James Lileks on old highways and downtowns


James Lileks is one of my favorite writers and webmeisters. His beautifully designed site features his daily musings (The Bleat), the "Institute of Official Cheer", an archive of the unintentional humor of advertising, postcards of motels, diners, and restaurants, matchbook covers, and postcard-based urban studies of Minneapolis, New York, and his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota. Lileks combines laugh-out-loud humor with keen insight and some writing that can move you to tears.

Monday's and Tuesday's Bleats were even more thought-provoking than usual.

Monday's Bleat describes taking the old highway (US 10) from Minneapolis to Fargo, which leads to a meditation on small towns that vanish and those that stay.

Some of the towns are just rusty smears - a busted down garage, a grain elevator, a Cenex gas station, a tavern whose sign has the Hammís Beer logo from 1967. You wonder who lives here; you wonder if this is just a large disorganized nursing home, with old widows counting out the few last pennies of summer #78. In ten years the town will lose its postal designation. In twenty itíll be gone. When people can get from A to C in 27 minutes, thereís no reason for B to exist. And so it dies.

But A and C thrive nicely, if theyíre near a lake. To the modern small town in Minnesota, a lake has the value a railroad line once had. They bring the tourists, and the tourists like to golf, too. They like to eat. They like to hunt. They buy bait in the summer and bullets in the fall and Miller Beer all year round. Add the needs of the local farmers - insurance, implements, hospitals, groceries - and you have a petri dish of urban life. If the townís big enough to have a north side and a south side, you have rivalries and reptuations. You can't imagine how much you'd learn if you stopped and spent a year.

The prosperous cities have a water tower; they have a proper traffic light at the intersection of Front and Main. They have a sign that welcomes you with a variation of the same old sentiment: Warborg: A nice place to call home! Smagsburg: Youíll feel at home here! Stupley: Youíll Get Used to the Turkey Barn Smell! The sign is spattered with the emblems of the local booster boys, the Lions, Kiwanis, Eagles, Elks, Wombats, etc. Thereís a sign reminding the world that the New York Mills girls softball team have been State ďAĒ champs three years in a row. The downtown saw better days, but itís seen worse ones as well. The old bank on the corner: antique store. The old movie theater: antique store. (The old antique store: espresso.) Names are carved in the cornice of every brick building, the names of the men who put up these whimsies in the middle of nothing for reasons you can only guess.

Tuesday's Bleat features a meditation on malls and downtowns, inspired by a visit home for his birthday:

But theyíre spiffing up downtown - the trees that smothered Broadway are gone. The ďmallĒ has been ripped up; thereís angle parking again. It looks as if someone cares, which is more you can say for many towns with dying downtowns. Dying? No: dead. At least for retail. Picturesque and historic as it is, itíll never come back until you block off freeway access to the burbs, and force people downtown at gunpoint. Spending a lot of time and money trying to bring it back to life is like disinterring the first mayor and putting the paddles on his brittle bones. CLEAR! Bzzzz. Crackle. Damn.

I say this with no cheer, since I love downtowns, especially this one. ...

My wife and child were at West Acres Mall, so I drove out to meet them. And here I learned where everyone was on a gloomy Saturday. The place was jammed. The Mall was finally rehabbed a few years ago, and itís one of the more incoherent overhauls Iíve ever seen, but the place still draws the traffic. And why not? All these bright stores close together, all these commingled scents of coffee and doughnuts, of candles and perfume; all these people - packs and claques of teens, rumpled weary families with small kids, idle middle-aged men cooling their heels in Mission easy chairs, stolid moms and tarted-up daughters shopping for shoes and face-paint. Thereís more life here on a Saturday than youíd ever find downtown outside of the day before Christmas. No weather; no worries.

Itís the inescapable truth: people prefer malls to downtown. Malls lack the character, the history, the charm, the serendipity. But they are intensely social in ways downtowns never are, aside from the occasional parade or summertime farmerís market. Fargo made its choice. Itís ugly, but it works for them.

And Fargo's downtown appears to be far more intact than Tulsa's is. I think downtown's best hope for life is as a BoBo (bohemian bourgeoisie) neighborhood -- an urban alternative to the suburbs, because not everyone aspires to live on a cul-de-sac. The slow process to build that kind of neighborhood is underway, a process that will only be stunted by closing streets, demolishing old buildings (which are the least expensive and therefore best opportunities for new ventures), and plopping big faceless public buildings and big-box stores all over the landscape.

Lileks.com is a daily stop for me, and it should be for you, too.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 13, 2003 1:57 AM.

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