Friday, January 8, 2010

My love story Part I

With no town square to mull my time away in, I was forced to people watch,
meet friends, and generally act out my angsty teenage independence
in-between a eyebrow groomer's kiosk and an incense stand.
(As long as I could get a ride from mom)

If I am going to share my feelings with cyberspace, I should probably introduce myself, and explain how I arrived at this point.

It wasn't until I started attending the University of Michigan Flint that I realized that urban planning was a legitimate career, perhaps because my environment up to that point had been completely devoid of planned, quality space in the public realm. I grew up in a half farm/ half subdivision area of southwest Genesee County, known as Rankin, and attended school in Swartz Creek. Both of these communities, while lovely, had nothing to offer in the department of public space. In fact, these places are so lacking in attractive public space that a google image search of both result in zero photos of the actual town centers. Even the Swartz Creek Chamber of Commerce couldn't find a picture interesting enough to put on their website. So it is no wonder that for years, my idea of an effective public space was that great suburban concoction; the shopping mall, in this case, The Genesee Valley Center.

Of course, at the time I didn't really know what "public space" meant, I just knew that the only place that I would be able to naturally run into a friend or classmate was at the mall. I also had been through many a local, traditional public space, but was unable to recognize it as such. The downtowns of Flushing, West Branch and Holly were always a treat to drive through, I loved the old architecture, and feeling of community, but I failed to compare the uses of these places to the mall that in many ways replaced them.

Then, of course, there was Flint.

Like any good suburban boy, I was scared, and saddened by downtown Flint. Keep in mind, this was the mid-nineties, when downtown was arguably at it's worst point. Every once in a great while I would get to accompany my father on an errand to the Boy Scout office, downtown. After listening to him triple check to make sure the doors were locked, I would press my face against the car windows and stare up at what seemed to be the biggest, most beautiful buildings I had ever seen. I think my dad recognized the joy I got from touring the metropolis because nearly every visit ended with a chocolate croissant from the farmers market, and the obligatory slow drive past the fabulous capitol marquee. My outward excitement was matched, however, with a genuine sadness that I was less apt to share with my dad. This didn't look like the cities that I had seen in movies. The buildings were grand enough, and the sidewalks had benches, and decorative trees, but strangely no one seemed to be using the sidewalks, and the buildings seemed to have been relieved of their tenants. Each story that I heard from my family about shopping on Saginaw, shows at the I.M.A. and banquets at the Durant did not match up with what I was seeing from the back seat of dad's '92 Silverado. I knew that this was a special place, a simple comparison confused me so much. Why would a place this beautiful be deserted, while a place as homely as Swartz Creek grew?

As I pondered what I imagined was to become of those few blocks city, it was my assumption that they would simply be demolished and the land would be re-used for strip malls, and Chili's restauraunts with lots of convienent parking. While that seemed like a very logical and profitable solution, the idea was so disheartening that even my chocolate croissant wouldn't lift my spirit.

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