Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween on Main Street

Halloween filled the streets tonight, even though there was, according to my dry cleaner, an order for everyone to stay inside: too many live wires and downed tree branches from Saturday's freak snowstorm. Whoever made that ultimatum -- it might have been Gov Christie -- didn't deter the crowds. The balmy evening was irresistible after the awful weekend. The Valley -- which was featured in Sunday's NY Times -- is clearly viewed as a "safe zone" for families whose neighborhoods are not so sanguine. I gave out a lot of candy really quickly. But the blue ribbon for "All Around Halloween" goes to Vinnie Mazzarisi, owner of Mazzi Dogz, the hotdog place around the corner. He was out in a Jason costume, waving to passersby. His fabulous decorations, beautiful lights, lively interior and hospitality make him our Halloween winner. Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Main Street, Daughters of Israel

My mother, Maggie Thompson, now lives at the Daughters of Israel Nursing Home in West Orange. You might not think that a nursing home would have a Main Street. But Daughters of Israel does. It has a only one operating store, a coffee shop, which is perhaps the only store a Main Street really needs. The rest of the stores are paintings of store windows, filled with merchandise or offers of service and including portraits of the store owners. It makes for a cheery walk from the entry to mom's room, and I always pause to study one or another of the windows. I am ambivalent about the painting as art, but the pet store has very cute kittens in the window and there is one very convincing portrait of a cigar-chomping salesman offering to make a deal. Main Street layers on Main Street. My mother noted on her blog, Maggie:INK, that she is occupying Wall Street from her bed there. As Zuccotti Park is on Broadway, one of the world's greatest Main Streets, and mom is "DoI Way," we have a resonance. But imagine my surprise when I find "Main Street," the book, on a table of freebies in the lobby. I figure it's a sign and I took it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

When do you need really good coffee?

Day 4, Mt Morris Consultation

Today was the fourth and last day of the consultation in Mt. Morris, NY. The morning started with a really good cappuccino at the Rainy Day Bakery and Cafe, at the intersection of State and Main. Fired with caffeine, Ron and Yvette Shiffman and I drove around, connecting the dots. We went up to Murray Hill where the Art Center is located, to Letchworth State Park, and back to Main Street over a bridge that is temporarily reduced to one lane from two. With all that good caffeine humming around in my head, I saw the duck, if I may make allusion to that game in which you connect the dots to see the outline of an animal.

One member of our group had noted that almost all the stores on Mt. Morris' Main Street were closed on Sunday afternoon. The Rainy Day Bakery and Cafe closes at 3, but opened up in response to her plea for an afternoon cup of coffee. "What if I were leaving Letchworth State Park and getting ready to drive 5 hours back to New York? I'd need a cup of coffee," she pointed out. And with a great cappuccino from Rainy Day, you wouldn't even need gas!

Which easily leads to the idea that the shopkeepers on Main Street should stay open longer hours to give coffee to the tourists and make the whole restoration a success. But I was reminded of a classic drawing by James Marston Fitch, in his book "American Building." It shows a man in a house, and indicates how the weight of the environment is lifted off his shoulders by the building. This is the promise of urbanism: that we can organize the space to carry the load, while we run around in the state park, oohing and ahhing at the beautiful gorge.

But what, we think next, is the environmental intervention that would make Mt. Morris zing? I was really impressed with Ron Shiffman's idea about a fountain topped by an eagle which used to be in the middle of the road. There is a similar one in the middle of Main Street in Geneseo and it works beautifully to tame and shape the space of Main Street. Such a move, I thought, would slow traffic enough that passersby would slow, be captivated, stop, enjoy, and this increase in local traffic would tip the scales in favor of the village's future.

In leaving today, I cast my vote: Put the Eagle Back on Main!

The End of the Mt. Morris Consultation

Sunday, October 23, 2011

After visting 50 Main Streets, I'm ready to commit

Day 3, Mt. Morris Consultation

I spent the day working on the Main Street consultation with Mt. Morris, Livingston County, NY. Professor Shiffman led a productive brainstorming session that led to the formation of 3 committees and the assignment of tasks. The 9 Pratt students on the trip settled down to work. The 3 professors, Ron and Yvette Shiffman and I, set off to see more Main Streets. Livingston County has a Main Street program, with 5 villages in it, including two we hadn't seen yet: Nunda, to the south of Mt. Morris and Lima, to the north. We went to Nunda first. It is very small, but the three generations of Kathy's Florist had led a wonderful effort to decorate for Halloween. The various poles around Main Street were surrounded by cornstalks and corn people were settled in benches all over town. It gave the place a charming and festive air. It reminded me of the "Villages Fleuris" in France -- the Flowered Cities -- which have flowers everywhere, in hanging pots, planters and beds, giving the place a festive, joyous look.

After Nunda we headed north to Lima, but decided to see Avon first (Lima is pronounced like the bean and Avon with the hard Rochester o). Avon has a large central circle, and in the center is a monument to the sons of the town who lost their lives in the Civil War. The names are listed for us to remember. I have recently been communicating with Veterans Affairs about my mother's "death benefit," a pension she receives because her first husband, Clifford J. Hunter, was lost in World War II. He died heroically, but I don't know if his name and deeds are carved anywhere for future generations to ponder and admire. The circle also had a water fountain installed in 1904 by the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Ron, who has been watching the documentary on Prohibition, commented that there were more bars in New York AFTER the law was passed.

From Avon we went to Lima, whose sign says, "A village at the crossroads of Western New York," the crossroads in question being two paths used by Iroquois Nation. We went to the American Hotel, which has a roster of 300 soups, from which co-owner Rose A. Reynolds chooses 6-7 to make every day. She and her brother/co-owner Patrick regaled us with stories about the hotel, the village, soup, etc. I had the awesome Aruba pea soup, and I bought Rose's cookbook, "Never Enough Thyme."

These visits bring my total to 50 cities. I am now ready to make a commitment to a deeper analysis. I am going to study all the cities of Essex County, NJ, looking at how they are interconnected, what each offers to its local community and the surrounding area, and the ways in which improvements in any of them might help the whole county to prosper. That will take care of 43 of the remaining 50. The other seven cities will continue to be those cities that cross my path as I travel around the US and other countries. be continued

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Two more Main Streets

Day 2, Mt. Morris Consultation

Today our group took a bus tour of Geneseo, Mount Morris and Dansville, NY, adding two new main streets to my list. This was a fascinating day. We got to see the bear fountain on Main Street in Geneseo, a WPA Art Show at the Livingston County Art Center, the Mt. Morris Dam, and the Star Theater in Dansville. The charm of the places and the complexity of the issues made it a very stimulating day. Tonight we're off to "Poe by Flashlight" at Theater 101 (which could be quite scary), followed by dinner at Questa Lasagna, both on Main Street in Mount Morris.

To be continued...

Friday, October 21, 2011

Main Street, Mount Morris, NY

Day 1, Mt. Morris Consultation

Mount Morris, NY, hit the news when Greg O'Connell began to invest there. O'Connell was a major developer of Red Hook, and had learned that it was a good idea to assemble as large a piece of land as possible, he told a group of planners from Pratt today. So he quietly worked to buy as many buildings on Main Street as he could. He hoped that he could help rejuvenate the area the way he helped in Red Hook: doing things that benefited everybody in the community. He showed pictures of the before and after which demonstrated the thorough and thoughtful work of bringing historic buildings back to life and the even more complex work of finding the entrepreneurs whose ideas and savvy could fill the buildings with useful restaurants, stores and services.

O'Connell has worked with Professor Ron Shiffman of Pratt Institute over the years. Shiffman put together a planning studio that will offer advice for the future of Main Street. Knowing my interest in Main Streets, Shiffman invited me along.

As if to prove the point that O'Connell really wanted to listen -- and wanted us to listen as well -- he invited local leaders to meet with us in Theater 101 on Main Street. More than 40 local leaders showed up for an afternoon of conversation about the future of Main Street. I was touched by the number of people who said, "I'd written Mount Morris off. I didn't believe it could come back." They sounded like they were still surprised that it had. As the afternoon conversation went on, I began to glimpse how each of those people had contributed to the revitalization of the area. O'Connell broke a logjam, and allowed good ideas to flow.

The area seems to be a site of good ideas: the local paper noted that the Rochester area was leading upstate New York in economic recovery, having added more than 10,000 jobs to the economy across all sectors, including manufacturing. Creative ideas, willingness to innovate, a tradition of solidarity, and openness of government all seem to be part of the mix, from what I heard today.

"They're willing to do little things, to recognize that 50 businesses each employing 2 people is the same as one business that employs 100," Shiffman commented.

What more is needed? One complaint that came up in the afternoon's conversation was about traffic. I tried to cross Main Street myself and was terrified. "But the traffic is an asset," one participant said. French unbanist Michel Cantal-Dupart has commented that towns that live by the highway have to play a careful balancing game: they want to slow traffic so people will get interested in their town and stop, but they can't slow it too much or drivers will get mad at them.

To be continued...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Main Street, Wall Street: Occupy for Root Shock

In the years that I've been strolling Main Streets, I've watched the recession hit and it's been a hard hit. In the common parlance, Main Street is the antonym of Wall Street, both as places and as sets of people. With the recession and the concentration of wealth, Main Street has gotten poorer and Wall Street has gotten obscenely richer. This has shaken Main Street's way of life. Foreclosures have taken people's homes, unemployment has left them with no money to spend for food, shelter or clothes, and the hostility of the right has left them -- us -- with no hope of a safety net in times of troubles. Eric Fullilove, an economist and planner, described this as "root shock," using the term I coined to describe the painful disorientation and confusion people experience after the destruction of their neighborhoods. I studied root shock in cities that had undertaken urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s. People whose neighborhoods had been bulldozed still suffered from the pain of that loss. They told me about losing not only their homes, but also their social networks, political organizations, friendships, even close ties to family were disrupted. As I describe in my book, Root Shock, the costs of root shock were astronomical, and they had not been remediated. Eric's assertion that the current economic dislocations are causing root shock offered me a new way to look at the impromptu demonstrations going on now and spreading all over the world. In New York they have the title "Occupy Wall Street." Demonstrators in other cities have attached their city name to "Occupy." While it might seem that the "occupy" is simply indicating that the demonstrators plan to go and stay for a while, I think that the "occupy" can be interpreted as a definitive cure for the root shock we are all suffering. The cause of root shock is the loss of all or part of one's emotional ecosystem. The cure: to get settled in a new place. What better place for uprooted Main Street to seek new roots than Wall Street?