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scene

Scene in South Bend: Jacob Titus is on the move

and | Monday, February 19, 2018

Joseph Han | The Observer

“I don’t have an official title,” Jacob Titus told us before grudgingly referring to himself as the “owner” of West.SB. All three of us — Titus, Scene Editor Adam Ramos and Associate Scene Editor Nora McGreevy — were seated in a pristine white room, one of many new office spaces in the renovated Studebaker Building 113 in downtown South Bend.

Titus chose this location for an interview because it houses South Bend Code School, a for-profit social enterprise that his business, West.SB, is currently partnering with. The building, a renovated factory space, also houses the business Trek10 and the nonprofit enFocus, two organizations that specialize in innovative tech and entrepreneurship. Around us, in a hive of offices divided by spotless glass and white-painted brick walls, the space bustled with activity. Young people and recent college grads sat on brightly colored chairs, blasting music, typing away on laptops and writing up detailed plans on tabletops that double as whiteboards.

Photo courtesy of Jacob Titus

The renovated Studebaker Building 113.

The environment provides an exciting glimpse into a possible future for South Bend — a future Titus is helping to shape. The 25-year-old moved to South Bend in grade school and attended Riley High School. He left South Bend to study at Indiana University in Bloomington with little intention of moving back to the city. But these plans changed when he decided to switch to a nonprofit management major in the middle of his college career. He ultimately reluctantly returned to South Bend in order to lead The Beacon Recourse Center, a nonprofit in the West End. This, too, changed quickly. “I realized I didn’t really want to run a nonprofit,” Titus admitted with a chuckle. “Unfortunately, I realized this after I had been doing it for a year.”

His next career transition all started with a photo, Titus said. While working at Beacon, he started to take photos of abandoned spaces downtown.

“The beginning was this old brewery in the Near Northwest Neighborhood that’s been torn down now. You could see into it, all these pillars and this exterior that was just really interesting. Very intriguing,” he said. After driving past the building a few times, he decided to go and check it out.

“I pulled my car over that day and just walked in,” he said. He posted a photo of the building to Instagram, and then he continued posting more and more photos over the following months. He soon branched out into exploring other abandoned spaces. With each building, he would avidly research its histories and record its story alongside his photos, which he would post to his social media accounts.

Soon enough, an employee at the Community Outreach Office for the city of South Bend took notice and asked if he would help document the Studebaker Building 113 and 84 before they were renovated.

Photo courtesy of Jacob Titus

An early Instagram post from Titus.

The next step was to buy a camera. Laughing, Titus recalled how he agonized over the decision to buy his first camera, a Nikon D3200. “I remember thinking, ‘This is not my job. This is just some random thing I do,’” he said. “I sat there for a few days trying to rationalize it.”

That was two years ago. Now, his cameras are much more expensive, and his storytelling hobby has morphed into a full-time job. For Titus, when he withheld his official title, it was done so deliberately — his work with West.SB today cannot be easily summed up in one word. The closest approximation he can muster is “storyteller,” although he’s quick to admit that even that phrase is “starting to become a little cliche.” When he works with companies, he often ends up doing a little bit of everything: traditional marketing, social media expertise, photo and video content creation and historical research.

Along with the Code School, Titus is currently partnering with a number of local South Bend businesses and organizations, including Purple Porch Co-op, The Birdsell Project and Vested Interest. Each of these entities share a similar vision of development, and while no two West.SB partnerships look alike, they represent opportunities for Titus to apply his knack for visuals and storytelling and pursuing his passion for the city.

In addition to partnerships, Titus has been steadfastly expanding his brand into new mediums. The most recent addition is a podcast series titled Pod.SB, in which Titus brings the conversation from photos to video and audio. In its short run, Titus has already hosted a wide array of different voices, shedding light on local topics such as the sustainability of the recent renovations projects in South Bend’s Near Northwest Neighborhood, as well larger issues like the repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and its local implications. Going forward, the options are limitless, he told us. “We can do whatever we want. We just need to capture the story,” Titus said. 

Photo courtesy of Jacob Titus

Drewry’s Brewery on the northwest side of South Bend.

Local history plays a critical role in Titus’ work. All of the work he does, be it a blog post or a photo series about a certain South Bend hallmark, draws from his own research. He reads voraciously about everything in South Bend’s past, especially its industrial period, from the Studebaker Company to the Oliver Steel Plow Factory. He also seeks out local businesses and people that have the same interest that he does in preserving and publicizing local histories. Respect, for Titus, underscores his historical work. “It shows a respect for the city when people have an understanding of its history,” he said. 

Part of the mission of West.SB involves changing how people from other cities think about South Bend, even if they’ve never thought about South Bend at all. Through posting his content to public platforms, Titus said he hopes to expose residents of other cities to his home. In the limited national news coverage of the city, South Bend can often get a bad rap — in a recent example, a Politico article referred to South Bend as “Nowhere, USA.” Titus’ images and stories take these common conceptions of Rust Belt cities as failing husks of former grandeur and turn them on their head.

And his efforts are paying off. Titus noted that he’s getting an increasingly wide readership on his blog from people all over the nation, from coast to coast.  

Jules DeLee

Jacob Titus.

The images and stories on West.SB also encourage residents of South Bend to understand their own city in a different light. Clicking through West.SB’s website feels like a bit like a choose-your-own adventure. The website dedicates each post to a different South Bend story, including places like Saint Adalbert’s Parish, the Morris Performing Arts Center, LangLab or people like Andrew Richthammer, a letter carrier, or Frances Luke Accord, a local band. Each story contains something surprising and beautiful. In the photos accompanying the stories, natural light filters down the Morris’ spectacular staircase, snowflakes sparkle under a yellow streetlight and cars speed by in a burst of color on streets of brick buildings. Some shots — someone’s tattoo, a lone streetlamp, letters stuffed in a snowed-in mailbox — bring small details to the viewer’s attention in a commanding way.

Jacob Titus pays close attention to his city. Likewise, his photos of South Bend manifest the profound respect he holds for his subject material. Through a rich color palette and careful, close framing, he manages to communicate the motion, excitement and vibrancy of the South Bend landscape, in all of its diversity. Each photo, in one way or another, harkens back to the mission of his whole company: “West.SB captures life in South Bend, a Rust Belt city on the move.”

In the last few minutes of our interview, we asked Titus — briefly — to offer his thoughts on the role of Notre Dame in South Bend’s story. The presence of Notre Dame is notably absent in much of the work he produces, and for the most part, this is deliberate. He acknowledged the persistent uneasiness that marks South Bend’s relationship with the University and vice versa. While he was enthusiastic about the possibility of increasing collaboration between the city and Notre Dame, he was also careful to argue that South Bend should define itself solely on its own terms. Notre Dame has done wonderful work with South Bend, he said — for instance, he noted Notre Dame’s choice to build a hydroelectric facility on the St. Joseph River, among other initiatives.

Yet in his view, Notre Dame won’t — and shouldn’t — save South Bend. “I think there’s some feeling in South Bend that, if we were to do enough, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we did enough for [Notre Dame] to just decide that we’re worth it? And then they would just save the whole thing?’ And I definitely don’t want that,” he said. “I’m not on that train. South Bend will save itself.”

With many interests come many social media handles. West.SB has an Instagram, @west.sb, and so does Titus himself, @jacobtitus.sb. Jacob Titus’ podcast, Pod.SB is available on ITunes or the West.SB website, https://westsb.com.

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About Nora McGreevy

Scene Editor.

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About Adam Ramos

Adam is studying international economics in the class of 2018. He hails from beautiful New Jersey and says "draw" instead of "drawer."

Contact Adam