Downtown Constraints

Any time you start working in a new town you must analyze what constitutes the downtown, and how existing elements can work for or against the revitalization. I always spend some time observing the downtown. You can learn a lot just by watching. 

I can remember like it was yesterday when I took over Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia. The area under the elevated Frankford line was a little dangerous. My first interaction was with a working girl who wanted to know what I was doing at the corner of  Kensington and Lehigh Avenues. I was a little taken back by the low prices on my street, but it was endemic to the area.

I knew that hookers walking the street were not good for nighttime traffic, but nothing was open, so why should I care? I quickly realized that the activity, which took place mostly at night, gave the area its reputation. It was not that it was singularly a nighttime activity, but the swarms were more prevalent at night. 

Some constraints are not so obvious. These constraints have built up over the years by folkways, disbelief or that something should happen over a long period. In Phoenixville, the free parking on the street enabled some storeowners to park in front of their store all day. People were upset when I asked them not to park in front of their store. This activity had gone on for so long that people were outraged that I would even ask something that ridiculous.

I remember in Lock Haven how everyone used to close on Wednesday because they played golf. Long after those merchants had retired, died or moved elsewhere, people were still closing on Wednesday. No one knew why other than that was the golf day, even though no one was playing golf any longer.

Some of the constraints are real constraints. The fact that hookers are hanging out at the corner deterring people from coming to your downtown is a real constraint. That is their livelihood.

Some of the constraints are a little bit subjective. With a one-hour parking limit on the street, the police could easily make the cars move that were parked there all day. To make an impression it would have to be done regularly and that was the problem. The constraint was not really a parking constraint because the enforcement of the rule had a fiscal impact constraint.

Other constraints are hocus pocus! Having some group from the 1930s establishing a golf day when the golf course just opened has nothing to do with what was happening in the mid 1980s.

When assessing the constraints that are encountered during a revitalization process, it is imperative that one is able to distinguish between what is a real constraint and what is an artificial constraint. It is not as simple as it seems. Determining what is the truth is difficult at times, because truth is relative to ones perspective.

It you are taught in school that 1 +1 = 3 it would be truth to you. It will not be a universal truth but it is truth to you based upon your experience and what you were told. I remember going to the shoe store and taking an x ray of my foot to see if the shoe was too close to my toes. It was safe at the time and my mom encouraged me to take that x-ray as many times as I wanted to do it.

The same goes for folk knowledge. People understand something based upon what they know. There are times that the knowledge given to them is patently false, and this affects everyone. There is some bit of knowledge that you believe you understand and it may be based upon a misconception.

The real problem comes to play when there are people in positions of authority in the revitalization effort, that have little understanding of what they are talking about. I remember being in DuBois and having a Bank President on my nonprofit board who was against historic restoration. Although the project was a main street project that had its roots in historic restoration and design, we almost sent back $50,000 in façade money because we would be identifying with the “hysterical society.”

There are people whom you will never convince, but most matters relating to the revitalization can be dealt with by presenting information and educating people.  Education is the term. You are not trying to change their mind or convince them… you are trying to educate them. Let them take that knowledge and realize for themselves that their ideas may need updating.

The bank president board member and I discussed the need for new windows in some of the upper floors of buildings in the downtown. He agreed that it was a major concern when some glass fell out of a window and crashed on the sidewalk. I mentioned to him that the façade program covered issues like window replacement, and he was sold. The improvement was what was necessary and not the result of someone tying themself to a bulldozer when they tried to knock down the old library building twenty years before.

It takes tact, and some ability, to deal with people in order to combat wives tales, legends and folklore gone awry. Although not an easy task, it is one of the most important parts of the revitalization, as one tries to find the proper path to take to ensure results without involving yourself in controversy repeatedly.