior year, I had been listing possibilities in my hip moleskin journal, such as “join start-up company in L.A.,” or “go on a Trappist retreat.” With future documentaries and merchandise deals in mind, I even named some of them. Motorcycling to the Grand Canyon while reading all the great books I had ignored in college would be called “Canon to Canyon.” Brilliant.

So, with all of these thrilling and well-branded prospects in mind, I weighed my options and made my choice: I stayed in South Bend.

Let me tell you why.

I was staying on to work for the new mayor, a young and dynamic figure, who had offered me the chance to write some speeches for him. As it turned out, he was actually a very good speechwriter already, so I definitely learned a good deal more than I contributed and spent most of my time on a consulting case with the city.

With a team made up of students from the Mendoza College of Business, we went through the departments in the city at the mayor’s request, identifying ways of cutting costs, streamlining processes and trying to make city services as effective and efficient as possible for the citizens of South Bend.

The project took me all over the city and to neighborhoods I never knew existed. I saw union halls, once packed with flushed, happy faces, now quieter after the deindustrialization of the 60s. I saw hole-in-the-wall restaurants run by first generation immigrants who, like the German, Polish and Irish workers who came over a century ago, looked at South Bend as a place of opportunity and as a place to raise a family. I saw businesses opening their doors, hospitals growing and expanding and a brand new $65 million recreation center a couple blocks from downtown (it has a water slide and a lazy river.)

All of this pointed to a history and a story that I had totally missed as a student. After my month was up, it was not hard to make the decision to stay longer.

I moved into an apartment in the heart of downtown, in what used to be Central High School. For anyone who has seen the movie Hoosiers, that is where they played the South Bend Wildcats. I live in the gym, so that basketball court is my kitchen floor. A friend holds concerts in the pool.

If that was not enough, once you realize downtown South Bend is more than three bars and a football hall of fame, there is an absolute wealth of places to go. There are coffee shops, little cafés, used-book stores and art exhibitions, not to mention the Morris Performing Arts Center and the festivals that stretch across the entire city every couple of months. LangLab has turned an abandoned warehouse into a music venue and studio that teaches the tango and hosts 24-hour plays. St. Joe’s just opened a beautiful new high school overlooking the city skyline. El Paraiso has mouth-watering one-dollar taco nights on Wednesdays and Sundays. There is a man-made whitewater rafting course right next to the river, and the city just finished several million dollars of renovations to Covaleski Stadium. It took me a while to shake off the preconceived conceptions of a dreary and dull town I had held as a student, but now I have moved past the obvious thrills and gotten more creative; I have fallen in love with the city.

South Bend is not a New York or a Boston, but it is a city where Michelle at Tom’s Restaurant knows your name and remembers your order. It is a city where you can live well while doing what you love. It is a city where experiences are measured in the people you meet and the friends you make. It is a city in transition, building off a rich past to pursue a bright future. As the National Civic League said when they came to present the city with the oldest and most prestigious community award in June 2011, South Bend is an “All-American City.”

This column will feature interviews with leaders around the city, covering a wide range of topics to give some context and insight into the character of South Bend. It will describe the challenges the city faces while also charting the way forward. It will give accounts of the groups it represents and their dreams for the city. But most of all, it will give some perspective to the place you will call home for the next couple years. Then maybe one day, if you’re really lucky, you’ll live on a basketball court, too.

Malcolm Phelan is a 2012 graduate of Notre Dame. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.