The Life of American Cities: October 12, 2014

One Good Street Per City…Is It Enough?

Recently Ogden’s 25th Street was named as one of America’s Ten Best Streets by the American Planning Association.  A well-deserved distinction, Ogden’s 25th Street has long been a favorite of mine, along with other great Utah streets like Provo’s Center Street, Brigham City’s Main Street, Park City’s Main Street, along with most of Utah’s smaller central towns like Helper, Gunnison, and Panguitch, to name a few. 
Most of the examples of good streets in Utah towns and in American towns and cities in general are the result of cyclical economics.  These streets were originally the commercial centers of the cities and towns we call home.  They were more than just centralized business locations, they were the town centers, the civic characters of cities and were the heart of communities.  Most originated prior to the automobile, and thereby were centrally located for pragmatic reasons; they were the “walkable” and “walk toable” centers of the communities.  All the services necessary to support daily living in a neighborhood node or a small community were found in these civic centers, and as a result they were filled with people.  Over time, as first the streetcar and then the automobile came onto the scene, the centers were stretched and pulled apart as fundamental services were displaced.  Over time, investment in the centers waned and many fell into disrepair and neglect.  People ceased visiting the centers due to the lack of essential services which only further eroded the character of these bygone places.  People began taking an interest again in the 1970s, and what all these great streets have in common today is a huge public and private investment over the last 40 years to revive these civic centers.  Much of the reason they are great today is due to the fact that when they were forgotten, they were truly forgotten and the original structures were abandoned and left alone. 

But 40 years of intense investment to still have the root of the original problem exist is demoralizing. These streets are quaint and cute, but they are really just a fake image of their former selves.  It’s as if the original owners moved out or were forced out and were replaced with absentee landlords.  Now, it’s not my intention to criticize the businesses that exist on these streets because in many cases they are locally owned businesses, but drugstores have been replaced with optometrist offices, nickel and dime’s  with high-end bike shops, department stores with law firms, grocery stores with lingerie shops, and sporting goods stores with overpriced restaurants. In other words, the basic services that used to exist on these streets no longer exists, instead boutique shops line the streets because nothing is capable of competing with suburbia’s big box retail outlets. Habitation on these streets is typically limited to evenings, weekends, and holidays when it feels good to stroll down the paths of a great place.  I would argue that Ogden’s 25th Street is a great street that is dedicated to the automobile and it is really only great from Grant Avenue to its Union Station terminus.  That seems to be the problem. 
But the larger issue is that our American cities have one great street, one great place, and it rests on a terribly fragile foundation.  As long as our cities are dedicated to the automobile we may have to be assuaged with having just one great street.  Until we revolt and start imposing on our cities a “walkable” and “walk toable” landscape, that will be what we are left with.   Take a walk down to your Main Street, USA, inhabit the place.  Walk it.  Use it.  Demand the need for it.  Start your own revolution to make American Cities great, one street at time, not just on one street, but the whole city.

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