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Michael Shaeffer Wilson

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Downtowns are Obsolete
by Michael Shaeffer Wilson   

Last edited: Wednesday, September 17, 2003
Posted: Wednesday, September 17, 2003

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Why all this endless wailing about going downtown?

Downtowns are Obsolete.

The other day, I saw another headline on a local publication. It shouted something about bringing life to the downtown area. Just the latest in a long line of articles decrying the lack of entertainment and other options downtown, especially for the younger crowd. A certain group of people seems like they are fixated on this idea of having masses of milling crowds downtown after working hours, partying and playing until the wee hours, every night of the week. I'm not sure where this concept came from; maybe from some local bar owners that want to fill their establishments every night or something. I thought to myself, I don't get this.

Pardon me for being dense, or not with it. But why this constant fixation on getting and keeping people downtown? It is bad enough that people live out their lives bound by rules and requirements and conventions; now you want to almost require that they LIVE DOWNTOWN, so that they never get away from the shadow of their employer's building. Live downtown, spend money downtown, Work and party and get busted downtown. Sheesh.

Downtowns are usually congested, crowded, dirty places that people jam themselves into so they can win the bread, and then escape to some kind of domestic relief (if they are lucky). Parking is a constant hassle. Parking ticket costs and gas costs are going up. When a new apartment building is constructed in an urban area, a maze of utility lines has to be negotiated and circumvented. All these people will need a place to shop, hence requiring either a nearby grocery store, or a commute to a more distant one - more traffic, more pollution. Crime is usually more prevalent in a city center - more easy pickings in one place. Especially if said pickings are downtown partying frequently, as seems to be the goal here.

So why do we follow this outdated model like lemmings? A few reasons come to mind. One, humans are a social animal. The idea of living "where the action is" is appealing. More opportunities to meet the opposite (or same) sex. Secondly, historically businesses tended to locate near distribution and transportation hubs. Easier to move goods, locate where supplies were, etc. Also, communications tended to be best in larger cities historically. And way back when, people needed to band together in groups, behind city walls, to defend against raiders or enemies. So there were lots of reasons for people to group together in cities.

But here we are in 2003. Cities have morphed into rotting centers surrounded by rings of prosperity. Efforts at revitalizing the centers are going on all over, with some very nice results. But hold on a minute. Why not reconsider the idea of needing a city center at all? Why not instead Decentralize people, and have distributed population nodes? Present-day technology enables people to stay at home, and meet most of their social needs. Everything from entertainment, to research, to telecommuting is now available via broadcast and cable TV, and by the Internet. Why should someone drive the harrowing distance all the way back into town, hunt for parking, risk crime, spend a lot of money in hopes of a good social encounter, when the same can be had right at home? Admittedly, people need to see live people, not just words and pictures on a screen. But they can now meet up at a time and place of their choosing, after getting preliminaries out of the way via email and Instant Messaging. You don't have to trudge, ride or drive to a city center to meet people anymore. And increasingly, you can work at home, with a telephone and a computer. Don't need to go downtown. The air is cleaner, the traffic is less out in the hinterlands. So why promote the idea of jamming your tired body back downtown to socialize and recreate?

I realize I'm stepping on toes, and shooting at sacred cows here. And there is the taxation issue. Who pays for infrastructure if everyone is living out in the hinterlands, etc. I'm thinking of a long-term, phased-in re-emphasis on decentralizing population away from crowded cities, and more towards small-town "nodes" scattered about. These could be connected by fiber links, high-speed rail, and existing highways. All of these nodes would be closer to areas of food production, and could host vibrant farmers' markets. And they would be less crowded and congested. Less of a magnet for crime. And less stressful to live in. Taxation and administration could be moved to a countywide form of government. There would still be states and the federal government, of course. Certainly more appealing than fighting traffic and stress battles every day to get to work. And then reading in this or that publication how one should go downtown and support your local whatever-it-is-they-have-this-week going on.

So - I hope someone gives a little thought to the fact that we are trying to keep a 19th century social construct alive, when instead we could be creating a 21st century model that utilizes 21st century technology, and solves 21st century problems.

If I have to read one more article on the vibrant social scene downtown, think I'm going to throw up all over my computer. Who cares about downtown any more? DOWNTOWNS ARE OBSOLETE.

(c) MSW 2003

Web Site: Radical Readingz

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Reviewed by Darlene Caban
I was just wondering the other day, "Where the heck is the 'downtown' in my city?" There really isn't one, unless you count the center of the city-- which, although it's half the size of a 'regular' downtown, still has the same crime and parking hassles. "Downtown" should remain the quaint idea from the old song.
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