Tag Archives: downtown

C-T-D: Downtown, no finer place … for sure

If Jane Jacobs is famous for describing “the sidewalk ballet” outside her window in Greenwich Village, I would like to be the first to say Tyler is in a “sidewalk intermission.” There was a time when our downtown was full of people “dancing” around each other to get to the stores and offices, but I believe we are now experiencing the intermission that happens before a renaissance. Rather than hold on with nostalgia to a proud past, we have to look to the future and imagine how downtown will once again be great in a completely new way.

But when did we begin to neglect our downtown? Petula Clark’s  famous ballad, “Downtown,” offers some insight into the process. “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely,” she sings, “you can always go downtown” … “everything’s waiting for you, downtown.” This song is such a incredible artifact of the 60s zeitgeist and a common reference point for urban historians. The paradigm shift is that in the twentieth century (many say after WWII), the dense urban spaces in America became places to visit rather than places to inhabit and as a result they became neither. The problem is that downtown will not always be “waiting for you” if there are not people living there and sustaining it while you’re gone. Like many cities with oil and money, Tyler followed the trend of outward growth and the commuter lifestyle. Fueled by our cheap, local oil we basically packed our cars and left downtown in the dust.

The result of this growth mentality is that we do not have the money to “care about what we already have.” For every new development in Tyler, the public sector is expected to provide roads, sewage, fire departments, police departments, schools, street lights, signs and other various forms of public services and infrastructure. This cost is significant and it is somewhat needless considering there are vast sums of land in the city where services already exist. As the city continues to cater to new developments, we do so rather than reinvesting the money into older, existing spaces elsewhere in the city. These images of Tyler’s downtown (below) are images of a city waiting to be reborn.

Downtown Tyler, TX

So here’s the basic dilemma: How does our local government incentivize businessmen to build on parking lots rather than horse ranches? I suppose it starts with a vision.

Empty lots, parking lots and vacant buildings are waiting for a renaissance. Young people, artisans, and creatives are looking for a place to find community. Some churches desire to feel more connected to the city. Our government deserves to reside in a place of prominence. This is my vision for downtown Tyler as a dense node of city life connected to the rest of the city by transportation and urban design. A great example of this sort of development is Mockingbird Station in Dallas. The place is an incredible example of the potential of a repurposed factory building that is now connected to the DART light rail. It’s attractive, interesting and it has created a significant draw for itself even in its relatively short lifetime. This is the vision I would like to cast for every empty lot in downtown Tyler. Could we do it?

First, I suppose we need a zoning code that allows for a variety of living options such as row houses and lofts next door to hole-in-the wall cafes and shops. A place for people to live. One popular concept promoted by Duany Plater-Zyberk (pictured below) is called the Transect.

The transect is basically a zoning plan that allows for a wide variety of urban forms and gives the city a gradual progression from the urban core all the way out to nature. In addition to new zoning, I am (of course) confident that we need to “connect the dots” of high-density developments with a street car loop along beautiful avenues, bike lanes and sidewalks. All I want is one loop of public investment and long-term commitment to our existing city. The private-sector investments would be astounding. We have already begun to see developers look to the downtown with businesses such as Don Juan’s, Rick’s, Jake’s, the Downtown Coffee Lounge, Balance, and others. What these all need is to be more connected to the city and they will not simply exist as moments of brilliance. Instead, they will reside in an area inhabited by people that have pride in their business and share this pride throughout the city. These people also sustain the economy while visitors increasingly come enjoy the city life.

So there are economic arguments, community arguments, and even valid entertainment arguments for downtowns. To me, the argument for downtowns and urban spaces is more simple: Let’s turn this city (the whole city) into a source of pride. It’s not too late. I don’t want us to look back and wish we had taken our city a little more seriously. We need to allow for a little urban chaos, promote design oddities and find some way to discourage this endless leapfrog development to the next new loop. We need significant places and I believe we need to collectively begin to care about what we already have.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.

Longing for a Heyday

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.

Isenberg, Alison. Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2004.
Dickinson, G. (1997). “Memories For Sale: Nostalgia and the Construction of Identity in Old Pasadena,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 83, 1-26.

C-T-D: Thoughts on “Downtown”

I would love to start drawing a map for downtown Tyler. I’ve already written extensively about an imaginary place I call the Urban Valley, but right now I have this burning question in my mind, “Do we want a downtown in Tyler?” If yes, then for what purpose?

You see, there is this crime that occurs when people try to “bring the suburbs in to the city.” I’m worried we don’t quite realize that the two concepts are completely antithetical. Suburban settlements usually have large parking lots, small wooded areas and one-story detached buildings. These should have very little relevance in a downtown. Take a look at the photo of the parking lot. Does this photo look like a city? (Side note: The city of Tyler has looked into building a parking garage here, but most likely won’t put floorspace on the first floor) The real tragedy is that there were likely beautiful buildings here that served a whole variety of purposes. Now, this entire city block serves one purpose: The storage of cars (idea cite: Douglass Rae). Urban space should be considered so valuable that buildings are next to each other, green space is a planned park or garden and cars cannot be given ultimate precedence. In all sincerity, we have enough suburbs in Tyler … please, first and foremost, let downtown be urban.

I believe that the potential of every space is limited by real and imagined barriers. If there are real, perhaps topographical, barriers to building a higher density downtown than I’ll be content to give up this dream. I just don’t think that’s the case. Most barriers I would consider “real” are primarily economic, but as long as people continue to build farther south I’ll contend that they might as well build downtown. To me, it’s the imagined barriers that I can’t stand. If it’s a zoning issue, some regulation, or a city of small dreams then I won’t be satisfied. Cities do not become great with small dreams. Cities become great when people do bold things that the mainstream calls crazy. Take, for instance, the Seattle Public Library (pictured). This building is a strikingly beautiful and completely functional structure that could theoretically be built anywhere on any square piece of land. In Seattle, they love it. Could we love this library? I should add, there are people in Tyler doing great work to revitalize our downtown, but I’m just not sure whether the public will appreciate it.

Another possible impediment to Tylerites embracing urban life is a lack of urbanity. It seems like Tylerites like to live in wooded neighborhoods rather than urban spaces. Most of Tyler is so spread out that we don’t always have to interact with people who are different from us on a regular basis. I fear we’re missing the beauty and diversity of urban life. But could it be that there is simply not a viable urban option? I say yes. I bet there are thousands of people in East Texas that are tired of mowing their lawns, driving everywhere and living far away from “the action.” I bet if we promote city life in Tyler and remove P&Z red tape then people will come from all over to create and inhabit a thriving downtown.

The other day, my friend Dustin asked me what my ideal downtown would look like if I could design it. I said that there really isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an ideal downtown. As long as there are people there at every hour of the day and night; as long as there are public spaces that welcome every citizen of the city; as long as people claim it rather than exploit it; as long as it’s traditional, deviant, creative and ultimately “Tyler,” then that will be perfect no matter what it looks like.

Look at the arial photo of Tyler to the left. These nine city blocks should not look like everywhere else in the city because if they do then they will be no longer be significant. Downtowns are places where you can live to not only experience the diversity of other people’s lives, but most importantly you can personally add to the diversity of self expression, culture, perspective, race, ethnicity, etc. When we begin to add to this multi-cultural society and invest in the community we become a part of organizations and we learn what it means to be citizens instead of consumers. I don’t want us to “consume” downtown as entertainment the same way we sometimes consume church, media and everything else. Rather, we must commit to downtown as an idea and be unified on our goal at the outset. This idea is that, in many ways, downtown is what we look to as the zenith of our city’s development. I believe there is an inherent value to dense urban downtowns as the site of culture creation, political debate and financial stability. Our downtown is a vital element of the future of our city as the capitol of East Texas. We need a viable downtown option, but we have to want it. And we have to know what it is.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.