History, Preservation

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.

Stories Told

My $8 suit

I love a bargain.

My sons know that when we’re out shopping that if there’s a clearance sale, they need to steer me away or it’ll be hours before we get home.

But the biggest bargain I ever landed was my suit.

My employer took Halloween seriously. The executive team always dressed in matching costumes; I’ll never forget the year they all dressed as waiters, in black slacks with white shirts and bow ties, with white towels draped over their right forearms. They walked around the building serving donuts and coffee to every employee. In the afternoon, we had a big party with a costume contest. Almost everybody dressed for it.

Gomez Addams

I was one of the few holdouts. I don’t enjoy Halloween and I hate wearing costumes. But my department wanted to dress as The Addams Family, and with my head of black hair I was the obvious choice to be Gomez.

My co-workers asked. Then they pleaded. When they started begging, I could see that it would be less embarrassing for all concerned if I just went along.

But I knew that Gomez always wore a dark pin-striped suit, and I didn’t own one. The suit I did own was hip and stylish for the time: dark green and double breasted. I looked fierce in it, like a mafia don. But there was no way I was going to pass for Gomez Addams in it.

What does a suit cost? $200 for a cheap one? I didn’t see dropping that kind of cash just for a Halloween costume. Desperate, I visited a Goodwill store. I figured I’d have to visit every one in the city, and even if I did find a suit that would work, it’d probably be ratty and ill-fitting.

But there it hung, looking like new: a charcoal pin-striped suit. And except for the slacks being a bit tight and the sleeves being a tad short, it fit. And it cost just $8!


I was married to an accomplished seamstress, who let out the pants and lengthened the sleeves in no time flat. I slicked my hair back with Vaseline, painted on a mustache with my wife’s mascara, dug out a narrow black tie my dad wore back in the ’60s, and headed off to work for Halloween fun. Everybody said I really nailed my costume. It’s sad that I never got a photo.

I’m still using my $8 suit. It’s a classic that will never go out of style, like my mafioso suit did. I’ve worn it to every interview, wedding, and funeral for going on 15 years now. I figure I wear it about four times a year, which works out to about 13 cents per wearing!

It makes my miserly heart swell.

So tell me: what was your biggest bargain?

Film Photography

Captured: Foodliner


I remember a time, during my 1970s kidhood, when the IGA Foodliner was the official grocery store of the rural Midwest. Even through the 1980s, if you drove out of the city and into the cornfields, when you came upon a small town you’d almost certainly find a Foodliner.

In the intervening years many rural IGA stores have closed. The one in Burlington, Indiana, on the Michigan Road, was the only one left anywhere near me as far as I knew. It hung in there until a couple years ago, but it’s a Dollar General now. When I came upon this one as I passed through Morgantown, Indiana, recently, I stopped to photograph it. It’s hard telling when I’ll see another, and this is such a classic example. Nikon N60, AF Nikkor 28-80mm, expired Kodak Gold 200.