A new….something: The Future of Old-Fashioned Downtowns, Part 1

I have two books to get written, projects to do, audio to edit and a floor at the house that looks like the dog had a fur explosion.  So what do I do instead?  I start writing something completely unrelated to all of that. Genius.

At this point I don’t know what this is going to turn into.Right now it’s too long for a blog post, not long enough for a book.  But it seems to tie together several things I have been thinking about – downtowns, revitaliation and what hard work it is, simplistic solutions and their after-effects, small business and entrepreneurs and governement/ community organization policies and assumptions.  Urgh.

This is the first segment – I’ll post more of it tomorrow.  This part is simply attempting to identify the problem, so Spoiler Alert: no solutions provided.  Yet.  Hopefully we’ll get there. Thanks for going on the ride with me.  And I’ll look forward to your feedback.

We <3 Downtown

 

I’ve spent a lot of my adult life (and my childhood, come to think of it) dealing with the present and future of traditional downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts in the post-traditional downtown economy.

 

I’m not kidding. I’ve advised more downtowns than I can count.  I’ve served on boards and committees and task forces and written design guidelines and historic nominations and spoken at downtown conferences and written for downtown publications.  I’ve bought more stuff in downtowns than I would care to admit, I’ve gone out of my way to make downtown and independent purchases when somewhere else would have been more convenient for me, And I’ve done the obligatory Instagram post on Small Business Saturday from some charming boutique to remind whoever is bothering to look to go give some money to their local downtown and independent people.

 

Over the past few decades I’ve seen enthusiasm for traditional downtowns grow all over the country, and new restaurants and shops spring up in former department stores and livery barns, and new parks and sidewalks and farmers markeys and festivals take root, and town after town trumpet their downtown as their “identity” and a centerpiece of their great “quality of life.”  If you had asked me to make a prediction when I was in my first political fight for a historic preservation ordinance – or even earlier when I walked from my childhood home to the run down bookstore downtown on a block full of vacant storefronts and “SRO for Rent” signs – I don’t think I would have predicted that downtowns would become cool again.  But they did, and it’s right, and I’m incredibly glad they did.

 

But despite that happier picture, I’m seeing something in places across the nation that is starting to worry me. What I’m seeing seems to indicate that, perhaps, the things that I personally love about downtowns — the shops, the restaurants, the beauty, the fun — don’t give these places that I have valued so highly an important enough role in the economy and the life of our communities.

 

Here is my fear: we have allowed too many of our traditional downtowns to become extras, amenities, places of fun and entertainment, nice-to-haves.  And in an era of stiff competition for public and private money, and attention, and a time where we have totally disrupted our purchasing habits and given ourselves an explosion of options for buying and being entertained — and where many people’s incomes have stagnated and the demands on the money we have never let up, the nice-to-haves are the first things to go.

 

We who care so much about downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts and the like — we fought a long, often bruising battle over the last 40 years.  We fought to keep our downtowns, to prevent their demolition, to find some new purpose, any new purpose, that prevented them from falling to the bulldozer when suburbs and shopping centers had nearly made them irrelevant.  And even though we still fight demolitions, and we still have to convince individuals sometimes that a standing building is more valuable than a parking lot, you won’t find many people claiming that a downtown is obsolete and should be rebuilt in the model of a suburban shopping mall, as you often heard in the 1960s and 1970s — and in many places much later.

 

But too often, the public perception we’ve allowed to develop is of downtown as a land of fun —  an amusement center, a place that exists to separate people from their surplus disposable income.  When we accept and support that vision of downtown (even when we don’t say that out loud ourselves), we are consigning this incredibly rich and intricate collection of places and spaces and people to a certain level of irrelevance– the pleasantness but unnecessary-ness of the ruffle on the hem of the skirt.  You may prefer a skirt with a ruffle, but if you can’t find one, you can work with something else – and you can cut that ruffle off of the skirt if it becomes frayed or damaged.

More to come…

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