Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Long Live the Downtown

Want to get a feel and flavor of a new area? Seek out and visit their downtown...if it still exists.

There used to be an old restaurant on Main Street run by a local legend, Elsie Johnson. The sign for her establishment is still painted on the side of the building: Restaurant since 1900. During its heyday, she served up fine homemade food, including pie. She was famous for her stuffed crusts with enticing, sweet fillings. By the time I met Grandma, as she was called in the latter part of her life, she had long since given up the restaurant business but was still a well-known and beloved figure in town.

Johnson's Restaurant is now a lovely art gallery featuring local and regional talent.

Years later, I delivered dinners to Mrs. Douglas, another long-time local. Confined to a wheelchair because of  her MS, she was on the list for Meals on Wheels, and I was a volunteer. She was my favorite delivery stop. I always saved her for last, because I knew she’d ask me to sit and would tell me a new story about our small town “back in the day”.  She was the one who told me that back before the big reservoir was put in, the snow would reach to the second floor of a house. She swore the lake changed the climate. She also told me stories about the small movie theater where teens would go watch handsome actors and glamorous actresses on a big screen. After the movie, they might head to Johnson’s Restaurant for an ice cream soda or piece of pie and write letters to their favorite stars asking for autographs.

When we first moved to our little mountain enclave twenty years ago, there was still a local five and dime on Main Street named Blackstocks, after the local owners. It offered everything from baby bibs and jigsaw puzzles, to batteries, pens, notebooks, wrapping paper and antacids. It also offered a homey feel and a warm hello when you walked in. I think eventually it just couldn't compete with the prices of the big discount chain store that went in down the street, and it finally closed its doors. 

Several weeks ago while on our road trip, we drove through the area where I went to college. I'd looked forward to passing through the small downtown area, a street with old buildings, a theater with intricate architecture and what was once a big ornate sign and, down the street a bit, a little drugstore that once housed a soda counter. Even back when I was in college, downtown was struggling. The area was trying to stay vital in the wake of the big, new mall on the other side of the city. I was hoping it would have survived progress and become a cultural attraction for this small, Midwest city. Sadly, it still looked shut down, struggling and depressed. It had gone the way of many quaint Main Streets that can’t compete with the big chain stores. Losing our downtowns is a sad consequence of burgeoning box stores with unimaginative architecture.

This past Friday, though, I was reminded there is hope. My husband and I attended an event in our city known as the Gallery Crawl, offered the first Friday of every month. Up and down Main Street, galleries and the local Arts Center, open their doors, offer hors d’oeuvres, music from local bands and a wonderful display of local and regional art talents. It’s one of my favorite events and reminds me that small downtowns can survive if they're willing to take on a new life and purpose.

My friend Bill Folowell, deputy-turned-artist in front of his gorgeous and vibrant Colorado landscapes.

Wandering the streets during the Gallery Crawl is not for the introverted. The sidewalks are crowded and friends stop to chat, catching up on the news in front of a stores on a pleasant summer evening. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine people dressed in an era long gone, walking down the streets, greeting neighbors as wagons and horses passed by. This night, the street happily resonated with music, laughter and conversation, creating a cozy feeling that you're among neighbors and lucky enough to experience a tradition that is gasping for breath in towns and cities across America.

After meandering the sidewalks, my husband and I stopped by the locally owned brewery and grabbed a beer and split a fish n' chips. We howdied with acquaintances sitting on bar stools inside and a few young people from the local college. Sitting on the back patio soaking up the cool evening, we listened to the murmur of conversation and sipped a cold brew.

I’m glad to live in a town among such fine neighbors and talented artists and in a place where the downtown not only survives but thrives and competes with the big boxes. I'm thankful there's still a hub to greet folks and purchase a unique gift at a local shop. I hope we always manage to maintain our Main Streets in small towns and big cities across our country. They are the hub, history and personality of our culture.

The perfect evening: a local brewery, a patio and fine art .


20 comments:

  1. I LOVE downtown Main Sts of small towns. Eclectic, a time of people actually getting to know each other, interacting face to face, unique offerings, and while a tad bit more expensive, I prefer their smiles to the grumpy faces of the big box stores.

    I guess it all depends on the population - some are willing to invest in their Main Sts & keep the heart of the town pumping. Others prefer to move away and don't care if its abandoned.

    Wonderful blog :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks T.J, my supportive friend. I think if towns can find a new purpose for their downtowns-- a cultural or artisan hub- there is hope. The nearby town of Salida was once a dying downtown. They are probably the glowing example of how an area can be salvaged and historically restored. They are thriving with unique galleries and eateries.

      Delete
  2. The downtown of my hometown is old and artsy. I really wish the city would keep it up!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think if they're to survive they have to redefine their purpose-- finding a niche with that "artsy" feel is the way to go.

      Delete
  3. Ah, downtown. My hometown, Grand Rapids, Michigan, has had a revival over the years. It's a lively, delightful place. I'll get to see it again when we go back for my 50th high school reunion this September. This was a lovely post, Julie. There are more important things than shopping malls and chain stores...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love the ambiance of a downtown. For our little city, it still IS the center of town, with a true "Main Street" name. Because we're so isolated, the "big box" store is appreciated-- keeping cost of living affordable, so no judgement, but I'm glad downtown is still a hub.

      Delete
  4. Sounds like a lovely evening. I bet I could convince my husband to see some art if he was promised some good local beer. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Christine-- beer definitely caps the evening well!

      Delete
  5. A wonderful account of wonderful times--both past and present.

    ReplyDelete
  6. When I was a little girl, I loved to go downtown with my mom. We caught the city bus and the major department stores were there like May Cohen's, Dillards, Woolworth. We would dress up in our nicest clothes, walk around, shop, and eat lunch at one of the fast food restaurants. Eating at Wendy's and Burger King were a treat because my mom always felt like a home cooked meal was cheaper and better. Our downtown area now doesn't have a character.

    In Deland, FL, they have that old-timey downtown area where everyone congregates on Saturdays for different events or socializing.

    Downtown areas should be the storytellers of a city.

    Great post as usual, Julie. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh Alexandra, as usual your way of working magic with words astounds me. I love this: Downtown areas should be the storytellers of a city. Perfect.

      I don't have memories of a "downtown" from my childhood-- we always lived in suburbs where true downtowns just didn't exist outside the mall. I'm glad I can have that experience now.

      Delete
  7. Ah Julie... The fish are fresher in Indonesia but the company of the Brewery's patio is sorely missed... Enjoy our downtown!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're missed as well, although I would gladly share in the suffering of your food and beach views for a few days!

      Delete
  8. It sad to loose the quaintness of old times. Wherever I go, I always visit the old side of towns or cities. It is there where the true stories are hiding behind old buildings and forgotten stories.

    Great article, as always!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Georgina, I'm the same way. I love exploring the true downtowns of cities and towns. I've been known to lay down on a sidewalk so I can capture a picture of some unique angle of architecture. You can really feel the personality of a town by walking its streets.

      Delete
  9. This looked great! I usually hang out with my friends in Old Town just to have the feeling of past times.

    www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There is a unique feel of history to downtowns!

      Delete
  10. Our downtown holds a First Friday event that draws a lot of people. Sadly, I fear it doesn't make up for the lack of business the rest of the month. So many small businesses are closing their doors.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that's so sad, LD. And I have seen many small boutiques and restaurants come and go on our small downtown Main Street. Fortunately, we are an isolated town with only a WalMart and grocery stores to "compete" but with the internet and the easy buying there, it's hard to justify the higher prices of small shops. I do buy a lot of gifts from our folks though.

      Delete