The Enduring Magic of Downtown

Petula Clark's iconic "Downtown" featured a session guitarist named Jimmy Page.

Petula Clark’s iconic “Downtown” featured a session guitarist named Jimmy Page.

I love downtowns.

I love cities.
And sometimes you wonder where these “loves” come from.
I’m not referring to the garden variety affection many of us might have for one thing or another, I’m talking about this deep seated feeling you have for things you are passionate about.
I just always loved being in a downtown. Large, medium or small –main streets ‘complete me’ as Jerry Maguire would say.
I like the energy, the hustle and the bustle; the ability to people watch and the sense of discovery.
My favorite big cities: my native New York a city of neighborhoods, Chicago with its magnificent architecture and Boston a big city that feels small and crackles with history.
For midsize cities there’s Pittsburgh, with the Strip District, incline and iconic Cathedral of Learning, Quebec City which is simply breathtaking and the vastly underrated Cleveland which would qualify if it had nothing but the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame.
 Small cities hold a special place; Asheville, Portland, Maine, Burlington, Vermont, Gatlinburg (prayers), Brevard NC, St. Augustine, Naples, Cooperstown, Port Jefferson, Camden, Me., Bennington and of course Delray and Boca are my favorites. There are more.
There’s just something about an active and vibrant place that lifts your spirits.
A sense of place and a sense of community are important elements that lifts a downtown. Good architecture never hurts, but is not the most important element.  Places come to life when they are unique, lively and offer a mix of activities and offer an abundance of culture, history and unique businesses.
Nothing mind blowing or unexpected on that list. So why do I love downtowns?
I may have finally figured it out.
Last week, during a particularly melancholy moment at the end of a very long day I got a private message via Facebook from my cousin Judy. She sent me a video of Petula Clark singing her classic “Downtown”. The video was accompanied with a few words: “I remember that this was one of your mom’s favorite songs.”
It was.
My mom, who passed in ’98, loved that song and whenever it came on the radio she would stop and sing along –usually to me and my sister.
Sometimes she would play the record in our living room and grab us and dance when we were very little.
In my memories, it is raining and we are waiting for my father to come from work. In my memories, the song always lifts our mood.
I think my mom could relate to the song in a very personal way. She was very young and working in Manhattan for a large life insurance company when she met my dad. It must have been so exciting to be young in the city with your entire life in front of you. “Downtown” was released in November ’64 two months after I was born and right around her first wedding anniversary. It was a year after the JFK assassination and I can only imagine that the song’s sense of possibility provided a welcome respite.
When you’re alone and life is making you lonely

You can always go downtown
When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know, downtown

Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?
The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares

So go downtown
Things will be great when you’re downtown
No finer place for sure, downtown
Everything’s waiting for you…”

I thanked my cousin for remembering; then I watched the video and my mood brightened instantly.

And I thought to myself: maybe just maybe this is why I love downtowns. Thanks mom: message received.

Discovering and Protecting the Secret Sauce

We've all experienced it: same ingredients, but different taste.

We’ve all experienced it: same ingredients, but different taste.

Most cities share similar assets.

In Florida, the cities may have beaches. In Colorado, they may be ringed by mountains. In Arizona, you may see red rock and cactus.
But we all know that special places are different. They have a different feel and special ingredients.
Just like your favorite pizzeria. Most use dough, tomatoes and sauce but the great pizza places stand out. Somehow the same ingredients just seem to taste better.

What drives the demand that’s responsible for success?

The one true advantage we all have at our fingertips is how we make people feel, and the stories we tell about our community.

I think it’s a combination of history, character (and characters), a sense of place, personality, civic pride and values–yes communities can have and should have values.

Mix it all together and you end up with a community feeling and hopefully a sense of community.

To my mind, that’s a city’s biggest asset. A feeling of community builds pride and confidence. It enables you to fall in love with a place and love leads to commitment and when people commit they make things happen.

A sense of community allows you to celebrate good news and just as important it enables you to deal with the bad stuff: tragedy, challenges and disasters –natural and man made.

I have thinking about this secret batch of ingredients as a new civic engagement boot camp kicks off this week at the Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce.

I think 15-20 folks have signed up for a four week program that touches on history, leadership, redevelopment, planning and how individuals can make a positive difference right here in Delray Beach.

I’m hoping the program goes well. And I’m hoping many more sessions are scheduled.

The first session features several Delray icons including Old School Square founder Frances Bourque, influential former CRA Director Chris Brown, longtime and now retired Chamber President Bill Wood and two fine police officers from a golden era Vincent Mintus and Tom Whatley.

In a follow up post, I will let you know what they talked about.

The first class is designed to set the stage by sharing where we came from as a community. Follow up sessions will cover economic development and the most important topic of all: leadership.

Stay tuned and we’ll share the trip. It’s a compelling story. If it’s forgotten we will surely lose our way. If we honor and learn from our past we can find answers for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges and ensure that we don’t miss opportunities.

Festivals Have Their Place

 

Garlic Fest has become a Delray tradition providing much needed funds to local non-profits and schools. Photo by VMA Studios courtesy from Garlic Festival website.

Garlic Fest has become a Delray tradition providing much needed funds to local non-profits and schools. Photo by VMA Studios courtesy from Garlic Festival website.

We know people who love the Delray Affair.

We know others who wait with baited breath for the Garlic Festival (pun intended). And we know people who love craft beer and spend extra to buy VIP tickets to support Old School Square and enjoy the latest suds from small purveyors— many of them local.

We also know others who avoid the Delray Affair, don’t get the whole garlic thing and have no interest in tasting anything named Swamp Ape.

Different strokes for different folks as they say.

But whether you like or loathe events—and a recent poll of Delray voters show that 83 percent of them support and/or attend downtown special events–there’s no doubt that festivals have played a large role in building Delray’s brand.

There’s also no argument that they can be disruptive and costly. But a smart look at the issue would not just focus on impacts but benefits as well. In the coming weeks, Delray Beach commissioners are expected to consider a new event policy and cost structure. While many (not all)  of the policy recommendations we’ve heard about seem to make sense, the cost structure attached to the policy threatens to kill the events. This would be a big mistake. In many cases, the cost of events would nearly triple, which would most likely drive them out of business. That would be tragic.

Special events are a form of economic development. They bring people to your urban core and they help to ring cash registers and fill restaurants—and not just on the day of the event. Many people will come back to Delray after having been exposed to the downtown at a festival.

They also attract tourists and day visitors and some of those tourists and visitors have ended up investing here. We know many residents who decided to live here in part because they enjoyed the events and the overall vibrancy of the city. Events are placemaking and creating a sense of place is critically important.

Festivals also serve as important fundraisers for key community non-profits and they help to build community too.

Delray Beach is very fortunate to have a downtown, a place to gather. Cities without downtowns feel different and many seek to create urban cores to generate that community feeling.

Old School Square was a brilliant civic idea because instead of bulldozing history past visionaries like Frances Bourque recognized the strategic importance of having a cultural center at the heart of our city’s redevelopment efforts. And make no mistake Old School Square was the catalyst. The outdoor space is ideal for events and the new park– approved by voters in 2005 to replace an ugly surface parking lot– should be designed to host events and every day activities.

The energy created by the restoration gave life to efforts to create a vibrant downtown which is at the heart of our success and our economic well-being. Other cities have a beach; very few have a downtown like Delray Beach.

If you are fortunate enough to live anywhere near the downtown you have seen your property values soar–usually viewed as a good thing. There’s a correlation between our downtown’s success and property values. It’s doubtful we would’ve seen any appreciation if downtown remain vacant, blighted and dangerous. But when you are a short golf cart ride away from over 100 great restaurants, shops and yes events you can bet that translates into value. It also translates into qualify of life.

So yes there is a strong need to preach quality over quantity. Some events are tired and need to go or at the very least need upgrading. But that’s a very different conversation than a wholesale “cull”.  Where possible disruption should be mitigated and costs are always a factor but chasing away events from our central gathering place would be a big mistake especially if many of those events are contained, don’t close roads and are enjoyed by many. We should also consider that many of the events raise needed funds for worthy community non-profits.

A few emails and complaints is not a reason to jettison a formula that has worked. Event producers have stepped up and agreed to compromise on items such as their footprint, vendor quality and road closures. Our city leaders should declare victory, perhaps gently raise some fees and move on. Events belong downtown.