Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Out With the Old, In With the Fake

There is a trend here in Ohio, where a frenzy of mall building has destroyed the down towns of small cities. They are building fake small towns, Disney-esque in appearance, after tearing down the existing old buildings and replacing them with psuedo-Victorian/Federal brick-fronted "shoppes." These picturesque villages contain no hardware stores, no little pharmacies, no dry cleaners or other mainstays of small towns. Rather, they are full of upscale clothing stores, chain stores, over priced ice cream shops, and various restaurants. And more upscale clothing stores. There are paving stones in the narrow streets and cast iron street lamps (Or maybe they're made of plastic designers to look like cast iron.) There is some on street (or maybe I should call it on-lane parking) but mostly the places are surrounded by huge parking lots, so that one can approach the "village" from a distance, across the non-verdant fields of asphalt. We're not in Hardy country, in spite of the vaguely British names of these places.

My small town, which used to have an actual downtown in which one could find just about anything one needed, has long since died from defection to the many malls surrounding us. We still have some nice old buildings, in which some enterprising folks have started small retail businesses: a book store, a gift shop featuring well-crafted items, a chocolate shop...and bars, and bars and three or four tattoo parlors.

In the last year or so, a gazillionaire has managed to put up a string of fake Federal style building fronts over a group of nondescipt buildings and brought in some boutique-y businesses which are now the pride of the Chamber of Commerce. The effort is to get the students from the university to come into the downtown and shop. He is apparently unaware that students already come downtown in droves to drink and get tattoos. Many of the service businesses which students used to need in town- banks, post office, restaurants - are available on campus, along with stationery, CDs, and periodicals.

Now, with stimulus money as a boost, the town and university fathers are in the process of realizing their dream of having a conference center and hotel right downtown, along with a multi-modal facility for buses, bicycles and car parking. A conference center! A hotel! Now hundreds of people will come to Kent for conferences and stay in a state of the art hotel! There also will be an enormous visitor center right on the by-pass, right in the city, for the university! An esplanade wends its way through the campus right into the downtown, to ease the way for students seeking to get a tattoo! Dozens of houses will be torn down for this symbolic yellow brick road to the many bars.

Right now the hotel/conference center site, one whole square block, is a desolate area of earth scraped over what used to be buildings and houses. I waited too long to get a picture of what it looked like for several weeks, when all you could see were the remains of foundations and basements of what used to be there. It's all surrounded by chain link fences. Building will start soon. There will be retail located in the hotel and the multi modal building - tattoo parlors, bars, maybe a pool hall or game arcade.

And when it's done, we'll have jolly crowds showing up to cheer for our half -baked football team, our pretty good basketball team and who knows what else. The theme is red brick and a mish mash of architectural styles. The buildings will be good for about thirty years at the most and some ambitious developer will tear them down find a new use for the land - maybe a mega tattoo parlor with attached bar.

On the other end of town, the landscape has been made barren in order to build an enormous bridge supposedly to ease traffic over the river. Unfortunately, the design will complicate matters severely, especially since the no-planning committee approved the construction of a mega service station right on the corner by the traffic light, where two main roads come together, both of which are nightmarishly busy during rush hour. It's one of the few ways to get out of town on the north side and there are thousands of commuters who use that intersection every day going both ways. Oy weh!

I don't expect things never to change, it's just that the people in charge around here have no vision, even though they think they have. They still be live in bricks and mortar retail as the salvation of their town, rather than look at the future and how people's needs will change. So they tear things down.