Missed Opportunity on P Street

January, 2015

Lincoln -- We tried out Lincoln's newly redesigned P Street strip for our New Year's Eve celebration. It was fun; we'd do it again despite the bitter cold and winds that made our eyes sting.

We started out by the Children's Museum at 15th Street and saw several families having a good time on inventive play installations. Next was a drop-in at the Zoo Bar, where five minutes of standing-room-only was enough. Then past Tower Square and on to a more hospitable Barrymore's where a friend offered opinions on everything from the impending collapse of civilization to the design of the new P street sidewalks. ("Not designed by an engineer; must have been done by an art school drop-out.") Then on to Misty's, where a subdued crowd was all dressed in red, having come over from an NU basketball game. (The home team lost.) Then back to the car to drive to the Haymarket end of P Street, to avoid the wind.

At the Haymarket, McFarland's served up good food and drink to the music of a lively Irish band, the Paddywhack.

The most memorable part of the new P Street was Tower Square. The colorful, lighted tower evokes ships' pennants waving in the wind, giving land-locked Lincoln a port area to call its own. The rest of P Street may be nice for the extended sidewalks where restaurants can offer dining under the trees (and amid prairie flora) in the warmer months, but beyond that there is excess clutter. The concrete benches with metal armrests are unwelcoming and might as well have a sign on them to warn people off. The blue lights under the benches are cold and draw the eyes downward as if our eyes should be cast toward the gutters.

What is not evident in the design is any sense of the history of the street. Imagine a man on horseback, in full army uniform wearing a hero's Silver Star (from combat in the Philippine-American War), leading a parade up P Street from the Haymarket with William Jennings Bryan in tow to welcome him home on the eve of the 1908 presidential election. That would be Col. Frank Eager, Lincoln lawyer and businessman, publisher of the populist Independent newspaper (Thomas Tibbles, editor), who envisioned a row of theaters, hotels, and office buildings along P Street, and who soon saw many of them built with his encouragement and financing. Clientele came from the nearby University, which Frank Eager kept from re-locating eastward to the State Farm (now the East Campus) in 1912. He battled Chancellor Samuel Avery over the issue, put up $700,000 of private money to expand the City Campus to 16th Street, and won a statewide-referendum showdown to keep the main campus near P Street.

That is the P Street of history, of which the new design is innocent. It is a history with which the city itself now seems unfamiliar. What a missed opportunity. Imagine an equestrian figure in the design, or an image of The Great Commoner himself, or an evocation of what an important city Lincoln was in its early years. Instead, we get concrete benches with anti-homeless armrests. Take them away. Look up instead to the pennants on the new tower.