The neighborhood I grew up in was clean, safe and well-manicured. There were concerts in the park in the summer, decent public schools and streets that were repaved often enough that we almost never encountered a pothole. There was a mall in my town, plus a better mall a town over. As I got older and the town got hipper, we even had a skate park.
Yet, in my opinion, there were a few things missing:
1. An ice cream parlor
2. A drive-in movie theater
3. A main street
Let’s take those one at a time. An ice cream parlor: I don’t mean something like a Baskin-Robbins. I wanted a shop that was a true local hangout where I could go, order something sweet, and casually run into friends from school. A shop that was THE place to go on a Friday night. I wanted something like that scene from “Grease” when the gang goes to their favorite diner and the place is full of other local youngsters. Two: a drive-in movie theater. So yes, I probably watched “Grease” a few too many times growing up, but the drive-in movie theater idea actually came from stories my mom told me about when she was in high school and would go spend quality time with her friends at the movies. We had normal movie theaters in my town, but somehow it sounded way more fun to be in a car while watching a movie than it sounded to sit in a room.
So that takes us to 3: a main street. I wanted a few blocks speckled with businesses and benches and maybe a gazebo for good measure. There would be some locally-owned restaurants, probably that ice cream parlor mentioned above, and cute boutiques selling clothes and gifts. Locals would head to the main street to do their shopping, catch up on town news and also just to stroll around. We would go there on a pretty regular basis, always run into neighbors and old friends, and hang out there for holidays. In my little kid mind, I also wanted parades to run down the main drag. Why dream small?
You might have noticed by now that these three things all share a common theme- a gathering place for community. Clearly, I thought my neighborhood lacked a strong sense of community. We had parks and benches and even a gazebo, but we lacked any sort of cohesiveness. In an area where social activities were often demarcated by the subdivision you live in, there was no central gathering point to bring together people from across town. I grew up longing for the sort of community I saw on TV where the town’s inhabitants gathered together for every major occasion. I realize that in today’s day and age it might sound impractical to want people to gather with such regularity (though I do have a friend from Ohio whose town sounds eerily like what I wanted). Yet, in my brain, I craved the sense of connection that comes from a tight-knit community. I wanted physical spaces we could take pride in, share, and cherish. I wanted a central area to go to where you could see the rest of the area’s population living and playing, and I didn’t like that we were all so fragmented across the dozens of strip centers and shopping malls. As much as I loved going to the mall with my mom, it didn’t seem like a proper substitute for an actual stretch of street with the bustle of cars and people.
In today’s retail world, malls are often designed to look like streets and districts. It is a sentimentality play on the one hand, to hearken back to days when people did gather together and share daily experiences more often. However, for most of us it is really a faux sentimentality. As evidenced above, I never actually lived in a town with a vibrant, defined main corridor. And yet, I yearned for it. The same phenomenon is pretty common today, and recognized by those who plan today’s retail environments. It is a yearning for something that feels familiar and makes you feel like a part of the local society. We live such crazy, hurried lives that take us all over town, to 5 towns over, to 8 towns over in the other direction, and back again. A mall modeled after a main street district comes off as local and personal when compared to a giant block of a mall with sterile lighting and ugly floors.
I have much more to say on the topic of faux sentimentality and main streets that I will leave for another post, as this one is getting long (but what else is new?). For today, I want to end by challenging you to think of the focal point of wherever you happen to live. Is there a place that you can clearly define as the local gathering point? Or do people tend to stick in their own little spheres? And ask yourself: if you could add one feature to your community, what would it be?