I’m personally conflicted about downtowns, because it does seem arbitrary in our current economy to make all the resources and people of a metro area move themselves in and out of downtown each day. However, life does feel a little emptier without an agreed upon, routine, physical gathering place.

Something that strikes me about a lot of sprawling Latin American cities is the fact that their “downtown” has ceased to be the center of activity (often becoming more of a historic district). These cities, it seems to me, have various “centers” without any place being THE center. In my city, during the pandemic, I enjoyed seeing our neighborhood “centers” come to life with new business popping up to cater to those now working from home. If we could have vibrant neighborhood centers, I’d be willing to let go of downtown.

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The CVS situation unfolding as it did later that evening, in addition to the conversation you had with your coworker was quite unnerving. I read something from The Long Now about humanity's trajectory, the long term patterns/cycles and this question, about the heart of a city... well it lingers for me. Thank you!

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Agree this is a good question to ponder. Thanks for framing it up this way, Russell.

For me, there is something about downtown which keeps pulling me back despite the changes. I’ve worked downtown for 10+ years until 2020, but I’m only occasionally working downtown these days. The changes I see now are immense.

Unfortunately, I had a similarly jarring experience this past January when I returned to my vehicle in the parking garage at 2nd and Market. It was a weekday mid-morning. I stepped out of the elevator and turned the corner to find someone peering into my vehicle and jiggling the handle! I stopped and in a loud, stern voice immediately said “hello, what are you doing?” This wasn’t a measured, deliberative response. It was a reaction. Without saying a word, the individual slowly walked past, I side-stepped to stay out of reach, and it was over. Thankfully.

Upon reflection, I have concluded that I should have walked away immediately to avoid the situation, much like you did in CVS. For the purpose of preparing yourself for a similar situation, I’d encourage anyone seeing this to think through what your response might be. I’d like to think that would lead to a more intentional response in the moment. Possibly. Hopefully. I’ve been more aware of my surroundings downtown ever since.

This is not a trend, but coincidentally, I’ve been downtown to dinner twice and one concert in the last 10 days. Zero lunches, which is a trend. The tourist types seem to stick out more as well, or is it that the background office crowd has diminished?

Those are my recent experiences downtown. To my mind, it seems we are still in the early innings of this transformation, and it is highly uncertain where this ultimately leads re: a city and its center. Such a good question to ponder.

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Your story put me very much in mind of the Wendell Berry essays I read recently, and the reflections on "home" that it brought up in me. And it raises a difficult question, one that Berry touched on a bit but not with the kinds of challenges you raise (crime, blight, urban decay, etc): what happens when "returning home" finds a very different home, or that home changes right from under your feet?

This question has no easy resolution, and I appreciate that your essay doesn't try to neatly resolve it, either. It certainly is a big question for our time.

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Your exploration of downtown's evolution reminds me of the stories my parents tell of their younger days when downtown was the bustling center of the city where they grew up. They tell of going to department stores with soda fountains, visiting the Planters store for fresh-roasted nuts, and enjoying the decor displays every Christmas.

And it makes me think of even further back, the days when business and commerce were integrated into daily life for families and towns, when shops were in the front of the house or below the living quarters and everyone pitched in.

I don't know if either model is the ideal for human life and business. But I do feel some of the same shift you do. I look around even the small town I grew up in and see it becoming increasingly franchised, the smaller local shops mostly gone. The coffeehouse where I spent the vast majority of my free time in my late teens and early 20s closed years ago, and the building burned down not long after. Families don't congregate around businesses much any more—you're blessed to have what you do with yours.

I'm rambling, but needless to say, your piece got me thinking. Thanks, Russell. :)

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