Unfolding the Map
I remember it was always an adventure to go downtown, even in my own little small town where I grew up. Many downtowns today, after struggling, are finding themselves again thanks to new initiatives. William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) wasn't that impressed by Rome, New York's downtown, but perhaps it too has found rejuvenation in new ideas and initiatives. To see where this downtown is located, forget all your troubles and cares at the map.
"On down the highway to Rome, New York. From its appearance, it could have been London in 1946: the central section gutted but for a few old brownstone churches, a new shopping mall with triple-tier parking lot, and the National Park Service reconstruction of eighteenth-century Fort Stanwix covering several blocks on the east side. While the palisaded fort had been elaborately rebuilt, it did not turn Rome back into a city, and while ribbon development along the highways gave an economic life, it didn't give Rome a center. The place looked as if it had died of heart rot - from the inside out."
Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 6
Rome, New York
This is not a new theme for me, but I will touch on it again. I want to start this post by saying that 30 years is a long time. LHM penned what he saw in the early 1980s. As I write in 2012, for all I know Rome does not resemble anymore the place that LHM described, or perhaps it might still be as LHM wrote. The issue of downtowns, and stagnation, seems to be perpetual.
Downtowns in towns and small to medium-sized cities have it very difficult in this day and age. For many of them, development happens, as LHM describes, in ribbons along the highways in and out of town as the downtown, unless it has a comprehensive development plan in place, withers. Another problem has been the growth of strip malls and big box stores, such as Wal Mart, Costco and others that set up on the outskirts of towns and cities, drawing people away from downtowns and local businesses with their slogans that always have to do with low prices and big savings. A third problem is the towns and cities themselves, when they let owners keep unused buildings vacant and boarded and contribute to the perception that the downtown is wilted. A fourth problem is the closure of traditional industries that cannot compete in a world economy, or the relocation of those industries to cheaper markets overseas.
If you drive through the United States, you'll see many towns and cities like this, from the backroads and blue highways of the rural states to the urban blight of Detroit. And everywhere, the mantra is the same. "We have to bring new business downtown." "We have to make downtown a place where people want to be."
Unfortunately, in my opinion, most places are in a Catch-22. We want the private sector to step in, renovate the empty buildings and establish businesses. Capitalism doesn't always oblige us, however. If a place is a losing bet - if you think that you want to establish a small hardware store in the downtown, then you better hope that there isn't a Lowe's somewhere nearby because you'll be out of business soon. If you want to open a restaurant featuring locally made products, then you better have a plan to draw customers from the Applebees, Fuddruckers, and Red Lobster out by the freeway. In fact, for a while, it was the biggest companies, usually chains, that always won, save for a few businesses that were able to keep customer loyalty over the years.
Even in my city, Albuquerque, with a population of 450,000, the downtown is not someplace where I want to spend a lot of time, especially in the evening. It is made up mostly of bars and, I kid you not, a strip club in the main part of the downtown. Sure, there are a couple of nice restaurants, and a beautiful theater that is now being utilized more often. There's also an amazingly innovative art gallery and interesting shops. However, it seems that the market right now is for young people to cruise up and down Central Avenue and go to the bars, and from 2-3 in the morning the downtown becomes a place that is very annoying and sometimes dangerous. But it seems that no matter how hard it tries, Albuquerque just can't come up with a comprehensive economic development plan that will make downtown a place that appeals to everyone at all times, not just the cruisers and wanna-be gangbangers who clog the streets in the evenings.
However, happily there are signs of hope. One has been the "buy local" movement. One of my wife's favorite things to do, wherever we happen live or visit, is to visit the local farmers' markets. These markets are becoming extremely popular. Our downtown farmers' market in Albuquerque draws in hundreds of people each Saturday from spring to fall, and features local produce, baked goods, arts and crafts. There are also activities for everyone in the family. They have even worked out a system to allow people who are on government food assistance to use their credits to buy good, fresh food. More stores are starting to also sell locally made products, and that in turn helps people to renew their pride in their town or city.
More cities are also planning events such as festivals and things like First Friday Art Crawls. These types of events again help highlight local talent and serve as a draw to downtowns. There are also cities that are taking advantage of the creative economy, trying to serve as hubs for non-traditional types of businesses and employment opportunities.
Finally, some cities have really thrown a lot of energy into remaking themselves and their downtowns. I lived in San Antonio, which has put a lot of development into its Riverwalk and making its downtown a destination for not only natives but also locals. Despite being located in one of the most conservative states in the country, Oklahoma City passed an increased sales tax called the Metropolitian Area Projects plan (MAPS) that renovated the downtown and constructed new projects which halted the city's decline. Pittsburgh also has put a lot of energy and investment into turning itself from a rust belt city in decline after the closure of the steel mills into a city that has regularly been voted as one of the top five "most livable" cities in the United States by the Places Rated Almanac and as a city worthy of hosting a G-20 summit. Smaller cities and towns are also experimenting with a mix of public and private initiatives to make themselves more likeable, livable and as destinations. Even Detroit, often maligned for its urban decay, has numerous neighborhoods that are taking extraordinary initiatives to revitalize the city a few blocks at a time with activities, festivals, and other rejuvenation efforts. I have a friend who lives in one of those neighborhoods, and I'm often amazed at the activities going on in Detroit.
Again, I will emphasize I don't know Rome's situation. But if it is facing difficult times and its downtown is still challenged, then it is not alone. One thing is apparent to me, however. As the U.S. matures, the old formulas that made economic development work are not as effective, and new energy and initiative has to be put in place that doesn't demonize either government or private business, but utilizes the best of them both. Those cities and towns that show such vision will survive and flourish, and those that do not will crumble and fade like the empire that inspired the name of Rome, New York.
Petula Clark's 1964 song Downtown captured a world of optimism, where downtowns were destinations before they became, all too often, places to be avoided or places that weren't desirable to visit. Recapture some of that feeling with this song!
If you want to know more about Rome
Next up: Alder Creek, New York