Richard Pryor and Peoria

I had known for awhile that Richard Pryor was from Peoria, but I had always assumed it was one of those situations where he was born there and had moved away when he was a small child. That is far from the case; his childhood is inextricably linked to his upbringing in the city. Weirdly, the statue dedicated to him is nowhere near where his old haunts were.

Rothstein, Arthur, photographer. Prostitutes “roping” at window. Peoria, Illinois. United States Peoria Illinois Peoria County, 1938. May. Photograph.

His family, like many in the 300 block of North Washington, ran brothels just northeast of Peoria’s downtown; as seen other American cities, the red light district was located in an old, run-down portion near, but not too near the moneyed interests.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, Peoria, Illinois, Plate 107.

The area today is almost completely erased of any context, save a lone historic building here and there.

No doubt coordinating with Carterpillar, city fathers came in and completely demolished much of the area, leaving behind parking lots for the earthmover’s corporate offices, which of course now moved on to other cities.

And rather conveniently, the new interstate bridge came crashing down right through the Pryor Family’s neighborhood! What a coincidence!

Update: As of 2023, the housing project was demolished and replaced with new buildings.

I finally figured out why there were those completely isolated public housing projects located just northeast of downtown; they were the replacements for the African Americans displaced by urban renewal. Richard Pryor would go on to become one of the most famous and influential comedians in America, and while his neighborhood was erased, its influence on him was not.

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