West Bank

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RESTAURANTS: 20+
CAFES: 6
MUSIC VENUES: 5
BARS: 10+
SHOPS: 20+

This is what Todd Smith said over the phone on a Saturday, last Saturday, though the date will prove unimportant because we’re dealing with a broad stretch of time, hundreds of paper calendar months torn from their bindings dating back to long before you could get yours featuring Dilbert or those snarky cattle in the domestic settings of ’50s America or the kittens and babies stuck in flower pots with flowers strapped to their heads as hats.

He said: “People have this perception of the West Bank as unsafe and sort of dirty.”

He said: “But there’s really nothing to be afraid of.”

He said: “In a stretch of a mile there are more theaters and music venues and restaurants than you’re going to find from Chicago to L.A.”

“From the Southern down to the Triple Rock?” I asked. “Or to the Bedlam?”

“Even farther,” he said. “To the Cabooze.”

Todd Smith has a sure voice. He doesn’t stutter. He doesn’t pause. I shook his hand once, his shake was firm. He looked me in the eye and handed me a business card with a straight arm. He said: “That’s my number.”

“You’re the owner of the Nomad?” I asked.

He said: “Yes I am.”

Todd Smith has been the owner of Nomad World Pub for all of its three years. He is confident. He assured me, and he would be quick to assure you of the same: You don’t need to be afraid of the West Bank. He’d say you do not need to be afraid of Riverside – that road that seems to emerge out of nothing but the dogged pavement that makes up South Fourth Street near the bridge leading from Seven Corners to Cedar-Riverside and back again. He’d say you do not need to be afraid of Cedar, which crosses with Riverside, the two intersecting like the hilts of a pair of bastard swords ripped out of the Renaissance.

Todd Smith said: “The West Bank has the best African food in four states. And people don’t even know it.”

“Like the Mediterranean Deli?” I asked.

He said: “No, I wouldn’t say that one. Have you tried Tam Tam’s?”

I haven’t tried Tam Tam’s. But Smith responded without missing a beat and I believe him. He waved away the Mediterranean Deli like a bothersome gnat, as if it were an intruder to our conversation. But I do like the Mediterranean Deli (More Restaurants: Page 4B). I like when its kind cashiers ask, “Do you like it spicy?” And I like the skewered lamb shaved onto a thick pita with a bed of lettuce and cucumber sauce. I even like the foil it’s wrapped in. There’s nothing special to the foil. It’s aluminum foil. It crinkles and insulates and tears into spiraled sheets when it’s peeled back. I like it for the gyro it keeps warm, and for the fries resting next to it, and because it comes from the Mediterranean Deli, on the West Bank, along Cedar Avenue near the Triple Rock.

Todd Smith might be right: “In a stretch of a mile there are more theaters and music venues and restaurants than you’re going to find from Chicago to L.A.”

From the Southern on Washington Avenue where the bridge is slowly erecting itself back over the Mississippi, to the Bedlam, speaking up from the fringe of Riverside Plaza’s rough-hewn concrete like a post-script to a letter from Ralph Rapson’s Utopian past (More Theaters: Page 2B)

To the Bedlam? No.

He said: “Even farther. To the Cabooze.”

The Cabooze – there is the end of the road, where the last car brakes and the storefronts step back from the street, bringing the shade from the cedars with them; here the light-rail tracks sidle up to Cedar before dashing off to the suburbs where the megamalls and the two-story homes and the vast expanses are coursed through by concrete interstates and smooth blacktop, where babies play in flower pots and kittens crouch and crawl in the lawns.

He said: “People have this perception of the West Bank as unsafe and sort of dirty. But there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

He knows the West Bank. He’s known the West Bank. He rented from Riverside Plaza as a student in the 1980s, when the complex’s occupancy was still predominately students. Now, as owner of Nomad World Pub, he’s a member of the Cedar Riverside Business Association, made up of “Business Delegates” and “Residential Delegates” and “Institutional Delegates” and “Property Owner Delegates.” Another committee, its members subsumed under a single name, charged with the task of helping you make the most of your weekend, and helping others make the most of their homes and their families.

So I asked him what that’s all about. What, I asked him over the phone, does the Cedar Riverside Business Association do?

And he did something unexpected, something out of character, incongruent with his general conduct: He paused.

Todd Smith paused, and then he said, in measured tones, having thought it through, what the many delegates of the business association strive for: “The revitalization of an historic entertainment district.”

He chose his words carefully and they had about them a sense of authority: The revitalization of an historic entertainment district.

I never asked about the safety or cleanliness of the West Bank, but he assured me I had nothing to be afraid of. Now he was saying what he and his associates hoped to achieve from here on out. He and the other delegates, and the University and Augsburg and Fairview (See: Wednesday’s article, “West Bank Institutions,” by Daily reporter Jon Collins) are going to bring the life back into these bars and venues, bring it back onto these streets.

He said: “The Triple Rock was a great addition. That was about 10 years ago.” (More Bars: Page 3B).

They are going to stitch up the tattered facades and pick up the litter off the curbsides. It’s about time, he was saying, to rejuvenate this old timey district.

I’ve walked the West Bank and so have all the reporters whose names are printed in this issue. I found it to be safe, and so did many of the reporters. Some did not.

Maybe you’ve walked the West Bank and have made up your mind about it. And maybe you know that fear is what you make of it. Maybe you think you know the limits to your recklessness, and think the pints at Seven Corners are better than anything you could find across the bridge. So you stay put, you’ve never wandered. That’s a particular kind of confidence. I have it too. It’s called being 22. Or 21. Or 20. Or 19. It’s called being young.

The sound of it strikes a romantic chord: Youth on the West Bank. Like a French movie from the ’60s, dallying along the riverside, skipping over the cobblestones, resting beneath the cedars, sipping espresso near cool waters (More Cafés: Page 5B).

The past is always storied. Things break. The best is yet to come. C’est la vie.

He said: “I’m sure you know about CHANCE?”

“No, I haven’t,” I said.

He said CHANCE brings together West Bank students and staff with Cedar-Riverside residents and their families to help “strengthen the community.” It’s through the Humphrey Institute. It’s called WB CHANCE. West Bank CHANCE.

It’s called being 18, an adult, and hoisting responsibility on your shoulders whether you begrudge it or welcome it, and who says you need to do either?

Students come and go. Institutions tend to sign on for a longer lease. Still, time passes. Faces change.

Welcome to the West Bank. This issue of A&E is devoted to it. As you will see, there’s plenty you can do.