Like a lot of small American cities, it's pretty easy to avoid downtown here. The major thoroughfares were constructed to circumvent it. Judging from photos, the place was hoppin' from the late 1800s thru the mid 20th Century. In the late '60s it blew up. (No, really. It did. People died. My great-uncle--now a saint--was one of 41 casualties.) In the '70s it fell victim to bad urban planning and it was turned into a pedestrian mall. People quit going to the shops for whatever reason--inability to park close, creepyness of the giant Alice-in-Wonderland style toadstool umbrellas, number of vagrants who enjoyed the fountains and ergonomic benches--and so a lot of the shops closed. New shops sprang up, but many of them had the smell of death on them before they even completed their first week of business. Wal-mart arrived and even more local businesses closed. In the late '90s, the pedestrian mall was ripped up, the signs were changed from "downtown" to "uptown" in a moment of marketing optimism, and and a few coffee shops opened. Other than the part where it exploded, my hometown's downtown isn't unlike a lot of others across the U.S. that are dead or on life support.
I like to think this one isn't terminal, so I go through rituals the equivalent of lighting candles and saying prayers to the patron saints of economic prosperity and good parking spaces. I find reasons to do business downtown. I buy watch batteries at the local jeweler though it would be easier to get them at Meijer. I buy "unique" (read: "expensive") toys for my friends' kids at the local toystore instead of the ones they probably really want from Toys 'R Us. And, as often as I can find reason to, I take my shoes to "the shoe repair guy." This is my favorite. It's very old world in there, started at a time when people needed to repair their shoes because they had one or two pairs that had to last...a time when people had "a craft" like cutting new insoles instead of just selling you a pair of Dr. Scholl's one-size-fits-most pre-formed air cushions. It's a long, narrow space, with shelves on both sides that are stacked with shoes and boots and jars of solvents and cans of polish. There are family photos on the walls, and I always feel like life is probably lived better in there than it is in most places. I don't know why I believe this exactly, but I do.
Yesterday, I took three things into "the shoe guy": a pair of Haflinger slippers that have developed a case of leprosy, one purple Dansko clog (don't ask), and a leather field bag I bought when I got my first post-college job in 1989. I'm thrilled to have three things to bring in, though once I've plopped them on the counter I want to kick myself for not spacing out the joy. Why not sprinkle out the shoe/bag repair over a series of weeks? The part I love most, aside from being in this space, is when Mr. Marinakes himself looks the items over. He's thoughtful. Is the shoe worth saving? What can he do to fix the problem? While he examines the damage, his assistant talks to me about the weather. Mr. Marinakes turns the slippers over, tugs on the insole that looks moth eaten, and shakes his head. The slippers are good, he says, but the insoles are shot. He can make me new ones out of leather, but it will be pricey. How pricey, I ask. Six dollars, he says. I'd pay twenty just for an excuse to come in. And I really do love the slippers. He asks when I want them and I say I'm in no hurry. It's Friday. I'll have them at the first of the week, he says with what may be pride.
I leave feeling kind of happy and I wonder if maybe Petula Clark wasn't on to something when she sang "Downtown." No doubt she was talking about a more _vibrant_ city (one where you could listen to the rhythm of the gentle bossanova while looking at neon lights), but, to quote another bossy musician, this is MY hometown. And somedays, just seeing remnants of what it used to be (with the occasional horn honk) is enough for me.
I have a non-poet co-worker who writes a lot about this place, but she is a transplant from the East, and so when I read about the poverty she sees here or the grammatical idiosyncrasies of the residents or the lack of culture, I sometimes want to challenge her to a smackdown. Most of what she says is true, but how dare she judge MY hometown. It's probably like family. You can say shitty things about your own siblings, parents, cousins, but if someone else does--even a friend--something goes icy in your gut. Where my non-poet co-worker sees decline, depression, dereliction, I see a history. I see the corner where my maternal grandfather had a car lot, the post office where my paternal grandfather worked, the dimestore where my grandmothers shopped, the bank where my parents met, the movie theatre, the bakery, the furniture store, the old (better) library. It's sentimental. It's nostalgiac. But there's still life here. I'm not as optimistic as the "uptown" city planners about the prospects here, but I kind of love it and want the best for it.