insights (2007-42)

When Downtown Was Dead

insights

Amid the celebrations of downtownâ’s rebirth, you canâ’t help noting some ironies. Thereâ’s more retail, nightlife, and upscale residential development than downtown has seen in decades. But while all this great stuff has been flowing in, a lot of other good stuff has been quietly flowing out.

Back in 1980, everybody agreed downtown was moribund. That much wasnâ’t even controversial. Everyone described it as â“dead.â” It was an exaggeration, but it never provoked an argument. Some retail was hanging in there out of sheer mulishness, but by the â’80s, even the prostitutes were heading for the â’burbs. Hardly anybody came downtown for fun.

Still, when downtown was dead, it somehow had several things going for it that weâ’ve since lost.

Back then, the post office was open every day until midnight. Over the last 20 years, itâ’s been scaling back downtown services. Now you canâ’t even get in the door to get a stamp on a Saturday afternoon. For 40 hours every weekend, thereâ’s no downtown mail pickup at all.

When downtown was dead, until the early â’90s, there was always at least one bookstore where you could peruse a variety of newspapers and magazines and look at hundreds of new books. Today, the closest thing is UT Bookstoreâ’s satellite shop, on the very edge of downtown, facing Henley. Itâ’s open strictly during bankersâ’ hours, and then only when UT is in session. Half convenience store, it does sell a few books and magazines, but it doesnâ’t claim to be a full-service bookstore.

When downtown was dead, there was a supermarket, plus a small produce-oriented groceryâ"not counting the farmers who, more days than not, still sold produce on Market Square. Today, there are probably more groceries available downtown than many know about, but not much selection, and thereâ’s hardly any fresh produce downtown except at the organic farmersâ’ markets, held only twice a week, and only during the warm months.

Back in those discouraging days, there was also a full-service drugstore. As recently as the late â’80s, downtown supported two pharmacies, and one of them was a full-sized Revco. There were two or three places where you could get film developed. There was a place to get ice-cream cones and bags of fresh popcorn. And downtown had an electronics store and a photographic shop where you could buy lots of handy new tech stuff.

Menâ’s clothing stores saved businessmen from a wide assortment of sartorial emergencies. Get mustard on your tie right before a court appearance, and there were about five places that would sell you a new one. Defendants have to be more careful now. And you could also buy tennis shoes, cheap, on Gay Street.

That was all when downtown was officially dead. Live music was rare, street festivals almost unheard of. No one went to the park to read novels or play chess or walk dogs or watch their kids frolic in the fountains; there were, in fact, no parks.

But there were public restrooms. Early in the Market Square redesign process, city officials promised that public facilities would reappear in the new parking garage; they didnâ’t.

When downtown was dead, there were these establishments called â“delisâ” and â“snack shops.â” Calling it â“fast foodâ” would seem unjust, but theyâ’d make you a sandwich behind the bar while you watched, and you could eat it there or take it with you, they didnâ’t care much.

You may recognize this scenario: Youâ’re on the way to an opera, or a rock show, at the Tennessee or the Bijou. Or, say, a City Council meeting. Youâ’ve been running your butt off all night, or maybe youâ’ve gone home and changed, maybe you had to get the kids to a sitter, there was traffic, etc. Anyway, youâ’ve made it downtown. Itâ’s 7:15. Plenty of time to get to the show. The only problem is youâ’re famished.

You have six bucks in your pocket and time to eat something simple. Youâ’d be happy to eat it on the sidewalk. A hot dog, a bagel, a slice of pizza, something. Where are you going to go? Well, thereâ’sâ"â" I mean, thereâ’sâ"â".

Except for a couple of places down in the Old City, thereâ’s nothing at all. After Arbyâ’s closes at 7 p.m., every restaurant within six blocks of the theaters wants you to sit down and be waited on. We all like to be waited on when we have the time and money for it. Judging by the crowds, plenty of other people do. But for many busy folks, such a circumstance is an unusual luxury. A healthy downtown should offer options.

Maybe all this cool new stuff is just the advance guard, a little too far ahead of the supply lines, and itâ’ll just take time to bring it all back forward. Maybe thatâ’s already happening.

When downtown was dead, several government services, like the passport office, were still located in the post-office building, and you could get a driverâ’s license renewed at the courthouse. A few months ago, we had to drive out to the suburbs for those services. Now theyâ’re back in the courthouse, where they belong.

Maybe that vote of confidence in downtown is evidence that some of the other basic amenities will follow. â" Jack Neely

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