We're Unique, Just Like Everywhere Else

One danger of having communities across the country following the same playbook for placemaking is that we’ll still all end up looking alike. This irreverent author notes that many local officials believe “all we need is to get us some gays and artists and a bike path or two, and our problems will be solved!” Instead of a McDonalds on every corner, we’ll have a Starbucks, a brew pub, a splash pad, and some mediocre public art. 

That’s why the playbook says: focus on what makes a place unique.  Here is a short but terrific editorial about focusing on the unique aspects of a community.  The author argues that every city needs or has basics – “best practices” – like bike lanes and coffee shops, but to be interesting, we need to focus on what makes our communities different from the rest.  Even then, how much unique can there really be?

Each year I spend a week or two in Savannah, Georgia, visiting my parents. I try to find different things to do each time I’m here.  Downtown Savannah’s UQ (uniqueness quotient, and yes I did just make that up) is based on beautiful old buildings, historic squares, and Paula Deen.  Savannah heavily promotes the downtown historic district, and excludes or glosses over a lot of great restaurants, arts, and outdoor activities. It’s hard to find information about Savannah’s two-weeks-long music festival, or its crazy-good contemporary arts scene thanks to the Savannah College of Art and Design. Savannah is surrounded by water but access is limited (visually and logistically) and recreational use is not particularly promoted.

Downtown Savannah's Gap store

Downtown Savannah's Gap store

It also shares a problem with lots of popular destinations -- property (and rent) is so expensive in its downtown core that only high volume chains can afford to be there.  Savannah’s historic squares are surrounded by The Gap and Starbucks, so it’s like suburban anywhere with Spanish moss, a prepackaged HistoryWorld with Panera Bread. And it is losing its UQ. Downtown Savannah is designed for commerce, not community.  To quote Yogi Berra, nobody goes there anymore – it’s too crowded. 

Side note and future post topic: what if the thing that makes us unique isn't a positive? I pondered owning our history, good or bad, as I spent the day walking among beautiful historic buildings constructed by slaves. Let me know if you have thoughts on this.

Is the problem that we don't know how to do anything other than commerce?  Bill Stumpf, who wrote a great book called The Ice Palace the Melted Away, argues that American cities are built for making things, not doing things.  Rome, London and Paris are cultural centers, while our cities are productive.  Detroit = cars.  Silicon Valley = tech.  New York = money.  Grand Rapids = furniture.  Savannah’s downtown waterfront was built for commerce, not pleasure. As manufacturing has moved outside the US, Stumpf says, “Cities like Pittsburgh, once proud to be known as the Iron City, now profess cultural diversity as their commerce.  American cities are striving hard to shed their exclusively utilitarian images in favor of broad cultural centers complete with art museums, symphonies, and major league sports.” Cultural diversity as commerce.  Are we so uncomfortable with ordinary virtues like civility, pleasure, culture, goodwill, and community that we have to make them productive?  

Here is a story about downtown Pittsburgh’s renaissance.  Contributing factors include public-private collaboration, support for change, and quality of life improvements… that all sound like everyone else’s.  Eds and meds?  Check.  Museums and an arts district?  Check.  Sports teams, farmer’s markets, and the film industry?  Check.  Wait, isn’t that Grand Rapids?  Pittsburgh has very successfully capitalized on its rivers, as GR aspires to do.  And they have Andy Warhol, but we have ArtPrize.

Savannah's Starland neighborhood

Savannah's Starland neighborhood

Savannah's Starland neighborhood

Savannah's Starland neighborhood

And Savannah? Its focus on the city’s gracious, historic downtown was so successful that its UQ is threatened. And in the way of the natural evolution of cities, the funky, unique startup businesses that can’t afford downtown rents are colonizing the Starland neighborhood. It’s full of cool old buildings, a memorial marker on the former soda shop ("Paul's Soda Shop / 1930-1955"), a nationally-recognized bakery, great restaurants and cafes, and cheap housing for the art students who help make the neighborhood vibrant. It’s still in transition; Paul's Soda Shop is now the rescue mission.  It is a neighborhood, not so much a tourist attraction. It is a community of ordinary virtues.

Starland Cafe

Starland Cafe

Outside Foxy Loxy, home of the Bourbon Cinnamon Sugar Cookie

Outside Foxy Loxy, home of the Bourbon Cinnamon Sugar Cookie

Map geek bonus: this is a very short but interesting article about how Sanborn insurance company and its maps documented development (and in a sense, placemaking) through recent history.  (Which reminds me of one of my very favorite short stories, The Mappist by Barry Lopez.  Highly recommended.)

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