Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I'm off to Baker City for the Elkhorn Classic stage race. I'll be back on either Sunday evening or Monday morning, depending upon my carpool.

It's one of the very few races that I'm doing for a second time, as I actually did this race last year, back in What Seems Like Forever Ago Cat Four days.

One thing that strikes me doing all of these multi-day races in the northwestern US is how enamored I am with another artifact of a bygone day: downtown. I've seen a lot of historic downtowns this year, and they've all got certain similarities, but a certain unique character. Wenatchee, Hood River, Waitsburg, and Walla Walla join Baker City as places for the races so far this year. Florence was last week, though that wasn't for bike racing.

I love pacing the sidewalks, checking out old city halls and clocktowers, the old storefronts with new contents alongside Family Owned and Operated Since 1904. Of course, as something of a cafe nut, for the atmosphere as well as the coffee, I'm looking forward to sitting down at Mad Matilda's for a cuppa and a scone.

The word "downtown" to me still conjures an image of a bustling center of population and commerce, but more than a quick glance around any of the above cities reveals that it's no so simple any more. The "town and country" divide has given way to "city and suburb," and business that once clustered together -- like schools of fish, for protection and cooperation -- are now all but swallowed by a handful of sharks.

This presentation may perhaps be overly grim and biased, but the essence of it is true. In days past, every town had a down, and it was sought-after space, since it amounted to loads of free advertising. You walked from shop to shop, and if you were heading from Shop A to Shop Z, you'd have to pass B, C, and all the rest to get there. Two-level building was also the norm, the stereotype being the owner-proprietors living upstairs and working below.

This, though, this is the era of the all-in-wonder supermarket. "Downtown" is confined to the lands of skyscrapers in large, six-through-eight figure population center large, and single local business and nationwide franchises have fallen to big-box retailers. It's a color, a logo, a generation-spanning ad campaign.

Rock beats scissors, Home Depot defeats Ace hardware, Walgreen's and Safeway put paid to grocers and drugstores alike, and of course, there's the big blue giant with a smile on its face.

I think the real reasons for this are SUV's and air conditioning.

(that's half-sarcastic, but half-serious, too. You'll get it if you think for a moment.)


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