The Death of Downtown

Mike Laws '04, English 171, Brown University, 2003

Author's Introduction

Well traffic's kind of bad
They're widening easy street
To fit more SUVs, they're planting baby trees
To grow to shady peaks
A little shelter from the sun
Or the upper tax bracket
Here on the cul-de-sac we are not giving back
Until the community repents

-- Conor Oberst (of Desaparecidos), "Greater Omaha"

Towards the end of my senior year in high school I began dating a girl with whom it became necessary, for reasons I won't go into here, to meet only at the most unconventional of times, in only the most secluded of spaces. This girl (Audrey, let's call her) would typically call my cell phone around midnight to inform me that she was up for one of our little back-seat trysts -- which was always what the night came to, following a brief visit to a diner or coffeehouse -- but also to let me know that she couldn't go just yet, that she had to wait another half-hour or so to ensure her safety in sneaking out of the house, past the big protective stepfather who'd shortly doze off in front of the living-room television. Full of giddy, nervous anticipation -- I might be having sex in a few hours! -- I could never force myself to wait out the interval patiently at home, in my room. And so I'd hop into my little black Honda Civic, already concocting a plausible alibi for tomorrow's interrogations (my parents, though they'd long since lifted any curfew, surely wouldn't support this kind of behavior, especially on a school night), and drive aimlessly around town, scouting potential locations for that night's particular make-out session.

There were plenty, if you knew where to look. Salisbury, Maryland -- the town in which I've lived all my life, college excepted, and the place at least three previous generations on my father's side called home -- is a bizarre little city on a bizarre peninsula known to all who reside there as "Delmarva." (Just as in Illinois "Chambana" substitutes for Champaigne-Urbana, so "Delmarva" bastardizes the full names of its three constituent states: Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.) The peninsula itself lies east of the Chesapeake Bay, sandwiched between that body of water and the larger Atlantic to the east, and includes all of Delaware, a chunk of Maryland, and a thin slice of Virginia, which curves pointedly west- and south-ward towards the state's mainland, towards Norfolk and Newport News and the North Carolina border. In Salisbury proper live about 30,000 individuals; another 55,000 populate Wicomico County, most of them in the numerous small municipalities surrounding Salisbury -- Fruitland, Hebron, Sharptown, Mardela Springs, Pittsville, Willards -- communities which, though technically outside city limits, are more or less a de facto part of my hometown.

To the outside observer, Salisbury must seem the sort of place that can't make up its mind what it wants to be -- small town or mid-sized city, inclusive bringer-together of various peoples or dominion of rednecks alone, tree-shrouded university common or vast grey business territory. In the south the roads, most of them curvaceous single-lane two-ways with no posted speed limit, wind around vast cornfields and dense forests, running alongside grand plantation-style manors and modest hunting lodges; it is out here that kids cut class to smoke pot and drink booze ("country-drivin'," it's called), and here that most auto accidents involving deer occur. Up north is a different story. There Salisbury becomes uncannily more urban, the brick buildings taller and more closely hunched together, the businesses crowding Route 13 to such an extent that you won't be able to read the billboard for one until you've already passed its predecessor (though, in true suburban-sprawl fashion, these businesses will fan out in space as you travel farther on toward Delaware). A Staples, two Wal-Marts, a Barnes & Noble, a Fuddrucker's, an Applebee's, some expensive bars, a Tokyo Steakhouse, three or four soft-touch car wash services, countless gas stations, auto-body shops, seven or eight car dealerships, Subways, two or more Arbys, virtually every other fast-food joint you've ever heard of, and an expansive mall to house even more of those Gaps, American Eagles, McDonaldses, and Sam Goodys we so need in our town -- it seems no successful venture is being excluded from breaking ground in north Salisbury. (This, the thickly commercial region, is also unarguably the most poverty-sickened section of town -- if you are intrepid enough to venture beyond the commercial and see the area for what it really contains, that is.) On all its welcome signs, Salisbury proclaims itself the "Crossroads of Delmarva," and the description is apt; smack in the middle of town, just north of the actual "downtown" area, U.S. 50 and U.S. 13 literally bisect each other. Besides, it's in this town that you could conceivably find anything you might need.

But on this particular night, one of the many midnights this spring that find me driving aimlessly around, out of my own affluent development and up Camden Avenue by Asbury Methodist and the university high-rise dorms, eventually turning left to catch a glimpse (across the large barren recess yard) of old Pinehurst Elementary with all her lights out, then pulling another left onto Riverside to swing by that area where most of my friends reside, the nearly unlit Woodland Road neighborhood I can only describe as perfectly middle-class -- on this night, weeks before my graduation, I decide that Audrey and I need a new spot to park the car and cut the lights. I'm sick of that little makeshift dirt parking lot the fishermen use during the day, the one adjacent to the old-looking wooden bridge on Riverside Drive and in the full shade of dogwood trees; I'm sick, too, of the heavily dark corners of the gated communities -- Nithsdale, West Nithsdale, Tony Tank, Fox Chase, Deer Harbor. Lately I've been struck with a ludicrous paranoia, that some pervert or cop of pervert-cop will accost us while we're in the throes of some, er, heavy petting -- or, worse, that some doctor's wife will recognize my car (it could happen) and phone my parents. What we need, then, is a change of pace. So, with the same tense excitement a criminal must feel while casing a joint, I rip through the gears, first to second to third, back down to second around a corner, working my way north on 13, towards Salisbury's downtown.

Now, at no point in my lifetime could Salisbury, Maryland ever have been described as a "walker's town," the type of place where pedestrians can go about their daily business with the same ease and fluency as those fortunate enough to own an automobile. No, in this place you must either be a motorist, or else be a close acquaintance of someone else who is a motorist -- especially because only recently has the city begun to remedy its appalling lack of public transportation. In fact, I felt from the earliest age very sorry for the freshmen at Salisbury State University, not because they had matriculated at a crummy school, but because there is really no way to exist happily without a car, not in this town.

Still, what I see this particular night shocks even me. For not only are there no people occupying the sidewalks and slanting streets of our charming little downtown -- only a few square blocks of red brick and pavement and close-pressed, tall, old-looking buildings, cordoned off by routes 50 and 13 on two sides, by the winding river on the others -- that much I would've expected, this being past midnight on a weeknight. But there is absolutely no one around, only some beat-up ugly cars seemingly stranded here and there, and all the lights out in all the tenement windows. It is, in every sense of the word, a ghost town. People work here in the daytime, I know -- my own parents' law office sits just around the corner, on East Main Street -- but it suddenly occurs to me that this is the downtown's sole remaining purpose: to be haunted by the bankers, lawyers, and civil servants who roam its post offices and administrative buildings by day, wanting nothing to do with it come nightfall. Exiting my car (I've parked in one of the countless available parallel spots on Main Street, figuring no one will come around anytime soon to check the goddamn meters), I amble up towards the Plaza, the one street closed to traffic (though that has since changed). The two big marble fountains at center emit a slight electric humming sound, and there is the attendant, constant splash of water -- but no noise, other than that. In front of me in the half-light are apartment buildings, only a light or two burning at the top. And what look like shops -- though, on closer inspection, they are more of the vacant banks and government offices I already knew were here. There is a jewelry store, Kuhn's Jewelers, but everything else on the Plaza is For Rent, that sign plastered into each of several large store-front windows. I spin on my heels and head back for the car, the crumbling green and yellow marquee for the old Movies 6 -- which shut down a few years back, unable to compete any longer with the Hoyts in the new mall uptown -- visible in the distance, at the end of the street, the corner of Main Street and Route 13.

Of course, these empty streets, lots, and alleyways suit my current needs perfectly, and later tonight, after receiving the second call and driving back to the Woodland neighborhood to pick her up, I will bring Audrey downtown, station my car discreetly, and, amidst the ruins of Salisbury's dark downtown, proceed to do with her what I have been waiting every since midnight to do.

* * * * * * * * * * *

It wasn't always like this.

In 1964, when my father was eleven years old, and when the census counted only 50,000 individuals for the whole of Wicomico County, downtown Salisbury represented the hub of business activity for the entire area, the entire Eastern Shore. It was the Mecca to which flocked all the farmers from the outlying agricultural communities; trekking the twenty or thirty miles into town -- a task that must have required far more effort in those days, before you could cruise comfortably in from Hebron in your Pathfinder or Explorer, doing sixty all the way down smoothly-paved Nanticoke Road -- these men (men of flannel, of dark denim overalls, men with dirt trapped permanently under fingernails, and skin tough and leathery from overexposure to the sun) would congregate outside the family-run department stores, the small shops and holes-in-the-wall, and peddle their fresh crops, trying always to secure a price that would have made the pilgrimage worthwhile. And, as they hawked their goods using that strange regional accent which is today fast dying, that drawl of elongated, lazy vowels, that Southern-tinged mode of intonation whose cadences one might actually still discover as far north as Philadelphia -- as these men spoke, they became the easy and unwitting targets of my father and his buddy Bruce. Exhibiting fully that time-honored rebelliousness of the pubescent or near-pubescent American male (and ignoring, momentarily, the fact that their own aunts and uncles no doubt talked the same way), young Victor and his friend got their kicks from poking fun at these hicks who were, clearly, too old-fashioned and uneducated, who had been working their fields too long to realize that the word is pronounced "corn" and not "karn."

My father's memories of this era center largely on Watson's Smoke House, a dank, dingy little establishment on the Plaza known at the time mainly for its extensive selection of smoking paraphernalia. "The place," he tells me, "was dirty, cramped and certainly didn't meet code. The ADA wouldn't have allowed the steps or the narrow beaded entrance. God knows if there was a bathroom. It was a smoke-filled place devoted in large part to tobacco products that wouldn't exactly meet today's standards for political correctness. There was no parking, but we didn't care. It was 1964 and we'd arrived by bike. My friend Bruce and I were downtown. A couple of not-so-cool-as-we-thought eleven year-olds having a little fun in the happening central shopping district of small-town America."

Having a little fun, as it were, included not only correcting the grammar of those hick farmers, not just harassing the older female employees of Bruce's father's department store ("the blue-haired ladies," as my dad remembers them) -- it also involved loitering for hours at a time inside Watson's, trying in vain to procure a pack of cigarettes but eventually settling for candy, gum, or the chocolate syrup-plus-milk-and-soda-water mixture known somewhat cryptically as the "zip." And it involved a lot of bullshitting with Bobby, the store clerk who for my father seemed the paragon of cool (but whose family surname he cannot, at present, recall). For those in the know, Watson's Smoke House offered much more than smoking accessories; it offered a worker who would play the newest, hippest releases on 45, who wouldn't mind if a couple of screw-off kids hung around in the shop all afternoon -- who would in fact, in the words of my father, "let us aspiring teenagers bask in his reflected glow." It didn't even matter that the guy wore thick glasses and sported a terrible comb-over. "That," according to my father, "is only hindsight, looking at things through the jaded eyes of a 40-something."

That same jaded 40-something then goes on to explain to me how, after he'd grown up a little more, the place started lose its appeal: how those 45s of Leslie Gore and Chubby Checker paled in comparison to the Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin; how the store itself couldn't compete with the emergence of the so-called head shop -- "places with black lights, leather and paraphernalia -- places where the illicit sales out of the back room surely outpaced sales of the bongs, rolling papers and racy magazines available out front."

And then, just when I think my father has begun the inevitable lapse into sentimentality, into nostalgia -- a lament, it would seem, for "the simple pleasures of a bygone day" (as he puts it at one point during the discussion) -- right then, in fact, he says something that catches my attention: "By the end of the '60s," he tells me, "the place seemed more quaint than cool. So while shopping downtown began a slow losing battle to the suburban malls, Watson's was probably more of a victim of new, edgier places than the overall downtown malaise."

* * * * * * * * * * *

And here, in case you're wondering, is why that last statement, that final innocuous little addendum to my father's story about Watson's and those bygone days with their simpler pleasures -- new 45s and insults aimed at ignorant farmers, cold zips and possible smokes and Cool Bobby with his Coke-bottle spectacles and his poorly-disguised receding hairline, entire youthful afternoons spent lolling around the bustling downtown -- here is why those two sentences caught my particular attention, made my ears perk up and put a grimace on my face; here, in other words, is the significance I saw behind them:

They fucked everything up.

See, when I began thinking about this piece, about the issues with which I would grapple -- which is to say, about the all but total desertion of downtown Salisbury, and how what had happened in my city might be symptomatic of the nation at large -- my take was quite simple and, admittedly, quite hackneyed: the proverbial small guy had been given the proverbial boot, had stood witness as his small, homey general store (probably built of logs) had lost all its customers to the giant sharp-looking Wal-Mart just a ways down the road, where those poor, tired, overworked souls, just trying to save a buck after all, would thereon continue to shop for their milk and eggs and cheese, their blankets and boots and jeans, their booze and beef jerky and cartons of cigarettes. Then, I reasoned, owing to the success of one such business, more would spring up, enticing the initially hesitant town residents with similar discounts, and eventually receiving similar business. Because these are mammoth superstores we're talking about here, and because a mammoth superstore cannot reasonably exist jammed between two other establishments, in only the amount of space offered by the ground floor of a tenement building, these Wal-Marts and Sam's Clubs and chain restaurants would eventually siphon our good-natured and well-intentioned denizens from the downtowns they had for years become accustomed to, leaving those city sections bare and uninhabited, like ghost towns. Then driving becomes a necessity and having to walk anywhere a detestable burden; everyone gets noticeably fatter from the lack of exercise and meaner from the lack of amiable outdoor communication; society begins to crumble; eventually there is some sort of vicious civil war; and we all die -- unless, as I was prepared to argue, we can somehow reverse this inexorable, lamentable process and get everyone to embrace the old-style idea of a thickly peopled, independently commercial downtown.

This is the essay I had believed I would be shortly undertaking, complete with an irresistible introductory section detailing my own sophomoric sexual liaisons (not everything, it turns out, had to be scrapped). I'd even flirted briefly with the idea of getting some corporate bigwig, some CEO -- Wal-Mart's, if possible -- on the phone, so that I could grill him about monopolistic practices, maybe, or so that I could simply point out how evil he and his minions were.

Luckily, it took only that one statement from my father to reel me back in from the deep sea of facile fantasy. Watson's Smoke House did not vanish, did not collapse, at the hands of some evil and faceless mega-corporation; its business and clientele were never stolen by a bigger, better-managed company offering the same products for cheaper. Rather, it was the clientele itself who contributed most directly to Watson's demise. For whatever reason -- perhaps it had something to do with some radical new Sixties aesthetic -- tastes changed. Tastes changed, but not the taste for any particular product. It was the taste for an atmosphere, for a new environment in which to purchase those products. Watson's failed to tailor itself to these new prevailing tastes, and so watched idly as its best customers began entering the head shops across the street -- head shops that appealed, with their black lights, leather, and psychedelic glassware, to those who desired to be part of the current trend. It is my position, my revised position, that the big companies with cheap prices certainly do play a part in the destruction of the small downtown shops, which often can't afford to compete. But it is also my belief that we, the consumers who will without so much as blinking climb into our SUVs and journey miles uptown -- in the process burning off as much in gasoline as we are likely to save by shopping where we shop -- also play a role in that destruction, and one much, much bigger than we have yet accepted. We are just as responsible for the death of downtown as any Wal-Mart or Target under the sun.

I think, to illustrate this belief, of how any ordinary couple would respond to their eleven year-old son if he requested permission to do as my father had once done -- that is, to return home only hours after school had let out, to venture instead into the city's downtown where, accompanied by a close friend, he would spend the afternoon hurling invectives at the townsfolk assembled outside storefronts and shops, or hanging out with some balding smoke-shop clerk about whom these parents know dangerously little, a man who has suspiciously few qualms regarding unsupervised children, even those unsupervised children who haven't the money to pay him for a chocolate drink of his own creation, who will constantly look for ways to pilfer a pack of Camels from under his nose. What would the parents, responsible parents trying their best to raise a good, moral child in the modern world, say to this? Hell, no, methinks. And why not? Because it would be dangerous. Because in that big, unknown world of other people there are -- as we now know all to well -- child molesters, drug dealers, pederasts, homicidal maniacs, just a plethora of gun-toting, God-fearing nutcases who can't wait to get their sicks hands on a vulnerable young thing. There are the John Wayne Gacys, who look friendly enough at first blush. There are the Mansons, who seem able to exert their control without it being once questioned, ever. There are the Dylan Klebolds and Eric Harrises. There are the terrorists. There are snipers. There is al-Qaeda. No, the downtown is not safe. It is not safe because, though we hate to say it, other people are not safe.

The fear of what coule happen. The fear of the off-chance, the long shot. This is the prevailing attitude, and by no means is the concern limited to children or adolescents. No, this fear worms its way into virtually every aspect of adult culture, until it is unavoidable, until it has infested everything upon which you look, everything you touch. It is the news coverage of "killer escalators." It is the goddamned Terror Alert System, its autumnal color scheme. It is the constant warning that this product "may cause cancer," or at least has in a laboratory rat somewhere. It is the cop stationed in the school, and the office assistant who won't tell you where your little sister is waiting to be picked up until you've produced at least two forms of identification as well as your social security card and passport.

So who in his right mind would want to shop in a store without its own parking lot, in a part of town where it might be necessary to walk a few blocks before getting on with the consumption? Who wants to cram himself into some tiny dive operated by a clerk who looks less than reputable -- what with those ridiculous specs and that nappy comb-over! -- and so few other fellow shoppers that it might be necessary to exchange a few words, probably only pleasantries? Who cares about character? No one. Today, efficiency is your safest bet; nowhere do you feel more secure than having just entered the automated doors of one of those Wal-Marts or Targets or Sam's Clubs, having been greeted by the friendly elderly employee who must by this point be too arthritic to stock shelves or slice deli meat, but who nonetheless must don the cheap blue vest, if for no other reason than to prove that he is an actual paid worker of this company. There are no dark corners in these places, everything is fluorescently lit. You don't know for a fact, but you would guess that there are cameras all over. The aisles are well marked, so that you may find whatever it is you're looking for with the least possible effort, with the greatest celerity, without deigning to ask for its location. And when you check out, you are not expected to make small talk with the register attendant; in fact, company policy instructs her not to speak unless spoken to first.

If Ruskin was right, and the architecture we prefer serves the secondary purpose of cultural barometer -- of indicating the state of our tastes, and which values we currently hold in highest esteem -- if that sage was correct, I ask, then what is to be said for us? We have become, after all, a culture that desires sameness, that desires predictability and order, that has eschewed the old brick tenements and tight-squeezed businesses of downtown, deserted them wholly in favor of the isolated superstore, the squarish, characterless shopping mall, the factory outlet, the Wawa convenience mart (each of which must, by corporate regulation, possess exactly the same interior layout). Are we really this rigid, this drab, this bent on efficiency above all else, even human contact? Are we only fearful? And, given my earlier confession, the lascivious anecdote with which I began this piece of writing -- that admission to my own use of the downtown area in Salisbury, Maryland -- are we so wrong?


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Last modified 16 December 2003