Why some Peoria transplants are sinking their roots into the city
Moving can be stressful and scary. But it can be even more difficult to get established and find your place in a community after all the unpacking is done. It can also take some time to find out if your new home is a place you really want to stay long-term.
WCBU spoke with some new, and not so new, Peorians, who moved here anywhere from two to 15 years ago, to learn about their experiences and why they decided the River City was their city.
Pamela Bilewicz moved to Peoria with her husband in January of 2016, following seven years as a Boston resident and a childhood in Miami. After the stint in New England, she was prepared for Illinois winters, so she got to work focusing on things outside of the cold.
“I get excited about the change of seasons,” Bilewicz said. “Because it brings on, especially here, where there's fall harvest and spring flowers and activities in the summertime and then winter activities.”
One of the ways Bilewicz tried to "embrace winter" this year is by starting skating lessons at the Owens Center. She says it's not only something to look forward to in the dreary winter season and acquiring a new skill. It's also a social outlet.
“Since it’s all adults, it’s a great way to meet people. Even the instructors are really cool to chat and get together and be friends,” she said. “Everyone else is there really embracing the cold, too.”
However, it's not the skating that brought her here. Bilewicz says, primarily, proximity to family and a low cost of living is what drew her and her husband to Peoria. But it's some of the finer details that keeps them here.
“There’s parts of it that remind me of small, walkable New England towns, like the Washington square, like the square in Canton or Peoria Heights,” she said. “But there’s also city amenities, like Bradley University or the Rivermen hockey, things like that. Target is easily accessible, Walmart and Target.”
There are other discoveries Bilewicz made in Peoria, as well. She found an affinity for massage. After taking classes at Illinois Central College, she now runs her own small business, with a specialization in pregnant and postpartum massages.
While Bilewicz found a career in Peoria, transplants like Franklin Foulger came here for one. Foulger moved here from Toronto in 2007 to do consulting for Caterpillar. He weathered a few difficult years with his wife and two children during the recession.
“It was a pretty bad time,” he said. “But I found that Peoria, though it was much smaller than Toronto, had just an amazing culture and people were really nice.”
Foulger also found a community through a long-time passion of his: fitness. He walked into Gold's Gym his second day as a Peoria resident. Now, he's a part time trainer.
“I’ve met a lot of great people by way of fitness,” he said. “I also used to teach dance and that kind of also helped me to meet a lot of people. And when you meet and engage with people you can also sort of sow some good ideas in their head.”
Foulger planted seeds of ideas outside of the gym too, speaking with community leaders like Mayor Rita Ali and the president of Bradley University. Ultimately, it culminated in 2023's first ever Global Fest Central Illinois. The celebration in Washington brought together 18 cultural booths for food, music and more. Foulger says he sold around 1,200 tickets for the event.
“I wanted to use this as a way to promote Peoria,” he said. “Tell people that hey, you know, what you heard is not right. There’s a lot of diversity here. Look at the amount of people that came together.”
Foulger says the whole thing took about a year to plan and he's already getting started on the next one. However, Foulger isn't the only long term transplant to make community projects and highlighting Peoria's diversity a priority.
Alexander Martin is a local artist, teacher and founding member of the Peoria Guild of Black Artists. They moved to Peoria in summer 2014 for graduate school at Bradley. Martin originally planned to pass through Peoria on the way to Chicago, but began to take walks around her West Bluff neighborhood. Then after an incident back home and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Martin began to reevaluate their priorities and plans.
“During that shutdown I had a chance to really work on my practice, work on my art, work on the things I wanted to do,” she said. “I saw folks in the community who had not been heard, folks who had been sort of historically left out, folks whose voices hadn’t been heard really coming to the forefront. And a lot of people doing stuff on their own terms, who had always been there.”
In founding the Peoria Guild of Black Artists, Martin says she wanted to create a space for those underrepresented voices in the art community to feel comfortable and supported. Along the way, she also found a support system to help her live comfortably as nonbinary and trans.
“I live in a very diverse neighborhood and I have never felt out of place,” she said. “In fact, I sort of came into my own in Peoria, some of the folks I met in the community helped me to come out and live in my truth, being surrounded by other people and finding space here.”
Recently, Martin took another big step in building a life as a Peorian: they became a homeowner in the same West Bluff neighborhood they moved into almost a decade ago, just a few houses down from the first apartment.
“Put in an offer and they accepted the first offer, so closed on the house,” Martin said. “It happened very, very fast. I found out about the house like end of June, beginning of July and closed on August 19th.”
Martin is currently preparing for a solo exhibition at Illinois Central College, but has curated exhibitions at Bradley University, helped with a public installation called Remember Her Peoria, and helped found Project 1612, which brings artists to Peoria to see what it has to offer.
It's a wide body of work, made possible by a commitment to the area. You can also see some of Martin’s work on her website.
“I feel like when we all had to slow down and reevaluate, people were listening,” Marin said. “So that’s what helped me fall in love with Peoria again, that’s what’s keeping me around.”
Karen Rodgers also found her Peoria experience affected by the pandemic when she moved from Dublin, Ireland in February 2021. After six years of an online relationship and visits with her husband Brian, she found herself quarantined in a Mexican hotel for 15 days.
“I like to think of it as a forced holiday that I had to go on,” Rodgers said. “There were hotels, resorts. Literally it was just a factor of getting my visa.”
After finishing quarantine and entering the country, Rodgers got married within 90 days. Between planning a wedding and getting approved to work in the U.S., she found a community to help support her: a dog park.
“Laura Bradley park is my social outlet,” she said. “Because I’m one of the few Irish people that don’t really drink. So you won’t find me at the pubs, or the clubs, but I will be at the dog parks, with my two dogs.”
Rodgers says her dogs Boomer and Pepper have made a lot of friends at the dog park, and she has too. She sometimes brings treats to the park if she knows a fellow pet owner, or their dog, is having a birthday.
Like others, she says low cost of living helps keep her in Peoria. Rodgers also found another passion through a job at Heart of Illinois Special Recreation: working to serve Peorians with disabilities.
“I love my job,” she said. “I come in and I see the same faces, it’s a real community. It’s a place for people with disabilities to hang out in Peoria and just feel like it’s a safe and fun environment for them.”
With a new passion, Rodgers is already well established in Peoria, even if she hasn't been here as long.
All of the transplants offered similar advice if you're just moving here: look into what communities and organizations are lined up with your interests and check social media, all four are members of a Peoria Transplants Facebook group.
Of course, there are some things Peoria could improve on: Foulger mentions crime and poverty, as well as wanting to see more diverse job opportunities, while Rodgers would like to see a Trader Joe's and more deli options. But that's just part of having a place you call home: you want the best for it.