Downtown: A Manifesto

“So go downtown
Things will be great when you’re downtown
Don’t wait a minute more, downtown
Everything is waiting for you, downtown”

“Downtown,” Petula Clark

My town has a wonderful main street lined with shops and restaurants that has experienced a miraculous revival over the past fifteen years or so. I am grateful to have it. I try to utilize it whenever I can, to support it and also because it fits in line with my goals: more walking, less driving, which is healthier for me and for the planet, and (generally) supporting small businesses and local people over big-box chains.

In the beginning, the renaissance was mostly restaurants and high-priced gift shops. Over time, the storefronts have diversified, and lately we’ve had some quite unique additions. While we have always had a Wawa, the world’s best convenience store (see here), the word on the street is that we may be getting a real food market, the second outpost of a store that is open in a nearby town. It’s called McFarland’s and I believe it has a deli and some specialty items, as well as the basics. I’m sure it won’t be cheap, but I don’t care — to be able to food-shop on my main drag would be so cool.

We also now have two thrift shops, one of which, Frugal, I frequent for kids’ clothes and for myself. Another store, called the Nesting House, has new baby and kid items (clothes, toys, gifts) and a very nice collection of used clothes, shoes, and gear. Unlike the thrift shops, here you can sell your kids’ clothes to them for cash or store credit. (Yesterday I sold them all those freaking unused cloth diapers I had.) And we have a great shop called Duck Duck Goose, which comprises a toy store in the front and a play area in the back where kids can test out all of said toys. You used to have to pay to play, but now it is FREE. My two little ones are forever asking to go back there. Great place for a playdate. Santa happily picked up some toys there for Christmas… their strategy works.

Fun at Duck Duck Goose

Fun at Duck Duck Goose

What else? We have a train station to catch a train that will take you to Philadelphia. We have a used bookstore, a dog groomer, a soft pretzel store, a produce store, antiques stores, a dry cleaners, a paint-your-own-pottery place, a paint-your-own-pictures-and-drink-wine place, a yoga studio, a Hair Cuttery, a Rite Aid, two traditional bakeries, one gluten-free bakery, two barbershops, a funeral parlor, a coffee shop, a Salad Works, a jewelry store, a place to buy beads, the library, a framing store, one wildly popular retro restaurant/ice cream shop, a water ice/custard shop, and much more.

I can’t get everything I need on the avenue, but I have been trying to go there first if possible. Last summer, especially, I made of point of taking the kids up, dropping my oldest at his art class at our local art studio, taking the little ones to Duck Duck Goose, maybe getting cupcakes at the bakery, and then seeing what necessities I could get at Rite Aid.

A cupcake in the rain

A cupcake in the rain

At Christmastime, I spent a very pleasant morning (kid-free) getting coffee at the coffee shop, where I also was able to get some gift bags; buying more gift bags and wrapping paper for cheap from the variety store; playing Santa at Duck Duck Goose; and getting a gift basket from the gift basket store (cheese, spreads, crackers, etc). Plenty of parking, Christmas music playing from loudspeakers, fresh air… so much better than the mall.

This morning I realized that Easter is THIS weekend so I headed out to get some Easter basket goodies, among other errands. I originally planned to go to Target, but then I said hey — let’s try downtown. We have a candy store, after all. Unfortunately, said candy store was closed (an element of unpredictability exists in downtown shopping, it’s true). But I was able to get some treats at Rite-Aid, as well as a sympathy card I needed. I stopped in Frugal and got several shirts and dresses for my daughter as well as three pairs of shorts for me (Columbia and Ann Taylor Loft) — totaling $30. I also did some window shopping, bought some seeds at the hardware store, picked up a sandwich at Wawa for lunch, and bought a book at the used bookstore ($7! That was more than I thought it would be. I didn’t even look at the price.)

Sidenote: When I get old(er) I want to own a used bookstore and sit all day at a desk in the front window wearing a purple sweater and a purple sequined scarf, with a big teased-up hairdo, watching Channel 6 on a little TV, with mountains of books behind me available to read. Living. The. Life.

Better be worth $7

Better be worth $7

Because I’ve read so many books on suburbia, sprawl and New Urbanism, my Kindle is urging me to buy Walkable City by Jeff Speck. Subtitle: How downtown can save America, one step at a time. One of these days I will read it, but I hardly need to. I’ve been a believer in downtowns for a long time. I grew up in an urban-ish neighborhood with a busy main avenue. TBT: it even had a five-and-ten store. As I was growing up, my parents both constantly lamented how they had to move, when they were kids in the ’60s, from bustling urban neighborhoods to an arid, brand-new development basically in the middle of nowhere. Both my grandmothers ended up marooned in that suburb, unable to drive and with nowhere to walk to. (My one grandmother went through a phase where she did hike to the closest shopping centers, which was great exercise for her, but we worried she’d get hit trying to cross busy roads. One time a driver pulled over and offered to give her a ride home — that’s how out of place she seemed, a pedestrian in a place not designed for them.)

So I’m grateful for what my town offers. The arguments over the best way to design and redesign towns, cities, and regions have been going on forever, but for today, I just want to say: if you have a downtown, show it some love.

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