Tuesday, June 14, 2016

My Downtown Gentrification

I'm reading a book right now that is concerned about "authenticity" with regard to cities and living areas. The author, to an extent, decries change--how a city neighborhood will be taken from the underprivilidged, gentrified (and made safe for artists), and then eventually built over with chain stores and facilities for the very rich. Part of me, though, is skeptical of the whole idea of "authenticity" in a city; cities change always. And this move between these three levels waxes and wains. I'm thinking about three city blocks that were about two blocks from an apartment I lived in for thirteen years. When I first arrived, we called it the "tri-bar" area, because there were three bars there. It was on the west side of downtown, separated from the busier part of downtown by a bank and a church. On the east side, students roamed; on the west side, mostly townies hung out.

But that in and of itself was a creation of sorts. The area I'm thinking of was once known as the Hot Corner, because at one time it had been a vibrant pocket for African American businesses. These historic businesses still hung on in the form of a black barbershop and a soul food restaurant when I moved here. The rest was either abandoned or moving into that gentrifying state--as artistic folks moved in (downtown's migrating music scene). In earlier times, apparently, this part of downtown had had a coffee shop and a furniture store--both were gone when I moved here (though another coffee shop did move in--and out--during my thirteen years).

Now, those abandoned buildings are gone. The working-class businesses have begun moving out--gone are the bike store, the appliance store, and the car repair shop; one of two thrift stores is gone. Nine bars now exist where there were once three; there is another music club, and there is a movie theater. Where once there were two restaurants (one of them soul food), there are now seven restaurants. (The number of restaurants, bars, and clubs is a bit fluid, insofar as some bars serve food and some have music, so some venues could be classified two or three different ways.) High-cost clothing boutiques have appeared. And two new multistory office buildings have been built. Chains haven't moved into the area yet, but they have moved into other sectors of downtown--the migration, I'm sure, will begin eventually. And even parking, which used to be abundant and free is limited and costly.

But what is to say that this downtown is less authentic or more than the one that existed previously? Sure, I miss the quieter west-side downtown with its three bars and its abandoned storefronts and empty parking lots, the feeling it gave me that I was one of the locals who cared about such places. Now, a larger crowd is moving in. So what? And sure, rents are probably rising and things are becoming more expensive, and eventually, some of those small businesses will close and be replaced by chains or high-cost merchandisers, and this part of downtown will lose some of "its character." But it's lost a character before--when black-owned businesses shuttered and white folk moved in. It's simply part of how neighborhoods change. A person moving to town now might well lament all the businesses that closed or changed hands within this three-block set ten years from now too--its loss of "character."

The map below shows how these three blocks looked when I moved here on the left; the neighborhood as it stands now is on the right. Blue represents new businesses (if a new bar or restaurant opened in the location of an old bar or restaurant, it is blue also).

More interesting to map might be Washington Street between Holliston and Allen, in California, where I grew up. When I was a kid, it was home to a number of thrift stores, local businesses (radio repair, bakery), used bookstores, oddball eateries (nonchain fastfood), and Armenian shops to which I never ventured (delis, groceries, repair shops). I didn't think much of it at the time, but now I think that area would have been rather neat and funky, and I'm sad I didn't venture more often into some of those odd stores. Of course, I was a kid and not terribly adventurous, nor did I have much money to spend or much reason to spend it on many of the things on offer. When I last returned, in 2010, some of those businesses were still there, but many had been replaced--with cafes and other fancier/gentrified fair (and some businesses simply didn't need to be anymore, technology having moved on). I figure I'd have really liked said neighborhood now, were I living there as an adult--and a single. (As a married man with family now, I find myself returned to my childhood proclivity to stay home rather than venture out--I'm poor again and often the family or wife doesn't want to go out when I do, even when we can afford it, or doesn't want to go to the same kinds of places--kids, I find, love chains, much as I did, whatever is familiar or advertised heavily.)

The Washington Street area reminds me of the Normaltown area of the town in which I live now, though the Washington Street commercial district seems much larger. Normaltown would be another interesting one to map, though I don't know that I could map for certain all the businesses that were there when I moved here. There was an Army-Navy thrift store, a small local hardware store, a Pizza Hut delivery outlet, a local Mexican restaurant (the best in town), a Mexican grocery, a gas station, and sundry other little shops that have rotated in and out over the years (Asian grocery, scooter shop, computer repair shop, thrift store, church office); there were also a bar (Foxy's) and a bar and grill (Allen's). The building in which the latter two were housed was knocked down, and the businesses relocated elsewhere before closing forever. In place of that building, after years of fighting with community boards and residents, a new office building is finally going in. Meanwhile, that little sleepy part of town with largely local businesses is becoming what the west side of downtown used to be: there are now three bars in the area (two of which feature music, one of which features food), and many townies now venture there instead of downtown, and the place continues to hop into the early morning hours. A coffee shop has opened; a fancy bakery has moved in. The Mexican restaurant and grocery are still there, and some of the small rotating businesses too (computer repair). But Pizza Hut is gone, and I fear the hardware store and/or Army-Navy store's days are numbered.

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