Christmas is the season when we're reminded of what the country has thrown away over the past 50 years. Almost eliminated from the lives of most Americans is a noisy, lively, open-to-the-city pattern of shopping, a pattern that traditionally made people feel they were part of a large social enterprise.
Think of "Silver Bells," the Jay Livingston-Ray Evans song that made its debut in the 1951 movie "The Lemon Drop Kid." In Silver Bells land, the joy of preparing for Christmas has to do with the sights and sounds of city sidewalks. The sidewalks were often cold, and you were constantly crossing streets full of traffic, and snowflakes may have been falling on your head, yet the downtown retail district was a profoundly satisfying place, especially in the weeks leading up to Dec. 25.
Since the 1950s, developers have offered a series of substitutes for downtown shopping. First came suburban shopping "plazas" where the stores looked onto acres of free but deadly dull parking lots. Then came enclosed malls where the climate — and much else — was totally controlled. More recent are "lifestyle centers," some of which mimic Main Street — but usually without the idiosyncrasies, the housing, the public buildings and the freedoms of a traditional Main Street.
Always there has been something lacking — as was impressed upon me during a recent trip to northern Virginia. As part of a visit that my wife and I make every November to a family member outside of Washington, we were urged to go Christmas-shopping at Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets, a relatively new and unblemished shopping center next to a US 15 interchange, some 30 miles northwest of Washington.
The guiding concept at Leesburg Corner is that shoppers can walk from store to store — perusing more than 100 retailers — on outdoor sidewalks lined by buildings in quasi-traditional architectural styles. From Ann Taylor, shoppers amble to Anne Klein and Calvin Klein. From Kenneth Cole they stroll to OshKosh B'Gosh. They can walk from Guess to Theory, from Juicy Couture to Motherhood Maternity, and then rush home with their packages, never having heard the silver bells of the Salvation Army on every — or any — street corner.
A website describes Leesburg Corner as a "village" of shops, but of course it's not a village that people call home, and it's a far cry from an old-style downtown. Everything is newly built, so there's no room for quirky businesses that operate on low margins, like second-hand book stores. Extensive paved parking areas are all around, so you can't meander on foot in any direction you choose, as you can in most cities (when public safety is satisfactory).
Missing from the complex is the character that old buildings and non-retail uses — apartments, offices, libraries, public buildings — provide. After two hours of relentlessly up-to-date stores that felt so much alike as to form a straitjacket, I had to escape to Leesburg's diminutive 19th-century downtown.
There were a lot fewer stores to choose from in downtown Leesburg, but there was a mix of buildings large and small, erected over the span of a couple of hundred years, and there was a real mix of activities — a construction worker asking directions to a hardware store, people heading to the county courthouse, municipal employees putting "free parking" bags over the streetside meters for the Christmas season, residents going to restaurants, taverns, schools and churches.
My tolerance for the tightly corsetted Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets might have been greater if my wife and I had not spent the seven-hour drive from Connecticut to Virginia listening to an audio version of "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" by Bill Bryson. In this best-selling memoir, Bryson, one of America's funniest writers — who now lives mainly in England — tells of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa. Born in 1951, Bryson does a wonderful job of capturing the temper of life in mid-sized cities in the '50s and early '60s.
"I often think what a shame it is that we didn't keep the things that made us different and special and attractive in the '50s," Bryson says about Des Moines and especially its center in a final chapter called "Farewell." "Imagine those palatial downtown movie theaters ... Imagine having all of public life — offices, stores, restaurants, entertainments — conveniently clustered in the heart of the city and experiencing fresh air and daylight each time you moved from one to another."
There is, of course, a move in that direction. The development of Blue Back Square in West Hartford Center is one recent example of how an old suburban center, a walkable place with streets and varied activities, can be added onto intelligently.
During the past decade, there has also been a revival of downtown districts in many cities. In New Haven, where I live, the downtown generally feels good these days. It's busy — one sign of which is that on-street parking spaces are hard to find on some evenings — because of the thriving restaurants, bars and cultural life. The offerings of the stores are still less extensive than they were 20 years ago. Notably, no department store has arrived and filled the gap left by the departure of Macy's.
"What a wonderful world it was," Bryson exclaims at the close of "Thunderbolt Kid." "We won't see its like again, I'm afraid." Ornate movie theaters where a thousand eyes focus on a single giant screen are not coming back, and it doesn't look as if old-style multistory department stores with hundreds of employees are coming back either.
But Christmas is a time of hope. There's reason to expect that downtowns will continue reviving, as more people move into them and business improvement districts help assure a basic level of cleanliness and order. Let's hope it happens quickly. The downtown substitutes that developers have been delivering are really not sufficient.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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