Whether emptying street-corner trash cans or settling into an emptying office, Steve Fairbanks’ sigh and smile greet visitors like a guy with secrets he’s eager to share.
This time of year has featured “States of” speeches — the Union, the State, the City, etc. – so it’s tempting to ask the City of Peoria’s Neighborhood Development Specialist to comment on the conditions of local places. However, while offering a few comments, he’s reluctant to get too detailed since he doesn’t want to interfere with whomever replaces him.
Fairbanks, who turned 63 years old last month, retired effective March 1 after 10 years on the job.
“As far as the job, I think I’ve taken it about as far as I can,” he says, smiling and shrugging with acceptance more than regret. “I think everyone has a ‘limited shelf life.’”
Fairbanks’ shelf life has stayed fresh for a decade. He’s a “go-to” person for a lot of everyday Peorians with questions or concerns, folks who may benefit from a little help or a nudge in the right direction, says one neighborhood activist.
“Steve has been the guiding force for the East Bluff ‘Build It Up’ group and has helped lead us through the development of the Wisconsin Avenue improvement plan,” said Willa Lucas with the East Bluff United Neighborhood Association.
Lucas credits Fairbanks with helping to bring new vigor in actions such as helping to erect the “Build It Up” sign there and organizing the East Bluff Sunrise Run – all while encouraging others to pitch in. But she concedes things aren’t uniformly wonderful throughout all parts or all neighborhoods.
“My area is generally pretty calm and has been for a good number of years,” says Lucas, who’s lived in the area for 24 years. “That calm changes when you go one block north or south or go too far east or west.”
Acknowledging geographic or social areas that need attention, Fairbanks stresses good news.
“As far as positives, there’s the abilities of regular people and their willingness to participate, and seeing how stereotypes can be broken down,” he says.
“We revitalized the Neighborhood Watch program in 2006 with little block parties that launched things,” he continues. “That first year we were hoping for five and we got 15. Since then, we estimate these 30-minute get-togethers outside people’s homes in the neighborhoods have drawn in over 7,500 people. All those people getting involved, doing things – that’s the kind of pictures that should be hanging up in City Hall, so people can see the real Peoria, the real life here and think, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of good things going on here.’”
Every job has frustrations or work that wasn’t finished, and Fairbanks has a couple of thoughts.
“Disappointments? I guess the gunfire that still goes on, unfortunately,” he says. “As far as challenges: Residents and the City [government] need to pay attention to the older neighborhoods, where not only is there a lot of those positive things going on, but a lot of talented people.”
Looking back, Fairbanks appreciates ordinary people’s involvement.
“I was fortunate to find an incredible amount of helpful people in neighborhoods – talented people who’d contact me and say, ‘Is there something we can do?’ and suddenly they’re active, getting things done.” Fairbanks says, “and most people found they liked being in the civic realm, coming to a better understanding of the community, the City Council, and so on.”
The City is considering applicants now, and the new person is sure to have different skills and maybe a different job description to work with old challenges and new.
Lucas, in the East Bluff, suggests, “The new person will need to meet the neighbors throughout the city and be very knowledgeable about city services and contact people – more than a name plate on an office door.
“Quality-of-life issues such as litter, noise, parking in yards [and] trespassing remain important,” she adds. “There are pockets of high crime that need to be addressed [and] I would hope that the individual would do all within their power to help expand the Neighborhood Police Officer program and find innovative ways to increase community pride and communication.
“I’m just glad Steve still lives in the neighborhood!”
Fairbanks is matter-of-fact, if not intensely modest.
“I gave people a little advice or helped them collaborate and encouraged them to just roll with it,” he says. “For me, it’s been a great job. It’s suited my kind of personality.”
A former reporter at the Canton Daily Ledger, Fairbanks earned degrees at Illinois State and Bradley universities and worked as a juvenile probation staffer and employee of various social service agencies, and still has wide-ranging interests he plans to pursue. Besides civic activities such as joining the board of ArtsPartners and taking part in more East Bluff community activities as a resident, he’ll continue to create folk art and psychedelic imagery on guitars and other “found items” [www.guitarpickerpeoria.com] and will still perform with retired Fire Department Capt. Chuck Mathieu as Random Strangers [www.randomstrangers.com].
Fairbanks’ “Ode to Retirement” (a takeoff on John Fogerty’s tune “Proud Mary”) is online at https://www.facebook.com/sbfairbanks/videos/10207955867870560/
He shrugs again.
“Our generation: We don’t look back,” he says. “I still feel energetic.”