Wednesday, June 9, 2010


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, caf├ęs, 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.


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  2. I've always loved the song, "Downtown."

    I think I was four years old when my mom and grandmother took me along with them on a shopping trip to downtown Pittsburgh. The buildings! The people! The shopping! The hustle and bustle! I was in love. I think I knew I was destined to live in a city from the moment we stepped off the bus.

    I may live in New York City now, but a big piece of my heart will always be in Pittsburgh. There's nothing like the drive into the city from the south through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. The tunnel is cut through a tree-covered hillside. A first-time visitor has no idea of what awaits on the other side of the tunnel.

  3. You would definitely love beautiful downtown Hope, NJ. Yes, NJ! It was founded by the Moravians in the 1800's and still has several of the original stone buildings now used mostly for antique shops and law offices. The middle of town sports a 4-way blinker light; and if YOU blink, you'll miss the town! On one corner is the bank, across from a realtor's office, across from a row of antique shops, across from another realtor. Down from the bank are two churches, each with steeples, one of which can be seen poking through the trees when viewed from the overlook near our house.

    Little has changed here since we arrived almost 20 years ago, and that's just the way we like it. There are still some local farms, two of which are just a mile or so down my street. We have seen deer, fox, bears and myriads of birds in our yard.

    Whenever I get the urge to experience the hustle and bustle of a bigger city, the wonderful art museums and authentic Italian restaurants of Manhattan are only an hour's drive from here.

    This is truly a spot where we can enjoy the best of both worlds! (But don't tell anyone, ok?)

  4. Francie and Doris,

    You both make me want to go for visits!

  5. I agree with my sister, Francie. There's nothing quite like driving through the Fort Pitt Tunnel and seeing the city of Pittsburgh. It still takes my breath away. I work downtown, live two miles from downtown and I love it.

    One of my earliest memories of being downtown is seeing Tony Orlando and Dawn at the Civic Arena, which is now called Mellon Arena, which will soon be torn down. Although I don't remember the details of getting there, I'll always remember that evening.

  6. I've lived in many wonderful places....and liked them all. San Francisco holds a special place in my heart. Spent seven wonderful years there (back in the sixties & seventies). Will never forget my first cable car ride....or the first time I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. Another favorite is Chapel Hill, NC. Lived there eight years...enjoyed every minute. College-town environments are always interesting. Now retired in a lovely historic (small)town in the Shenandoah Valley of VA. with beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Happy to be here. Life is good!!

    PS: I also agree with the Pittsburgh comments. Never lived there but had some great visits!!

  7. Susan, you're welcome to come for a visit--just say when!

  8. My favorite town is the one about five miles from my grandparents farm in southern Virginia. It had one main street that ran for about a mile from the highway and was bisected by the railroad and depot. There was one cross street and no traffic lights, even at the highway. There was one gas station by the highway, two churches, a bank, a post office, one doctor's office, two small general stores, a feed store with farm supplies, and a grade one to twelve red brick school. The cemetary was on the opposite side of the highway. The rest of the main street was filled with houses. I don't recall the street having a name!

    My grandparents' church shared a minister with three other churches in neighboring towns, so they had "preaching" every other Sunday, alternating early and late, so the minister had time to travel between the two.

    One store had a large candy case with a slanted glass front covering boxes of penny candy. Some were two or three for a penny! The owner would patiently fill a little brown bag with 5 cents worth of your choices, smiling and removing one for another if you changed your mind midway down the case. It helped that he was my grandfather's good friend.

    The other store had a wooden pickle barrel. My mother says that when she was a child, the owner gave her a pickle for free. Her mother prompted her to show her appreciation by asking "What do you say?" She answered politely, "May I have one for my brother?" They used to trade eggs and milk from their farm for other items. It reminds me of "Little House on the Prairie!"

    I guess it has all changed. I don't go back, because I prefer to remember it as it was. Life was so sweet and simple then. Thanks, Susan, for making me think of it again.

  9. I read this blog of yours almost as faithfully as your stamping blog. I hardly ever come over to comment, though. But I just had to today. I grew up in this teeny, tiny little town that only had a 4-way stop. That was what my downtown was like. I didn't like it too much as a kid, and I graduated early to come to school and a city! And I'm still glad I made that choice. But something about your writing style can often make me feel very nostalgic for things I haven't thought about in years. I just love your blog, and wanted to say that today!


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!