Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Sound of Silence

Add to Google Reader or HomepageIt was a beautiful Saturday, so I rode my bike to the City Market. Just as two Saturdays ago when I walked there, I was surprised that in the 15 or so blocks to the market, I saw very few people thus no voices, no cars, no motorbikes, no dogs. Just the breeze and me. I was struck by the silence. Downtown Lansing was pretty much uninhabited. Once at the market, I found a throng of people but it appears that most of them had arrived via automobile. We had a similar experience in PA when we visited Ellen’s brother and sister-in-law. Ever wonder why a relative by marriage has a “legal” designation (in-law) in America whereas the designation in French is “beautiful brother” or “beautiful sister” (beau-frère, belle-sœur)?Isn’t the French a whole lot friendlier?  After seeing the renovations that their son is making to his house, we decided to stop at a local restaurant or café for lunch. We stopped at or drove past five cafés before we found one that was open on a Saturday.  Conclusion: “downtown” small-city America is dying. It seems impossible for downtowns to compete with the large parking-lot destinations located in every direction – except downtown. This is not news. It just makes me wonder what it will take to rejuvenate our cities.

Contrast the “no one in sight” in Lansing with the village of Vaison la Romaine, where the downtown is open for business from 7:00 in the morning until the last café closes in the evening and filled with people throughout the day sitting in the cafés, walking or shopping for their daily baguette.

I love sitting on our veranda in Vaison and watching the day go by. Even though we do not live “downtown,” it is amazing to me how many people walk past our apartment building every day. cWhen I leave the apartment to go shopping or to go for a coffee or for a pichet de vin, I encounter people every step of the way.

I see Jacqueline who walks her dogs twice daily. There is the elderly woman who lives down the alley, and there is the mother of one of the kids at the crèche who has a shop. Once in “centre-ville,” there are folks everywhere. There are parents whom I have met when they come to the crèche to pick up their children. There are the merchants and shop keepers whom I see on a daily basis and who recognize me. There are the few “street people” – clean and quiet but always present. On sunny days, there are older men and women occupying every bench that has a southern exposure (and there are a lot of benches in town.)

One of the advantages of small-town Vaison la Romaine (population 7,000) vs. small-city Lansing (population 120,000) is that I see more people that know me or that I recognize or know in Vaison la Romaine than I do in Lansing. – and we have lived in Lansing almost 35 years!

Centre-ville Vaison is the destination of most residents. The stores are there and they provide the services and products that we need for daily life. When I walk through downtown Lansing, there are few businesses that could help me meet day-to-day living needs. There is a very good men’s store, a nut shop, a souvenir shop and a number of restaurants/cafés/bars several of which are not open on Saturday and most of which are closed Sunday.

Is a downtown vibrant because of the critical mass of people who live in the area or come to visit the shops or do people move to an area because of the products and services available (a.k.a., What came first, the chicken or the egg?) If I knew the answer, I could be a highly paid urban planning consultant. Maybe that was the role the pope played when he ordained the “market days” throughout Provence (Tuesday was ordained Vaison’s market day by the pope in the 16th century.) The Tuesday market in Vaison remains one of the best markets in Provence.

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