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Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
A lone vehicle travels down Calhoun Street downtown Monday morning.

Empty downtown ‘eerie’

Few hardy souls venture into city center’s badlands

– The guy in the dark stocking cap sat alone at the bar at Champions restaurant inside the Marriott hotel and leaned over his sandwich. And although his back was to the large windows that framed the vast white emptiness that was Jefferson Boulevard, he knew what was out there.

“It’s frigid,” is how the man assessed Monday afternoon’s sub-zero conditions. “The way it’s blowing, it looks something out of a Western movie.”

Instead of fine dust blowing across the gritty streets of the prototypical Hollywood ghost town, where broken saloon shutters bang in the wind and tumbleweeds roll across the silver screen, snow from Sunday’s day-long storm – now dried and powdered – swirled and swooped like a shifting poltergeist through the hauntingly empty downtown.

Except for the bladed yellow and orange trucks in search of unattended precipitation in outlying areas, snow was about the only moving thing. Few cars and fewer pedestrians ventured out to challenge Monday’s elements.

From the stately Courthouse and the Rousseau Building on Main Street to Citizens Square on East Berry Street, all of the downtown government buildings were closed to the public.

Many of the municipal parking lots were scraped clean in the early morning hours but were left empty.

There were no signs of life inside most of the city’s downtown businesses. Riegel’s Pipe and Tobacco shop on Calhoun Street was dark. Jimmy John’s sandwich shop at the corner of Wayne and Calhoun streets had made the announcement Sunday that it would be closed, even though its “Free Smells” neon sign remained illuminated in the window.

Cindy’s Diner, still diagonally perched on the corner of Harrison and Wayne streets before it must relocate to give way to a $71 million development project, was covered in snow, like melted mozzarella on a hoagy. Coney Island on Main had a hand-printed note on the inside of its front door: “Closed. Happy Snow Day! We apologize for any inconvenience.” Through the steamed front windows could be seen 27 unopened packages of Aunt Millie’s hamburger and hot dog buns.

In short, Monday in downtown Fort Wayne, with its gray buildings edged in snow and icy streets nearly deserted, had the look and feel of a winter’s ghost town.

Added Mark Luttik, general manager of the nearby Hilton hotel: “It’s a little eerie.”

Because the doorman was on an upstairs floor assisting the housekeeping staff, guests entering the hotel were on their own as they strolled into an empty lobby. Not a soul sat in the atrium, off to the left. At last count, according to Luttik, 16 of the 246 rooms were occupied. There would have been more in the hotel, but there were several cancellations.

“I’ve been in Fort Wayne seven years, and I recall one other situation – where they had the emergency travel restrictions in place – where you technically couldn’t be on the road,” Luttik said.

But there was one on the road.

A solitary figure carrying a snow shovel over his right shoulder wandered down the right lane of Wayne Street. With no cars behind him, he crossed Calhoun, then Clinton. He looked both ways before he turned left on Barr Street.

His first name is James, and he was walking back to his home on North Anthony Boulevard. He says he and a buddy helped push cars out the night before. Says he didn’t have a ride back, so he took off walking. An “adventure,” he called it. But he was grateful for the lift he wasn’t sure he’d get.

“Not many people out,” he said.