There’s plenty of blight out there. Inner city blight, failing suburban blight, long lost rural small town blight… empty storefronts, boarded up buildings, dead streets. There’s simply no government program that’s going to bring these places back to life. No Wall Street investment scheme is likely to revive these places. Developers have no economic incentive to do anything with these buildings. Banks are risk averse and will not fund investments here. However, many of these forlorn spots exist within otherwise populated and potentially healthy neighborhoods. They may have been passed over when a nearby highway was extended or bled dry by big box stores and chain restaurants. But they could be pressed into service once again if enough people colonize them in creative ways – assuming the local authorities hold back on the usual mindless code enforcement. I’ve heard many local economic development people and city planners tell me they can’t force people to do anything they don’t want to do. True enough. But, man can they shut people down in a hurry for a whole lot of ridiculous minutiae for no good reason. So towns need to ask themselves if they want to continue to deteriorate for the sake of adhering to all the accumulated and often archaic rules that may not even make sense anymore, or if they want reinvestment and vitality. Keep in mind, this sort of reinvention may not exactly look like a Gap, a Starbucks, or a Nordstrom, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t employing people and creating an environment that can start turning a neighborhood around.
Wherever I go I seek out examples of people who carve out a little business or useful community space in the midst of an otherwise uninspiring environment. Here are a few examples. Have you ever dreamed of opening up a shop of some kind? Many people do. But then you start to think about the high rent in a good part of town, and the regulations… The need for a handicap accessible public bathroom, a federally inspected commercial kitchen, insurance, a dozen pieces of paper covered in stamps from who-knows-what bureaucracies: permits, licensing fees, certifications, public notifications… Just thinking about the process stops most people cold. And then they find themselves working as an assistant manager at a chain for slightly above minimum wage.
These folks just skipped the whole asking-for-permission part and started working on a shoestring budget. They gave the garage a fresh coat of pain, got some inexpensive second hand furniture, flung open the doors, put out a sign, and started selling flowers. If the business fails they haven’t lost much – and at least the garage is finally clean and organized. If the shop is successful they can eventually work their way up to the full ADA, OSHA, and DOT gold standard with minimum parking ratios and energy efficiency compliance. But that can come later. Towns have to choose. Do they want to tolerate this sort of thing or shut it down immediately? It tends to come down to the “property values” folks objecting to the “trashy” nature of such establishments. In the end it’s all a matter of self-selecting populations agreeing on what is acceptable in their neighborhood and what isn’t. Some places will roll with it and others won’t. Fair enough.
Here’s a small town coffee shop with a big mostly vacant gravel parking lot that’s been set up as a family gathering place. People can come here, get a sandwich, something to drink, a pastry, and linger with other people from the neighborhood. The shipping containers are both secure storage for the cafe’s supplies, as well as the walls of an outdoor play area for kids. The picnic tables, shade structures, bicycle racks… none of it is expensive. A liability lawyer and insurance adjuster could have a field day with this place. But so far there have been no deaths or mutilations – except for out on the highway in front. But those folks were in cars and had nothing to do with the coffee shop or playground. (I don’t see the county shutting down the highway.)
Around the corner from my apartment there’s a German Lutheran church that puts on a beer garden in their parking lot at Christmas. There’s a mix of expatriate Germans (in jeans and T-shirts) and local German-Americans (in lederhosen and fedoras) along with the usual San Francisco Hindus, Buddhists, and seriously lapsed Catholics (that would be me), but all are welcome. The beer, bratwurst and kitsch oompah band are all pretty good.
This is Alfonso’s Cafe. It’s basically a shed in an old parking lot in a not-so-great suburban location. He set out some patio furniture, potted plants, and a shade structure and he manages to earn a respectable living. No one will ever confuse Alfonso’s place with a Parisian cafe, but it gets the job done and truly makes his neighborhood a better place compared to a dead parking lot. It’s Good Enough Urbanism. If all goes well Alfonso may eventually graduate to something bigger and more substantial. If he had to start with the entire armature of a full scale restaurant he may never have been able to pull together the money to get started. Alfonso’s Cafe is actually an in-between step, one level above a push cart or food truck, but one step down from something bigger and fancier.
My point is that many of the just-scraping-by locations are ripe for reinvention as incubators for small family owned mom and pop businesses if the local authorities cut folks some slack. Not everything will work, but there isn’t much to lose in trying.