Reinventing Downtown

One of the main malaise affecting towns across Scotland is the decline of the High Street and erosion of social cohesion that goes with it as the more affluent use their Chelsea Tractors to shop out of town while the less fortunate count their pennies and stay at home. First to go were furniture, white goods and clothing stores, followed by fruiterers, ironmongers and now music/DVD, offies and even post offices.

What’s left is either upmarket specialists, such as delicatessens, cafes and upmarket butchers or a wasteland of charity shops, bookies and the occasional poundstretcher. Where demographics and investment have worked in their favour, some still do well. But for every Stirling or Inverness, there’s a Motherwell or Dunfermline; for every Peebles or North Berwick, there are a dozen Saltcoats or Arbroaths or Dalkeiths. Well intentioned town planning of the sixties that gave us Cumbernauld is long bankrupt when it comes to any retail revival.

To our American cousins, none of this is new. Their society embraces almost a slash-and-burn, then move on metality. In the twenties & thirties downtown Los Angeles or San Jose boomed with new money. Then, in WW2 and after millions settled, building new suburbs and shopping malls. Downtowns slid into the place you went for civic business like the DMV but you din’t hang about, certainly not at night. Now those same sleazy downtowns of dark bars and bail bonds are reviving with cultural centres, city tram systems and upscale restuarants.

Some cities like New York and San Francisco were such magnets that they never really suffered urban decline. Others like Baltimore and Boston reinvented themselves from metal bashing & shipyards into chic waterfront cities with great quality of life. Still others—like Pittsburgh or Cleveland, struggle on in ‘Rust Belt’ post-industrial strictures. But when it comes to the more modest scale of town below what we would regard as cities, despite both a will and a means to invest, they just don’t seem to ‘get it’.

Silicon Valley has classic examples. Of the ‘anchors’ at either end of it, San Francisco has never seen serious decline and San Jose has revitalised its once-seedy downtown. But in a strip of 100.000 population towns between, something has gone wrong, despite ongoing affluence through Google & Facebook overhauling Cisco & Sun, who overhauled Intel and AMD, who overhauled HP and Xerox PARC as main drivers of local affluence. But consider three ‘cities’ in turn who are mimicking what the big cities have done and you wonder if they’re on the right track.

The whole area was once fruit orchards—The Valley of the Heart’s Delight. Those first disappeared around Palo Alto because of the founding of top university Stanford there over a century ago. This spawned modest tract homes, a research park and a modest  downtown area that, by the 1960’s was in need of investment and new thinking. Being a university town, it became rich in cinemas and bookshops and a fair smattering of cheap,  funky restaurants— a mini-Berkeley.

Because it was such a magnet for professionals, the school district was top-notch, attracting even more high earners in the post-war boom.  Clearing many side streets of buildings to provide car parking spaces brought more people to downtown to spend their money. But the new businesses drove up prices, the funky bookstores closed up, the students moved on and the entire square km is now so dense with yuppies that, while you can buy a wedge salad for $30, you can’t buy a light bulb.

Pleasant though it is, it has become homogeneous the way that Islington or the Upper West Side has. The main giveaway is that the ethnic mix depends entirely on the staff; otherwise it verges on the 100% white bread.

Having Palo Alto set the trend in catching custom caught the attention of the next two ‘cities’ down Highways 82 and 101 (the entire peninsula’s flat land is built up, so the idea of any space between is illusory). Mountain View had a downtown originally geared to fruit growers, with work boot stores and lumber yards supplying tall ladders. Coming later to the boom than Palo Alto, they first herded lots of minority restaurants into the downtown area and did reasonably well from a lunch trade, less well from dinners.

Without the magnet of Stanford, Mountain View went with an even bigger scale of investment that revamped Castro (its main street) with trees, planters and bowers and poured millions into multi-storey car parks one block behind the main street. This, in turn, created a de facto food mall where it was easy to park so that now the length of Castro is a parade of restaurants of bewildering ethnicity and has a reputation for that.

But it’s not a downtown. It may be a place people come to eat but a fraction of those people live in Mountain View and use any other facility of the town. At first glance, it also appears well served by public transport, having a CalTrain station with an adjacent SCCT tram terminus. But neither serve any other part of Mountain View: CalTrain goes North to Palo Alto & SF or South to Sunnyvale & San Jose, while the tram heads East into a wilderness of business parks and Great America. The bulk of buses travel along El Camino (Hwy 82) almost a mile away and connections are an infrequent nightmare.

Finally, there is Sunnyvale. Once its station was called Murphy handled more cherries than any other, grown on the huge adjacent Murphy Ranch. The main streets of the town are still named for Murphy’s daughters—Evelyn, Mary, Maude and Mathilde. As tract homes and business parks swept over the area in the latter 20th century, the downtown—smaller than Mountain View or Palo Alto—pretty much shrivelled up and blew away, lost as it was among the abandoned fruit loading sheds by the railroad.

At first, this seemed OK by the city fathers. El Camino was a strip development of just about every business you could name from Macdonalds, through Jiffylube, Mancini’s waterbeds and Ham Radio World. Part of it was an auto row where men ritually kicked tyres and there was one throwback of 100 yards of frontage with an old shack where you could buy some of the biggest and best cherries you ever tasted.

Problem was the online shopping and aspiring tastes meant people—especially women—weren’t prepared to go bumping along an ugly six-lane highway, parking in dusty lots and presented with little but hamburgers for lunch. So Sunnyvale’s civic leaders revamped an old neglected street called Murphy right in the heart by the CalTrain station. What they made was a mini-version of Mountain View’s Castro. But to shore it up they lured two major ‘anchor’ stores (Target and Macy’s) to apply the same critical mass philosophy as makes malls work from the Gyle to the Ginja.

But it doesn’t work. With the rest of downtown boasting new multi-storey glass-and-concrete office complexes, it feels like walking around New York or Philly, but without the people and the buzz. But what is really interesting is the racial mix. Whereas my first contact with the area in 1978 showed a considerable black and latino presence everywhere and you could not find a curry for love nor money, at least half the people enjoying Murphy Street’s bars and restaurants are Asian. Whites are still there but few blacks or latinos. The huge exception is the spanish-speaking mass who comprise the restaurant staff—whether Thai, Korean, Japanese, Italian—even in Lily Mac’s Irish bar.

Whatever the answer is for reviving Scottish town centres, what California cities have done with millions of investment here is not it. They have improved on strip-development El Camino to make somewhere pleasant, but soulless as a motorway rest stop. There must be a better way to give a town back its heart.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
This entry was posted in Commerce, Community and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Reinventing Downtown

  1. Susan Bruijnes says:

    Come to Santa Cruz if you want “heart”. We have it here and that’s why I live here.


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