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Bloomington Sparkles: The Downtown Holiday Canopy of Lights

The Canopy of Lights celebrates more than just the holidays; in many ways it’s a paean to Bloomington’s dynamic downtown.

For many of us, the holiday season kicks into high gear the day after Thanksgiving. In Bloomington, an annual ritual on that day not only creates a warm glow for the holidays, but has been part of a larger movement to rekindle the spirit of downtown.

Every evening from late November into early January, the Canopy of Lights transforms Bloomington’s central square into a magical fairyland. Millions of tiny white lights are strung from the courthouse dome to the buildings on four sides, across the branches of trees, and along the edges of buildings.

Strolling under the canopy during the holiday season, the carol “Silver Bells” might come to mind. But “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks” and the commercial hustle-bustle those lyrics evoke would have been a remote vision in the Bloomington of the 1970s, and early 80s.

courthouse square in Bloomington, Indiana with Christmas lights in 1907

Photo Courtesy of Monroe County History Center, 98.128.8.

Courthouse square in Bloomington, Indiana with Christmas lights, circa 1930s.

As in many downtowns across the nation, decentralization had wreaked its havoc. When the mall opened up in the 1960s, a number of important retailers relocated there. Residential development followed suit, with subdivisions cropping up on Bloomington’s east and south-eastern sides.

By the time the Oscar-winning motion picture Breaking Away was shot in Bloomington in 1979, downtown looked somewhat weary. At a time when historic preservation was still in its nascent stage, even the 1907 courthouse—the square’s crown jewel– stared down the wrecking ball.

Things started changing during Mayor Tomilea Allison’s administration. Fresh from brainstorming at a National Main Street Program training session, in 1985 Mayor Allison and Redevelopment Director Glenda Murray put together a downtown commission, with Tom Gallagher at its helm.

“And I remember in the first week or two,” Gallagher recalled, “Glenda said, ‘plan something big for downtown’.”

Somewhat stymied, Gallagher plumbed Bloomington’s collective unconscious for ideas. Memories kept surfacing of a tradition of stringing Christmas lights from the courthouse dome to the buildings on four sides.

Gallagher was able to rally the troops to resurrect the Canopy of Lights. Cassady Electric and Pritchett Brothers Construction, along with Ellington Tree Experts and Michael Pollack of Perennial Designs came on board immediately.

The day after Thanksgiving, 1985, 700 people showed up for the lighting ceremony. “We felt that a tradition had begun,” Gallagher remembered.

The crowd at the 25th lighting ceremony, in 2009, was almost ten times that at the original event. Along the way, CFC and Indiana University have joined forces with the city and county to maintain the tradition.

In that same quarter-century, downtown Bloomington has welcomed hundreds of new businesses, dozens of new buildings and plenty of historic restoration. Economic vitality is key, of course, but, in the case of Bloomington, it seems to have joined forced with that intangible—a sense of community. The Canopy of Lights is a fitting tribute.

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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