I entered the 2009 Name Your Dream Assignment contest with this pitch: Main Street, Exiled: Disappearing Downtowns.
I want to explore downtown districts in decline across America, from those that are struggling to those with tumbleweeds blowing through. I want to show the history and the potential contained in neglected downtown areas.
The commercial downtown districts of American towns and cities have taken a beating ever since the advent of the shopping mall. And after malls arrived, the big-box superstores pounded more nails into the coffin.
The next step in this cycle is the rise of urban villages, such as Perkins Rowe in Baton Rouge, which are new working/living/shopping developments with an artificial downtown feel. Meanwhile, in the true historic downtown of Baton Rouge, many storefronts, work spaces, and living spaces lie empty.
I'm always fascinated to find an genuine Main Street, USA; I'll take it over a strip mall any day. But even more intriguing to me are the downtowns in jeopardy: the businesses just scraping along, the ones defying the odds by continuing to exist (like the hat shop that's been in Detroit for more than a century, the only shop on its street still open), the greasy spoons, the old man bars, the angular midcentury display-window entryways, the old neon signs.
On the main street of Phoenecia, in New York's Catskills vacation region, I made a beeline for the pharmacy at the end of the street, and was not disappointed: it had a creepy display of old plastic dolls in the window, and inside it still had the original wooden display cases along the walls, with antique medicine bottles behind the glass. Elsewhere in the store I found bendable hair roller sticks and and the Epilady hair removal device that I hadn't seen since the '80s, their packages faded and yellowed, but still for sale. My purchase (not the Epilady!) was placed in a crisp waxed paper bag.
It's like living, dying history at once. That's what I want to capture: the places stuck in time, the places that didn't make it, and the people who are still there.
I want to document such downtown districts in every state. I hope those who see the project will consider the sustainable option of using and adapting the neglected downtown spaces we have, rather than throwing up another new imitation on the outskirts of town.
Unfortunately, I entered too late in the game to have a real chance of winning the $50K prize.
I was disappointed to not have that funding to carry out my project, but then I decided to do the project anyway. It just won't happen as quickly as it would have with all that loot behind it. I'll start out in Louisiana, and then whenever I travel and find a downtown in disrepair, it'll get added to the blog.
I'm still working out how I want to do this, but one of my first downtown studies, Baton Rouge, will appear here soon.