Saturday, August 16, 2008

A beautiful mess

Ooooooh, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Home of the University of Michigan (go blue!) and, for a short time, me.

Take a gander at this documentary video, Insights into a Lively Downtown, made by Michigan graduate student Kirk Westphal, about what makes Ann Arbor's downtown a success (note that the downtown proper is a few blocks away from the campus; the State St. he mentions borders the campus). WARNING: it's 19 minutes long.

Right off the top, Westphal quotes photographer Walker Evans, who once described a great downtown as "a beautiful mess" - which, by the way, includes A-frame signs. He goes on to give a shout out to A-frame signs - or, as he calls them throughout, placards.

The signs give people the opportunity to pause, as they are another form of communication with the public. Note the huge A-frame right in the middle of the sidewalk! No one seems to mind.

My reaction, of course, was "Wow, Ann Arbor sure has changed!" I usually went to Main St. to go to Sears, which is no longer there, and to the bus station, which is.

Ann Arbor, of course, is much larger than Newburyport, has wider streets to accommodate narrowing them to make sidewalk seating, and possibly more buildings (although if you add our State and Pleasant streets together with Inn St., that might not be the case).

But Westphal validates my impression of Oregano (on Pleasant St.) - I like seeing people sitting in the windows. Our State St. doesn't afford much of that nature. Maybe the shoe store and the restaurant should switch locations!

And a lot of what he says explains why people seem to congregate on Inn St., where there are places to sit and watch people walk by.

What have we got on Inn St.? The backs of buildings facing State St., a small play area (very popular), a non-functioning fountain (about to be fixed), a small restaurant, a barbershop (that's my favorite - may the Force be with you, Esther!), a women's clothing shop, 2 places that sell prints (one of them focused on children), a real estate office (is that still open?), an ice cream shop ... and I can't recall any other place or places, until you get to the Brass Lyon.

Keep in mind I worked downtown for several months.

Westphal says you have to leave a visual impression with the downtown. If you asked me a few weeks ago what was in downtown, I would have included the Irish place - which I found out a few weeks ago is long-gone.

That was one place that I don't recall ever entering, or if I did, it was just once. Same with that sports memorabilia place, Dyno Records, and Cool Jewels, although I see their value to the downtown, and that place on Pleasant St. that is decamping to Amesbury.

I once bought something from Milieu, when it was downtown, but that was during a sidewalk sale.

What I see is that people congregate where there is an open space; Inn St., that little area by the Unitarian Church - but oddly, not in that little courtyard by the Chinese place, where there are actually benches.

We need some restaurant to put seating out there and get people in there. It's kind of far from all restaurants but the Chinese place, though, and they would need to put in a side door ...

People walk up the west side (?) of State St. because there are businesses there, but not the other side, where there are insurance agencies and banks.

I know that everyone trusts there is some grand vision for downtown that is going to work, but I don't think that sanitizing it is the way to go. I love Davis Square, for example, which is kind of grungy, but vibrant.

It has kept its spirit alive for the whole 20+ years I've lived in MA.

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