My husband and I recently took a back-roads trip across the country, avoiding the interstates with their urban bypasses as much as possible.
We instead chose to travel the old U.S. highways that often pass through main streets. Sadly, business goes where people are, and if there are more travelers on the interstate than on the highway, that’s where the services go. And downtown businesses that make up the community core wither, their buildings rot and there is no there there.
Often, the city governments have misdiagnosed the problem. In the ’50s and ’60s, it was imagined to be all about parking. People went to the suburban strip malls because it was easy to park, they thought. So city managers gutted the city center, tearing down historical structures that gave it personality and replaced them with parking lots.
I’m talking about Parkersburg, W. Va. In its heyday, the center of town was a fantasy of Romanesque architecture in red brick or gray stone, each structure striving to reach the heights via a spire or a clock tower. The history book in our hotel showed picture after picture of these wonderful buildings, but most were captioned “abandoned in the ’50s,” “gutted by fire of unknown origin after standing empty for some time” or “razed unceremoniously in the ’70s, despite citizen and local historians’ outraged protest.” I noted the locations where these buildings had stood and checked them out. They are all empty parking lots. Only three buildings remained of the many pictured. There is no there there.
I’m talking about Sunnyvale. In the 1950s, Murphy Avenue was its main street, boasting a department store and a number of other retail shops. Adjacent to Murphy was the Town & Country Village shopping center, with wide, overhanging eaves and benches to encourage lingering in the shade.
But in the ’60s, competition from the new Stanford mall was extreme. So the city fathers created the Sunnyvale Town Center enclosed mall, and in doing so cut off Murphy and converted it to a parking lot for the mall. Fifty years later, Town & Country Village has been razed and replaced with apartments, and the Town Center struggles on its third set of anchor stores, which are nearly impossible to find behind their multistory parking garages. Against all odds, the three-block vestige of Murphy is pulsing with lively restaurants. There is little else there.
I’m not talking about Los Altos – yet. But when I approach Main Street on Foothill Expressway, I worry. Formerly, drivers on Foothill could glance over and look down Main and along First Street, and if they were intrigued by the small-town look of the many 1920s-era buildings, they could take the next exit and explore.
But that’s not going to happen anymore. A four-story Great Wall barricades the town against any casual glance. No matter how much ivy and bougainvillea is trained up the Great Wall to soften it, there is no way to see through the Wall to the charming streets behind it. If fewer people are shopping in Los Altos, it’s not because of the lack of parking. It’s because they have no way to know what’s there.