Is it possible for Eau Claire to continue to develop at the pace of the past few years and be a community that is open and accessible to all?
In recent years, our city has found its way onto sundry “best places to live” lists as ranked by the AARP, Outside Magazine, and a legion of online sources. These lists tend to tout certain qualities in common: access to natural beauty, a vibrant cultural scene—and affordability.
The recent grand opening of the Pablo Center at the Confluence, a $60 million multi-use arts complex, promises to grow Eau Claire’s established reputation as the cultural hub of the region. A striking architectural achievement, the “Pablo” already has emerged as an iconic representation of Eau Claire’s aspirational identity.
What is the responsibility of the local media when reporting on the Pablo and the development that will surely follow in the wake of its success?
The “Confluence” part of the Pablo’s full name refers to the geography of its location at the intersection of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. From there, if you could follow the banks of the Chippewa River southeast for about five blocks, you would arrive at the Sojourner House, a homeless shelter whose doors opened only a few months before the idea for the Pablo bloomed in 2012.
These two structures might stand for what Eau Claire school board president Joe Luginbill calls the “two Eau Claires,” one community growing and optimistic for the future, the other focused on the needs of the present. In an interview with the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, Luginbill responded to a recent study revealing that almost half of the city’s residents live at or close to the poverty level. Like the Leader-Telegram, here, local media might take on the responsibility to report on the realities potentially overshadowed by the exciting new kid on the block.
I’ve lived in other cities that regularly pop up on “best places to live” lists, but I’m hopeful that Eau Claire can be different from those that wear such distinctions as a badge of exclusivity and even elitism. One reason is that Eau Claire has pretty clearly wed its civic identity to a belief in the importance of the arts and humanities to a better life.
The meaning of the Pablo doesn’t have to stand in contrast to the meaning of poverty in Eau Claire, for either the local media outlet or the local resident. Is it possible for the arts to be exclusive—in content, audience, or purpose—and still be called the arts? “Affordability,” after all, is a relative concept—a comment added by local residents to those “best places to live” listicles published by non-local media outlets. How the local press addresses the prospect of the “two Eau Claires” in light of the glittering new development along the riverfront will undoubtedly shape our city’s sense of itself.
In the Pablo, we have the opportunity to realize the potential of the kind of confluence that happens not in nature but in society.
David Shih teaches in the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He blogs on the intersection of race and the humanities at Stanford University's digital salon, Arcade.