Remember the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey has finally hit bottom? Facing financial ruin, he wishes he had never been born. Clarence, his guardian angel, quickly appears to show George what the world would look like without him. Bedford Falls was now Pottersville, a town filled with saloons and unhappy people.
It’s a great scene from a great movie. I hadn’t seen it in 20 years and yet it came rushing back to me the other night. My wife and I were returning home from a restaurant in Berwyn and decided to stop for a night cap at the Tap Room.
We parked on Pine Avenue by the Longcommon crossing. Upon exiting the car, a group of teenagers on bikes skirted from the shadows between the water tower and the Riverside Museum. They screamed Apache war cries, which echoed off the Arcade Building deep into Guthrie Park. It seemed like an omen.
The Tap Room was crowded. No seats at the bar, not a waitress in sight. The place had a sour smell, too many people in a confined space without proper ventilation. We didn’t recognize anyone and decided to walk around the corner to Mollie’s Irish Pub.
We approached from the east, where a tangle of bicycles strew over a half melted drift of dirty snow spilled out on to the sidewalk. To the right of the entrance a tent was set up for the overflow crowd. There were only a handful of people inside, but as luck would have it, someone shouted, “You can shut up and kiss my a__!” Another omen.
We went into the bar. An Irish troubadour, amplified beyond comprehension, screamed earnestly into a microphone. Words, notes blended raggedly into an indistinguishable pulse. We looked for a waitress, no luck. Semaphore was the only option and I’d forgotten my flags.
We did know a few people; however, conversation was next to impossible. With a nod, we struggled towards the door, battling the few brave inebriated souls dancing in front of the sound system.
Outside was when it hit me; Riverside had changed. For a hundred years you couldn’t get a drink in the town; today, you can go bar hopping. There are still more churches than bars, but the gap is closing.
Blame it on progress. Shopping malls, big box retailers, the Internet have all conspired to gut the central business district. We are left with a surfeit of retail space. But what’s left to sell?
There is no easy solution. A lot of bright, dedicated people over the years have volunteered their efforts to entice businesses to take a chance on Riverside. Some courageous businesses have done just that, including Mollie’s and the Tap Room.
Recently, two new bakeries have opened, we’ve hosted movie production companies and we are allowing bed and breakfasts. Call it Potters Falls or Bedfordsville, we adapt; life goes on.
William H. Anderson Jr.