Listening to Petula Clark sing Downtown the other day got me thinking about, oddly enough, downtowns. As Petula crooned about gentle Bossa novas, memories of my first trip to downtown Charlotte hovered vaguely in my mind. I was young, probably in third or fourth grade, and with my grandmother, I think. I only remember two things very, very clearly. We went to a department store, and it felt so empty. No other shoppers were around, and the staff seemed desperate to help us. So very different from the busy J. C. Penney at Park Road Shopping Center we normally visited.
The other thing I remember is how tall the buildings were. Oh, my goodness. The buildings loomed over me in an amazing way, not scary or threatening, but amazing. As I grew up, my awareness of the dangers of downtown increased with every night’s evening news, and Charlotte’s skyline grew more cluttered. The English major in me couldn’t help but joke about the giant phalluses being erected in my hometown. I could just picture all the good ol’ boys who ran Charlotte getting together in a room and comparing the lengths of their respective, um, edifices.
Of course, none of Charlotte’s skyscrapers can quite compete for phallic obviousness with the Wachovia Center in downtown Winston Salem. During a trip to North Carolina years after moving away, I rounded a curve on the interstate and there it was, in all its upright glory, and I almost had to pull off the road I laughed so hard. The Moravian founders of Winston Salem would not have approved.
Mothers, don’t let your daughters grow up to be English majors….
As George and I moved all over the country, courtesy of the United States Air Force, we saw lots of downtowns. My favorite downtown was Boise, Idaho. What a rockin’ fun place it was! We partied downtown nearly ever weekend, dancing to the retro-70s band Soul Purpose and eating salmon-and-pesto sandwiches at Bittercreek Brewery. I never once felt nervous or scared in Boise, and that might have had something to do with the fact that there was very little violent crime and there were no real skyscrapers in Boise. The capitol building was the tallest building I remember. And St. Luke’s hospital. Boise was a city that had its priorities straight: the foothills of the Rocky Mountains are the skyline’s focus, not man’s little artificial mountains. See?
After growing up in Charlotte, where murders were reported practically every night on the evening news, Boise’s non-violent lifestyle showed me what downtown could be like if sense ruled. The biggest local news story of our three-and-a-half years there was the killing of police officer Mark Stall in the line of duty. Officer Stall’s death marked the first time in over 100 years an officer had been killed in the line of duty. Most of Boise shut down for the memorial service, which was held in Boise State University’s football stadium. This is what happens when a moderate-size city hasn’t lost its innocence. I’d move back there in a heartbeat.
But perhaps gangs and drugs and guns and stupidity have moved into Boise, now, too.
Dayton’s downtown is a bit scary, as are the downtowns of most big cities. I much prefer the downtown of our little town, which consists of Main Street and boasts a museum that is staffed by volunteers, keeps irregular hours and schedules tours of historic downtown by appointment only. The town, founded by Quakers in the early 1800s, was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Main Street still has many of the town’s original buildings. We actually have a few neon lights, too, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a little place that never closes or hear the rhythm of a gentle Bossa nova. There’s a yoga studio, a children’s art school, clothing shops, cafés, an ice cream shop, antique stores, a dog groomer, a bakery, a florist. Pretty much what you would expect in a small Midwestern town.
And the only skyscrapers are small church steeples.
Definitely my kind of town.
Now it's your turn. Please share your memories of your favorite (or not so favorite) downtown.