So we all know that our downtowns aren’t what they used to be. They’re cleaner, taller and most importantly (in most places) they’re quieter. There’s just no people. But we Americans also all seem to carry this strange collective memory of a heyday when our cities and our downtowns were bustling, busy, smelly and successful.
In that era, downtown was a source of pride and a symbol of ambition and progress. In her book Downtown America, Alison Isenberg describes downtown as the cite of transformation, protest, destruction and renewal. Most importantly, she argues, the history of downtown America teaches us about ourselves as Americans and specifically what we value. She writes,
“It has been the people — their crusades, their financial stake, their ideals, and their changing priorities — that have given meaning, hopes, and limitations to the material condition of downtown and that ultimately have given Main Street its form. This interplay puts buildings up and takes them down (Insnberg, 316).
It was people who cast a vision for a space and called it downtown. They called it special — worth taking a risk and worth making bold statements. But today downtown America is mostly just a few lines on a historical marker, “This place was once great because ___.” There are very few people who live downtown, there is little diversity, and most of the buildings are relics of a once-proud past. We have lost downtown and the institutions that resided there. All we have now is a memory of a space and an incredible longing for the heyday of our cities.
In the past few months I have visited two small towns that perfectly encapsulated this nostalgia. The first is Houma, Louisiana and the second is Ilwaco, Washington. In Houma, I experienced the mélange of Louisiana cultures: Country music bars, party busses blaring rap music (it was Mardi Gras weekend), old southern mansions, a beautiful old courthouse and food carts serving Mexican food. As I walked through the city I noticed a mural of an old “Main St.” scene (above). “A look in to the past …” the mural reads, “Historic Downtown Houma.” The larger image is of “Main Street looking west” and the smaller image to the right is of the old Houma Courthouse ca. 1906. I suppose this mural, sponsored by the Downtown Business Association, was an attempt to remind people in the region of the proud history of Houma. Hopefully visitors will enjoy a stroll “into the past,” spend their money, and come again.
The second example of a nostalgic mural (left) is a little more complex. It is titled a “Main Street” mural in Ilwaco, WA located on, not Main St., but Spruce St. at the intersection of First Ave. This mural depicts the same nostalgia for a bustling past with cars! trains! A/C grid! and a man with a hat! walking through the street. This is clearly a mural of past progress and innovation. When I looked closer, however, I realized that it’s actually a mural of a mural of progress. On the left side of the mural, there’s a boy walking with a skateboard toward the mural of the old Main St. The boy seems to represent a newer sort of progress, but is placed in context of the historical legacy of the city.
So what are these murals trying to say?
Greg Dickenson writes extensively about the connection between memory and place and the significance of both on personal identity. He considers the new spaces that we inhabit (e.g. McDonalds and strip malls) which seem devoid of historical context. They are clean and new, but what do these spaces lack? Dickenson’s perspective states,
“In a post-traditional period, a time of deepening memory crisis, secured place becomes harder and harder to maintain, giving rise to nostalgia to cover the discomforts of the present.”
This nostalgia is often revealed in murals such as the two above as well as in old photographs, old marquees, historical markers and similar references to the past. It is sort of a cheap nostalgia because it really doesn’t help us to understand the complexities of the past. I think that a more complex history would defeat the purpose of increasing tourism because it wouldn’t make people feel “comfortable” in these nostalgic places. The problem with that simple message is that when downtown was bustling it was a complex place. As long as we continue to sanitize (“suburbanize”) our cities for the sake of visitors and tourism we fail to revitalize (“urbanize”) our downtowns.