Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Social Media Confirms: Summer has Arrived!

It's a little late this year, but summer has arrived. While the solstice and lightning bugs indicated it was here, it’s presence was delayed. Summer isn't official until a repressive degree of humidity settles in over the Midwest. But there is another more modern indicator of summer, the proliferation of friends (or random acquaintances) travel photos on social media. A slow trickle of photos in June has turned into a deluge in July, the repertoire of images from dinner, drinks, and savvy political insights has turned into something more universal; photos of us standing in front of things. While I am admittedly jealous of those who have cashed in on frequent flyer miles to upgrade from domestic to international travel, a common theme becomes apparent through the Twitter, Facebook, and Instragram feeds. Those who travel are finding their way to great places. They are going to places which are dense, that have transit, grand civic buildings, sweeping vistas, exceptional services, places that are not only built for tourists but the people who live there as well. Vacationing becomes not just an act of being served but an attempt to briefly integrate ourselves into another place. Locating adequate lodging and establishing a base camp, many opt to become temporary residents of places which are, in contrast to home, beyond our expectations.

It's not hard to see why so many summer travelers find their way to London, Paris, or Berlin. As Hazel Borys demonstrates on her "lessons from great cities" series on the PlaceShakers Blog, these cities are defined by their transit, bicycling, highly functioning neighborhoods, and in contrast to the predominate model in the United States there is a reliance on grand civic spaces rather than oversized retail areas as community focal points. The functioning spaces within Europe are fascinating tourist destinations. While there is shopping, museums, and hotels, there are also homes, workplaces, and corridors shared by both residents and tourists alike. Upon returning from a trip across the pond, one might find our Midwestern cities unfulfilling and sterile. Whereas Europe offers public plazas, sidewalk cafes, and walkability, one returns to the familiar setting of the automobile, parking lots, and setbacks. Thus we arrive at the question posed by Borys "If Paris is what people want, why not make more of it?"

The idea of maintaining a public square, road dieting to create shared space, and painting designated bike lanes sounds simple. After all, if Madison, Wisconsin can be good at this why not Indianapolis? Why not Louisville? Why not Des Moines? But that's not where all of us live. Many of us live in the LeRoy's, Dewitt's, and Martinsville's of the Midwest. These are places where a five acres public square would double as an athletic field for the local high school illuminated by the light of a Casey's gas station, and where a sidewalk bistro would be replaced with six antique vendors with incongruent hours. Unlike the "vibrant" cities of the Midwest, these are not places where we live and work, these are places where we consume and sleep. There is no practical need to install a street car for there is no place to go and many are more accustomed to a solid half hour commute that would intimidate a veteran FormulaOne driver. The concept of walking to work is equally absurd given that the Post Office, which has taken on the role of a primary economic driver, only employees one part time Post Master. For all our interest in developing great places and great communities, there are few feasible options for small rural places to pursue outside of waiting for a national chain to purchase the busiest corner of town and set up shop. The prospects for creating an exceptional community for 1000, 5000, or 10000 residents seems bleak. The proven and glamorous attributes of large modern cities don’t  mesh with the context  of the agrarian landscape.

From my domestic wanderings I've encountered evidence that even small rural places can appear alive with energy and activity, without all the trappings of modern auto-centric development. Traversing Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota I've found my way to small places which appeared more active than Midwestern communities twice their size. Somehow being the only town within 50 miles that has a barber shop, drug store, and burger joint draws a big crowd on Saturday afternoon. Yet, back in the Midwest, small forgotten communities appear in a state of decay.
In a previous post I posed a question for communities. Rather than bemoan and loathe the state of infrastructure, why not adapt our desired uses to the spaces available? If a downtown has a smattering of buildings from a bygone era, could our desired uses not be adapted to these spaces? What is the second, third, or fourth life of an old auto garage? What's about the old hardware store on the corner? Could a coffee shop? An art studio? An office? Or restaurant go in these spaces? While Panera and Chipolte may lack the ingenuity to redevelop a well worn building into something we crave, that alone does not exhaust all possibility or hope. In cities a stroll reveals many places, many neighborhood places. Places not only includes the sidewalks, alleys, and crosswalks, but the places I go to spend time and more importantly, money. While large cities have large populations and a steady stream of visitors who are attracted to the glamour like a moth to a flame, small places have the same thing. Could a quaint downtown be more than a place to buy fudge and watch underage kids hide a not so secret smoking habit? The fact of the matter is that even small places, rural places, forgotten places have something to work with.

The physical components of community are a canvas for values, the setting for day to day lives, a reflection of priorities. So is it a Taco Bell parking lot from which we will draw inspiration and connect with one another? Or can we create something more representative of our values that reflects not only our history but our aspirations? Small towns don’t need boutique shopping or the Mall of America any more than they need the Piazza or Palace of Versailles. Small rural places need something attainable, something that fits within the context of place. A lasting sense of purpose and community sense won’t come from redeveloping a community for the people whom will visit but rather for the people whom call it “home”.