Remembering South Bend’s River Bend Plaza

Last month my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. My brother, my sons, and I drove to South Bend, our hometown, to celebrate. We chose downtown as our destination, where we enjoyed a first-rate dinner at a fine restaurant. Then we drove a few blocks west to take photographs on the steps of the church where they were wed. Finally, we drove to a cafe on Michigan Street, South Bend’s main street, where we had coffee and dessert. It was great to spend our evening in downtown South Bend.

Michigan Street has always been the heart of South Bend’s downtown. It was a major thoroughfare for more than 140 years. From the 1830s, it carried Indiana’s first highway, the historic Michigan Road. It later carried US 31, which you could drive north to the tip of Michigan and south to the Gulf of Mexico. This big road was important to South Bend’s economy, which was very prosperous for much of the 20th century thanks to manufacturing. Studebaker led the way, followed closely by Oliver, Singer, Bendix, and many other smaller companies.

Boom years bring big changes to any city. Check out how much downtown South Bend changed between about 1910 and about 1950 in these two postcards. Both show Michigan Street northbound from Jefferson Boulevard. I see just one building in the 1950 photo that looks like it was also there in 1910.

Studebaker’s closing in 1963 was the beginning of the end of South Bend’s most prosperous years. Similar loss of manufacturing happened all over the country. Meanwhile, many residents were moving away from downtowns, and shopping and amenities followed them. South Bend’s first enclosed shopping mall, Scottsdale Mall, opened on the south edge of town in 1971. It was instantly enormously popular, and it hastened downtown’s decline. Something had to be done.

And so South Bend tried something that other cities were trying, too: turning downtown into an outdoor mall. First, US 31 was rebuilt one block to the east, bypassing five blocks of Michigan Street. Those five blocks were then permanently closed to vehicles. These photos from the Center for History show Michigan Street being torn up to make way for the new outdoor mall.

It was called River Bend Plaza when it opened in about 1975. In its two central blocks, Michigan Street was replaced with a brick walkway dotted with trees and partially covered in freestanding pavilions. In the blocks immediately to the north and south, Michigan Street was resurfaced and painted in bright colors. In the northmost block, on which the grand Morris Civic Auditorium (the former Palace Theater) stood, Michigan Street became a small park. These photos show the transformation. The first three photos are from 1st Source Bank, which was then known as First Bank and Trust Co. (I got these photos from this page.) The last two photos, of the brightly painted street surface, are from the Center for History.

It didn’t work. Downtown declined further. And nobody liked that River Bend Plaza removed so many nearby parking spaces, making it harder to reach the shops along Michigan Street. But River Bend Plaza wasn’t entirely to blame for its own failure. The die was cast: suburban living had taken hold, and suburbanites wanted shopping and amenities nearby.

South Bend finally threw in the towel on River Bend Plaza. In the early 1990s, the city tore it all out (save the little park in front of the Morris) and restored Michigan Street to vehicular traffic. Through traffic still follows the bypass, and you need to make a couple quick turns off that bypass to reach Michigan Street’s downtown span. These photos are from a visit I made in 2007.

It was a good move – plenty of people make those turns. Michigan Street has regained its city feel and city experience, and I think people like it. It helps that in recent years there’s been a nationwide trend of renewed interest in city life, especially among people in their 20s.

That Friday night of my parents’ golden anniversary celebration, few parking spaces were available along Michigan Street. Our restaurant and the little cafe were both very busy. It’s much like this every time I visit downtown South Bend now. It’s a shadow of South Bend’s best years, but it’s a refreshing improvement over the dead downtown of 30 years ago.

Downtown South Bend once had many grand theaters. See them here.


11 responses to “Remembering South Bend’s River Bend Plaza”

  1. kiwiskan Avatar

    Interesting. The heart had gone out of my home town Christchurch well before the devastating earthquake for pretty much the same reasons. Suburban malls lured people away from the city center shops.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Interesting to know that this wasn’t just a US phenomenon.

  2. davidvanilla Avatar

    “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” This written and pictorial history of South Bend’s efforts to revitalize its core is very nicely done. I watched an absolute parallel to this undertaking in Anderson, IN.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Lots of cities did it. Richmond closed several blocks of US 40 for one, and later realized their blunder and tore it all out.

  3. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    This was tried in my little Upstate New York town too, then re-done as you described. But the consumers had already fled downtown, the economy soured, people moved away. All that was left of a once-thriving downtown were antique stores and Off Track Betting.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Ooh, that’s a terrible outcome. At least South Bend avoided that.

  4. Carole Grey Avatar
    Carole Grey

    Nicely done, Jim. The changing photos are a great addition and add much to the provided information. Desperate times brought desperate measures. Who could have seen (or believed) the massive cultural change happening before their eyes.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thing is, that change never stopped. And when you look at the 1910 postcard of downtown, you get the sense that culture was changing even that early.

  5. Ronald Kuk Avatar

    The only constant is change and change is always happening more quickly.

  6. Andrea De Graff Avatar
    Andrea De Graff

    My father owned the Pretzel Palace which sat on the plaza for years – would love to see anymor pictures you have of the plaza

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sadly, these are all I have. :-(

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