I had dinner in Rockford, Illinois last night with Jennifer and Michael Smith of the City Smiths. You will never find a more charming, kind, and industrious couple. Any town would be lucky to have such passionate and engaged citizens.
Rockford has good bones: a diversified economy, a well educated population, a bountiful rural hinterland, and ready access to Chicagoland. I’ll blog about that some other time with selected photos I took yesterday afternoon. But it’s breakfast time here in Chicago and I thought I’d do something a little different for the moment. I’m posting photos of the drive away from the restaurant in downtown Rockford as I made my way toward the Interstate after dinner.
My conversations with people all across the country tend to focus on the quality of the downtown core, the prosperous suburban landscape, the public schools, the dynamics of municipal finance, the palace intrigue of local politics, blah, blah, blah. And then, inevitably, I hop in the car and head out through the reality of what every American town actually is.
This drive-thru Edward Hopper dreamscape goes on for miles in every direction. Pound for pound this is what constitutes the bulk of the built environment – or at least what passes for the public realm. This is where we all get our transmissions repaired, take our meals, have our hair done, and buy our groceries. This is where a significant proportion of the population works each day. This is our tax base. This is our infrastructure burden. At the very least this is what we all pass through on our way to other places.
Forget downtown. It’s a tiny speck on the map compared to the endless buffet of strip malls and parking lots that have engulfed it. Let go of the idea of comfortable homes set in pristine leafy cul-de-sacs. These muffler shops and fast food outlets are the lion’s share of what we’ve created for ourselves. There’s so much of this stuff everywhere that these establishments will continue to define our communities for the next couple of generations. We’ll need to maintain them, reinvent them, or deal with the consequences of letting them decline. I don’t hear people talk much about that process, most likely because no one’s thinking about it. These places aren’t worthy of consideration.
It’s easy to get excited about restoring a magnificent Beaux-Arts theater and contemplate the economic benefits of a reinvigorated historic downtown. It’s equally tempting to shine up a mid-century residential gem to its original Mad Men condition. But what exactly becomes of a defunct gas station that’s already devolved to a scratch and dent used car lot? How do you polish that turd? Keep in mind, the town just spent a few million bucks improving the road that serves this fine specimen of local commerce. Now multiply this place by thousands of similar properties.
A newly resurfaced parking lot, some fresh paint, a green lawn and some flowers… Is that the solution? How much lipstick can you put on a pig?
This isn’t the kind of conversation that gets much traction at city council meetings. It’s hard to rally civic spirit around the Family Dollar parking lot. But whether we realize it or not our towns will sink or swim based on how well we manage this banal landscape of disposable schlock.