6/30/2009

Downtown Mall as Community Front Porch

I really enjoy when I get to spend spending the last hour of my work-day here on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall. If I'm not at a government meeting, I'm likely in my office. So, I like to come down, get a cup of tea at Java Java, and sit here and type until my battery runs out. This beautiful evening I'm adding some items to cvillepedia and breathing in the moist summer air. As this is one of my nights without the kids, I'll go home, cook dinner, and then work a few hours before going to bed. Thankfully, I'm getting to spend a little time in this little oasis.

I just came across an article from the Lexington Herald-Courier on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall. The writer, Tom Eblen, was just here for Bike Virginia, and wrote something that appealed to me:
"The mall has become a big tourist draw and economic engine. More importantly, it has become Charlottesville's community front porch. Most of the people we saw there seemed to be locals. Some said they come every week between May and October."
I seem to be out here several times every day that I'm at work. I often run down the mall because it's a nice stretch where I don't have to worry about cars. I love the random natuire of running into people I know. I bring my kids here as often as I can so they can walk about. We visit the Discovery Museum about twice a month or so, and have frequent slices of pizza at Vita Nova. I feel incredibly fortunate to live here and look forward to raising them here.

Lexington, Kentucky is considering bricking over a one-block stretch somewhere in their downtown. That's causing a lot of controversy, as you can imagine. Our own $7.5 million renovation caused a lot of debate here, but here I sit, six months after construction, sipping the remnants of my tea.

People are constantly milling past, and I get to hear snippets of conversation. Old men keep entering the Masonic Lodge. A couple from Northern Virginia expressed glee that they could live here more cheaply after looking at a sign to my left that advertises downtown apartments for $1050 to $1450 a month. A couple at the Nook is irritated they're sitting behind the tree. The wife is telling this to someone on the phone while the husband sits back and sips his lemonade patiently. A trio of elderly women are eating two plates of hamburgers. Young families are strolling around, taking advantage of the cool, summer air.

So many strangers to me, but yet, are they really strangers? I'm sure it wouldn't take long to get to know some of them. A single guy with a lap-top isn't the kind of person you approach. That would be impolite, as I'm clearly working, right?

One of the projects I'd like to work on for the Charlottesville Podcasting Network would be to interview some of these people, but I've yet to find the time or the resources to make it a reality. On my runs, I sometimes dream up radio shows I'd love to produce. But, the current reality of my life is spending as much time as I can working so that I can afford my mortgage.

The little sparrows have no qualms coming up to me. They keep landing on my table in search of food. They fly away empty-beaked.

The Nook is hopping. Mostly every table outside is filled with patrons, chewing away on diner food that isn't quite as authentic as it might have been a few years ago. But, of course, they didn't have as many tables then, did they?

The birds must be getting food from somewhere, as I can hear at least one chirp every two seconds. People must drop a lot of crumbs from those hamburgers and hot dogs. I just watched a trio of birds fighting over a huge chunk of bun. They scramble just as we scramble to make it through life with a full belly.

There's been a lot of talk about the health of the mall. To my right is an empty store front where Order from Horder used to be. To my left is the old A&N, which was occupied in June for the Look3 festival. But, do these empty store fronts really serve as any kind of barometer for how our community front porch is doing?

I'm looking west, and I can see the Urban Outfitters, open for business now. I've not been in there, but I can comment that I've seen a lot of people walking in and out with merchandise. Will the presence of this chain store transform the character of the Mall? Will the pair of empty stores I'm sitting next to be a future retail mecca?

I don't know. Can there really be an answer?

I'm glad that our predecessors decided to build this place for us. All of my life I wanted to be in a place like this, and here I am. Spending the last hour and a half here has been a tonic for me, just like going to the gym was earlier today. At times, I can feel incredibly isolated. Even though I know a lot of people, I don't know a lot of people.

Here, I get to glimpse a little bit of our American humanity. I just watched a teacher say hello to one of her former students. He's maybe 5 years out of high school, and I can imagine the conversation. He was incredibly startled to see her, but now they seem to be quite pleased to be chatting.

I didn't grow up in Charlottesville. I grew up in Lynchburg. There's nothing like the Mall down there. As I've written here before, I feel disconnected from my childhood, and in many ways I feel like my life began in 2002 when I moved here. Every day I feel like I'm learning how to become more human. How to become a member of a community.

My own front porch is always in flux. I'm constantly moving things on and off of it in the hopes of making it more efficient. Last week it was totally cluttered with my double-stroller, my push mower, a trash-can. This week it's covered with grass clippings that I've not yet swept away. Next week, who knows what it'll be like. But, I know that I'll use it to sit outside when I need a break from my work-night.

2 comments:

Jen on the Edge said...

It is the rare occasion that we're on the Mall and don't see someone we know. In fact, my husband usually bets me before we head downtown -- who will we see that we know? Will it be a parent from our elementary school or someone whose children went to the same preschool? Or maybe a neighbor?

This morning, before I login in to work, I'm taking my children downtown to the library and then to Cappellinos. Priorities, you know.

Sean Tubbs said...

I often see people I know, but I'm just amazed at how many people I don't know. Opportunities to get to know more people, I reckon!

I think I'll know more people as my kids grow older. They're not yet in school, so there's a whole new chapter of our lives waiting to begin.

I agree that the library is definitely a priority!