To help provide guidance for new students on their exciting new journey at U of I, we went straight to the authority of all things Champaign – figuratively and literally. City of Champaign Mayor Don Gerard was kind enough to answer a few questions for The Black Sheep about himself, campus life, keeping students safe, and the most important question: Which Champaign newspaper is the coolest?
The Black Sheep: First off, why don’t you introduce yourself to new students?
Mayor Gerard: I am the Honorable (seriously…I earned the title with the gig) Mayor Don Gerard of the great city of Champaign, Illinois. I am three-and-a-half years into my first term, one of MTV’s “Top 5 Musicians with Political Cred” and I hear those who register to vote as soon as they get on campus are most likely to succeed both academically and romantically. No, really… oh, and I have a Wikipedia page, so have at it, kids!
TBS: Some unenlightened folks might think that because you’re mayor, you’re just a political stiff. Can you dispel that myth?
MG: Gosh, where to begin? I sometimes do a little stand-up comedy, mostly knock-knock jokes and bits about municipal electric aggregation and storm water maintenance. I am technically in a band called The Self-Righteous Brothers, but I am thinking about changing the name to “Oats, the Other Guy From Wham!, Garfunkel and Sons. (sic)” I also enjoy fondue, long walks on the beach and appointing individuals to boards and commissions.
TBS: Tell us about your extensive musical background and the thriving music scene in Champaign.
MG: Champaign is an amazing town for the arts, especially music. Lots and lots of opportunities, and if you are good, you’ll find ‘em. I played in a bunch of bands of which none of you know. I also had the honor of once playing a song with REO Speedwagon (that’s a band your grandparents like). I’m friends with Ryan Adams, but I haven’t met his wife, Mandy Moore, yet. I am not a DJ. Like I said, I have a Wikipedia page.
TBS: As a proud alum of the university, tell us about your college experience. Do you have any tips for incoming students to make the most of their time at U of I and in Champaign?
MG: I would not recommend emulating my college experience; however, Campustown and Champaign have changed so much. We really have the world here in so many ways — from food to culture to music to fashion to art… it really is an amazing place to be if you take the time to look around a bit.
Oh, and, by the way — when I was in college there were no video cameras pointed at the Alma Mater, so, if you’re thinking about shenanigans, know your grandma might see it on the news.
TBS: Many new students have a limited knowledge of the City of Champaign that stems from what they’ve seen on Fighting Illini sports broadcasts and campus tours. As mayor and lifelong Champaign resident, what should they know about the city in terms of its history, culture, and other points of interest?
MG: Save a few bucks and grab a bus downtown (the MTD is part of your student fees… ride ‘em often). It is an amazing place and every business is local. There are awesome coffee shops, farm-to-fork restaurants, great bar food, super-fancy-schmancy offerings… also, get out to a few parks. Our Second Street Basin features some wonderful features right in the city. Take any opportunity to go run around out at Allerton Park… check out websites like SmilePolitely.com and, of course, follow me on Twitter.
TBS: The first question many kids have when they come down here is, “What’s there to do for fun?” So tell us, what do you do for fun around here?
MG: What do you like? We have it. Great music venues, art galleries, athletic facilities, parks… check out the Champaign Center Partnership and Visit Champaign for events — Pygmalion Music Festival, Ellnora Guitar Fest, movies on the Quad, and concerts in the park.
TBS: Some students may think, whether it’s based on experiences in their hometown or what they heard from past U of I students, that the cops in Champaign and on campus are “out to get them,” for partying or going out; however, you’ve said before that you’re genuinely looking out for the kids and trying to keep them safe. Can you elaborate on that point a little more for the benefit of the freshmen?
MG: During my tenure — by the way, I am also the Liquor Commissioner — I have seen an impressive change in the dynamic between the Champaign, Urbana and Campus Police Departments. All three chiefs are fairly new to their leadership roles and they put an emphasis on community policing practices. I do my best to dignify the students and treat them as adults… and, in turn, expect them to return the favor by behaving responsibly. It is a challenge to keep the peace in a growing city with an enormous student population, but I think we’re doing a better job all of the time. Please know we want you to be safe.
TBS: Let’s dive in to the political realm for a second. What can students do to be politically active on campus? Are there any important current issues they should be aware when they arrive to campus?
MG: I would suggest reading the student newspaper and keeping an eye on the Illinois Student Senate and Student Body Elected Officials. We have tried to really re-think how we approach Unofficial and appreciate the students who get involved and take ownership of the event.
One needn’t build a shanty town on the Quad (as my college roommates did to oppose Apartheid in South Africa) to have a voice or make a difference. Whether you want to lobby Campus Rec to build a skateboard park or have strong opinions about racism, pollution, women’s rights, legalization of recreational substances… there are groups in town which will be happy to get you involved.
And one always does well to invest in the community. I always suggest U of I students find a way to get involved with youth in our community. There are a lot of kids who could do well to have mentors or just someone to play kickball with them. Visit www.CUVolunteer.org for more on ways to give back.
TBS: Do you have any big upcoming plans for the city we should be excited about?
MG: I am really thrilled at the Micro-Urban dynamic we’ve developed on campus and downtown. With all of the new student housing on Green Street and the fact the MTD is ranked seventh in the U.S. for public transportation, I hope we get some cars off campus and see more of a “big-city” lifestyle for students. I am certain the area around the Second Street Basin will be spectacular someday soon. I also like how (Athletic Director) Mike Thomas is getting out in the community to create a lot of excitement about Illini sports.
A second term project might also be to get back on that idea of building a minor league baseball stadium and getting an affiliated team here.
TBS: Which bars and restaurants on campus do you heartily endorse? Are there any in particular that are your favorites? What off-campus bars and restaurants do you recommend new students check out?
MG: I like most all of them, but, I confess I think Joe’s has the best burgers, Boltini and Big Grove are my favorite spots downtown, Golden Harbor is amazing and most any locally-owned coffee shop is worth a visit. Black Dog BBQ is amazing, as Maize is some of the best Mexican food you’ll find anywhere. The Blind Pig has two authentic English Pubs downtown and classic neighborhood bars like the Brass Rail and the Esquire (peanuts!) are fun to visit. The High Dive is one of the best live music venues around and Jupiter’s has great pizza and full-sized pool tables.
TBS: Besides Campustown, what other parts of Champaign do you encourage new students to explore?
MG: I’ve pretty much covered Downtown and Midtown, I guess… grab some friends and borrow a car and head to the Harvest Mood Drive-In or down to Arcola to the Great Pumpkin Patch as well as the Amish farms and businesses. There is an iMax in Savoy, and Champaign hosts Roger Ebert’s Film Festival at the Virginia Theater downtown (and get a picture sitting with Rick Carney’s amazing sculpture of the renowned writer and critic).
TBS: What’s the coolest newspaper in Champaign?
MG: Why, of course it is The Black Ship!
..wait…sheep? Sure. That one.
There you have it, Mayor Gerard has bestowed upon us the official Mayoral Stamp of Approval. Score one for The Black Sheep! Follow Mayor Gerard on Twitter: @DonGerard and check out his Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/ChampaignMayorDonGerard