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Carbondale takes the Strip for Halloween

By Geoff Ritter
Managing editor
updated: 10/26/2018 12:03 PM

Take the Strip! At one time, that rallying cry could be heard on any given weekend as the bars emptied their final human contents onto South Illinois Avenue at the end of the night, leaving the poor and drunken masses with no viable choice but to congregate in the middle of a highly traveled state highway. Well, they had a choice, but ....

Almost every weekend, we -- and yes, occasionally I was part of that discombobulated crowd -- shut that highway down as the police waited nearby for everyone to sober up and go home. Sometimes, someone got too rowdy. Arrests weren't unusual.

It was just another ho-hum weekend in Carbondale in those days. And boy, times have changed.

As the city launches its first full-throated celebration of Halloween in decades this weekend, it's easy to begin reflecting on what ended the party in the first place. On Halloween weekend 2000, I was on the Strip, too, this time as a rookie DE reporter. The riotous atmosphere was palpable for a week leading up to the big weekend. When everyone finally hit the Strip, the expected pandemonium ensued. Signs were torn from businesses. Windows were shattered. Students ripped limbs from trees and started fires in the middle of the street.

No more, said city and university leaders, who for the better part of 20 years had been trying to mitigate the city's rowdy relationship with the Halloween holiday. In the years to follow the unrest of 2000, they closed the bars, sent the students away for the weekend, and generally tried to erase all memory of Carbondale's signature street carnival.

It worked. Memories indeed faded, if not completely. Now, in 2018, the city again is throwing its full support behind a reinvention of the old Carbondale tradition -- and it couldn't feel more right.

This year, there is no riotous cloud hanging in the air or credible fears of a drunken mob taking over downtown -- this, despite the fact that the city is allowing the open carry of alcohol downtown this weekend, and despite the fact that the most divisive U.S. president of modern times will be making a visit just a few short miles from the epicenter of the celebration. No one really seems too worried.

(Here, a couple of tangential historical notes. About a week after those 2000 riots in Carbondale, a U.S. election between Bush and Gore left us without a clear president-elect for more than a month. Also, earlier that year, an episode of "The Simpsons" cast Donald Trump as president. Go figure.)

What hangs in the air this year is a sense of hope. Battered by negative headlines and an ever-flowing exodus of students, Carbondale and SIU have had a bad run over the past decade. Reclaiming Halloween, in a sense, is reclaiming something that once made us special and alluring.

It's been a long road leading up to this moment. For years, the city council stumbled around on the Halloween problem, finally lifting all restrictions and bar closures in 2015. Last year came the eclipse, which created a new template for how Carbondale holds a downtown party, open alcohol and all. Through it all, the city has made substantial physical improvements to the Strip. At the same time, the fractious town-gown divides of 20 years ago have given way to a new spirit of city-university cooperation.

This is going to be a fantastic weekend in Carbondale, and it's been coming for many, many years. Get out and see some shows at The Varsity, or check in with the live music going on all evening Saturday at the outdoor venue on Washington Street.

Family-friendly traditions -- the Great Pumpkin Race, the Halloween carnival at Murdale and downtown trick-or-treating among them -- make their return as well. Plus, we have a 5K this year. We have an outdoor film on campus tonight. Castle Perilous is hosting a comics festival on Saturday. Look elsewhere in this issue for more details on many of the weekend's events.

As is noted on the Carbondale Halloween website:

"We are especially excited because it has been 18 years since an official Halloween has been celebrated, and it has been 23 years since a sitting President has visited Southern Illinois. The odds of these two events occurring on the same day are as rare as a total solar eclipse occurring twice in the same place. And we know that only happens in Carbondale. Join us as we make Carbondale Halloween great again."

That's a welcome challenge. This year, Carbondale itself will take back its Strip. We all can be a part of it, and we don't even have to stand in the middle of the street to do it. Behave yourselves, and have some fun!

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