Wednesday, December 17, 2008
As I have been walking up and down Main Streets, I realized that I wasn't seeing the lights and decorations that I expected. I was missing the joyful shoppers, hurrying with their arms full of packages and contented smiles on their faces. I was even missing the incessant Christmas carols oozing out of every possible auditory device. I walk past stores with their windows plastered with "Huge Sale" signs, but hardly an elf or reindeer in sight. All of this raises the critical question, "How did the Grinch get us?" I have been thinking that it's time to shake ourselves out of these doldrums. It's time to find that special, indefinable something that is the essence of Christmas, the thing deeper than cash and presents, the thing that in the face of everything will help us affirm that we will confront these times in solidarity and joy.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
"Main Street," according to Wikipedia, is a figure of speech indicating the retail and social center of neighborhood, village or city. In the American collective imagination, Main Street belongs to the city and its people. In older times, it's where the teens met at the malt shop and the farmers talked about corn prices. More recently, it's where Starbucks is or isn't, depending on your town's social status. What's important is its openness as the market center of a larger unit. In that vein, Salt Lake City has an interesting counter story. Several years ago, the city sold a block of Main Street to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a church which is very powerful in the city and in the state of Utah. The block has become a private park, governed by the Church. Suddenly the collective thoroughfare is interrupted, and new way of organizing behavior inserted. This manifestation of the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ is uplifting to members but an imposition to non-members who often feel oppressed by the Church's political power. When are we entitled to access to that which flows? To take another example, in a recent decision, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that wealthy landowners could not bar their fellows from the trout-rich stream that ran through their lands. One of the landowners, Kenneth F. Siebel, was very upset. He was quoted in the NY Times as saying, "I've put time and energy and love into the property and it's all gone and it's a shame." Obviously the property was still there, and still in the improved condition to which he had brought it. What made it seem "all gone" if strangers could visit? And what about flow in cities -- should we protect the flow of Main Street the way we protect trout streams?
According to Judy Peet and Jeanette Rundquist, the 234 Main streets in New Jersey are struggling to stay afloat during the recession. With consumer buying power down, businesses are making tough adjustments to their hours and their offerings, hoping to find a formula to make ends meet. On some of the Main streets I visit the "For Rent" signs attest to businesses that have folded. Sales are everywhere. For some businesses, extending hours seems to be the way to meet the challenge. For others, it's cutting back. One shopkeeper in Boonton told the reporters, "We need to work together, but I don't see that happening." Yet cooperation is obviously a key idea. What Main streets have is a rich mix of activities and history. These can be put together in ways that energize the whole surrounding area, making it safer and more fun, at the same time maximizing the turnover of dollars in the local area. This takes imagination and a bit of thinking outside the box. A Main Street business might not think about the neighborhood two blocks over, but those neighbors are certainly thinking about Main Street. There is -- in that possible exchange -- the potential to find a solution that gets all of us through this tough recession.