Jefferson Street is definitely not another roadside attraction.
Burlington's core runs from the Mississippi River to Central Avenue and has worn many coats of many colors in the last half century, none of them a good fit. Today, the town's heart is beating strong again, thanks to the many entrepreneurs who came here after succeeding elsewhere, including a number of natives who returned home from their world travels.
Back in the 1970s, America's small towns were ravaged by the destructive fad of razing buildings and closing streets to turn town centers into pedestrian malls. It was a disaster that left many formerly beautiful downtowns gasping in the aftermath.
Burlington suffered the same fate, and businesses died or moved away to the bright promise of Roosevelt Avenue and America's newest obsession: strip malls. One exception of note: Danny Bessine moved his business, Weird Harold's Records and Costumes, to downtown in the ’70s, instead of away.
Burlington's town center is at the intersection of Jefferson and Fourth streets, those two streets forming a rough cross upon which the rest of the business area is draped. When the resurrection of downtown Burlington began back in the 1990s, it was positively Fourth Street businesses that led the way: Martini's at the top of the hill, the Blue Shop near the middle. Then came Bistro 322, and La Tavola and Mister Moto's down by the tracks at the bottom end. These days, new places like McConnell's Cafe continue to emerge on Fourth.
For decades, Jefferson Street was as dead as the prehistoric serpent that slithered down North Hill to create Snake Alley.
But it's Jefferson Street that is once more the main vein in which to find an urban pulse, and the best way to experience the Jefferson Street vibe is to take a walk.
From the Beancounter in the east, to Bent River Brewing and Olive Wine and Uptown Ivy in the middle, to The Som rising in the west, Jefferson Street is alive and vibrant once again.
Beancounter owner Suann Wells opened her coffee bar in 2016. She and her husband moved to Burlington two decades ago and knew Jefferson Street was where the action was.
"Jefferson Street was our only spot. If we couldn't find a spot on Jefferson, we weren't going to do it," Wells said. "I don't want to be on Roosevelt, I don't want to be with the chains. We wanted to be locally owned and operated, and the way to do that, in our minds, was to do it on Jefferson Street."
Downtown Burlington is evolving away from being a car-dependent grid and becoming a walking district.
"You have to be willing to walk," Wells said. "When the weather is nasty and cold and rainy, that makes it a little more difficult and unappealing for people, but I always tell them, if you park at the Target parking lot or Hy-Vee parking lot, it's no different than walking from Jefferson's 300 block to the 200 block to go into a store."
The Beancounter has an easy-going, bi-level java joint atmosphere where people getting ready to stroll up and down the street can also get tea and chai to sip with tasty treats conjured by an in-house pastry chef. An after-work wind-down with beer, wine, spirits and the occasional live musician is a good way to meet up with friends eager to stroll the street with you.
Walk across Jefferson at Third Street to avoid the Tama Building construction; to your right is Tastefully Yours, just off the Street. To your left is the crown of downtown — the Capitol Theater — and the venerable Napoli Pizza and Restaurant. Peek in the windows of the Art Center and Burlington By The Book, where there's fresh cookies and coffee every Sunday morning — all money goes to the Humane Society — before you cut back across to Digger's Rest, opened as Bruder's in the 1990s and run by Pookie Keomanivong since 2015.
Digger's offers coffee, of course, and Thai food, featuring Vietnamese pho — Southeast Asian noodle soup — on Thursdays.
The live entertainment at Digger's is sporadic, supplied by aging writers and other pundits who congregate at the back tables to argue local politics.
Wells said all the other coffee-and-food venues are part of downtown Burlington's newfound vigor.
"Digger's? She does Thai food, a different kind of menu than we do," Wells said. "We've got a different kind of lunch menu than the Ivy has. McConnell's has a different kind of menu than what we are. I love having them here, I don't want them to ever close, because the more options and opportunities people have, the more reason they have to come down here."
On the way west to check out Uptown Ivy, wave at the people inside Weird Harold's. If you're doing your Jefferson Street stroll after 4 p.m., pop into Bent River Brewing Co. at the Fifth Street corner.
The brewpub features craft beers and ales by the Bent River Brewing Co. of Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and is the spiritual home of brewmaster Mike Anderson.
"There's a community here that's vibrant," Anderson said of the recently named Snake Alley District, of which Jefferson Street is the backbone. "This might sound dumb, but everyone here is nice."
Bent River manager Ben Harris is a Burlington native who remembers the bad old days when Jefferson was more like a skinny parking lot than a thriving business district. He said the new energy is because Jefferson offers smaller, local shops.
"Roosevelt is too crowded. Smaller shops can't survive out there," Harris said. "Buying local and shopping local means a little more here."
The crew at Bent River is young and friendly, more like a college volleyball club than the grizzled old-timers you find snapping caps off longnecks in outlying bars. Anderson created a special brew for bar manager Tina Gonzalez: Saint Augustina’s Black IPA has an IBU — International Bitterness Units — rating of 72, about that of an India pale ale.
Bent River has had live music on several beer-crafting special occasions so far and plans more in the future.
Uptown Ivy is a few steps west of the brewpub, and in 2016 was the best place in town to find presidential candidates on soapboxes. Owner Martha Wolf, who's operated the Ivy Bake Shoppe & Cafe in West Burlington for 15 years, opened the downtown venue three years ago because she believes it's time for Jefferson Street to come alive again.
"Food and entertainment have definitely grown since I've been here," Wolf said. "There's always live music someplace. The street has energy now. It's competitive: Everybody has to raise their game."
Jana Hayes has been with the Ivy for 12 years: "A lot of business is going to come from out of town," she said. "Jefferson Street is on the cusp."
Andra Davis, the newest Ivy-leaguer, says it's about time Burlington resurrected Jefferson Street.
"They've left these buildings empty long enough," she said. "There's so much history in these buildings."
A good example of a rescued brick building is across the street from Uptown Ivy. Slide into the shotgun-style building to experience Olive Wine, opened in 2016 by Eric, Mark and Donna Renteria with the belief people want to enjoy conversation with good wine and beer and live music.
There is no television set at Olive Wine, thus it's Burlington's worst Super Bowl bar — unless you don't like or care about the Super Bowl, in which case, it's the best Super Bowl bar ever.
The live music calendar is booked two months into the future.
"I can remember when Jefferson Street was a pedestrian mall with no pedestrians," Mark Renteria said. He lived in California and Oregon after high school and now, like many who grew up on Jefferson Street when it was a Friday night teen culture magnet, has returned to put his broader life experience to work among the proud brick buildings that line Jefferson like soldiers guarding the secrets of the past.
"The people who moved away and came back — they remember what they saw as kids and they want it back," he said. "The Snake Alley District is the most up-and-coming area in southeast Iowa, with traditional downtown shopping, dining, and living. It's fun to be down here talking to the people."
The Beancounter's Wells summed up the Jefferson Street entertainment credo: "I don't care who you are, I don't care what you do, I don't care what you believe in or don't believe in — you're welcome here," she said.
"We are having fun down here," Wolf said.
"I like to support other places," Anderson said. "There's room enough for all of us."
"Our wish is that Jefferson Street continues to grow," Renteria said. "The revitalization is just starting."
And when you're sloshing like a water balloon after all that coffee, wine, tea, beer and whatever else you sampled along the way, when your dogs are barking from all that walking, trudge across the railroad tracks and up to the west end of Jefferson Street and drop into The Som for a beer and a Som burger. Sit at the ancient wooden bar, a solid link to days gone by, an icon that owner Eric Lee refused to Dumpster during remodeling.
Ahh. That's how it used to be. That's how it is again, down on Jefferson Street. All we need now are a grocery store and a riverside hotel.
Jefferson Street is the Snake Alley District. That's downtown Burlington.
"Downtown is Burlington," Lee concluded.