Of all the ways human beings try to live and work together, the small town downtown may have been one of the most congenial.
A mixture of goods and services, located in a geographically compact hub that formed a symbiotic economic system without even knowing it.
Stores drew customers who also stopped for lunch at a local diner that hired local residents who shopped at stores that bought ads in the local paper and on the local radio that told folks about sales downtown and that drew consumers who also stopped for ... well, you get the idea.
Think Bedford Falls in the snow, with Gower’s Drug Store, the Emporium, the movie theater showing “The Bells of St. Mary’s” on an endless loop and, of course, “you wonderful old Building & Loan!”
The enclosed shopping malls — protected from that snow — that began to dot the suburban landscape after World War II were supposed to replicate that village center dynamic, with the added attraction of acres of free parking to accommodate America’s car culture.
They also helped kill off downtowns in small communities across the country. (You have to believe that Bedford Falls looks a lot more like “Pottersville” these days.)
Now the malls across America are facing an existential crisis as a new retail dynamic emerges. Online sales giants like Amazon are doing to malls exactly what malls began doing to downtown shopping areas decades years ago — providing goods and services in a more economical and more convenient way. Except, not many people are going to be nostalgic about shopping malls.
Locally, North Attleboro’s Emerald Square is only about 87% percent full, and that’s one of the success stories.
Silver City Galleria is in a “death spiral,” according to the Taunton Daily Gazette. The Swansea Mall has closed. Providence Place by contrast is almost at full capacity, but its downtown location makes it unique.
In Attleboro, revitalizing downtown has been a priority of at least three mayors over a quarter century, but it’s going to take more than a tweaking of zoning laws or snagging some grant money.
Woolworth’s is not coming back to the corner of Park and Bank streets in Attleboro, nor is London’s Department Store reopening across the street from City Hall.
We may not know exactly what a new downtown may look like, but it won’t look anything like the past. Whether it’s filled with a new breed of pop-up stores, or the next generation of urban villagers drawn by easy access to transportation and housing, it will have to meet a need.
And we still need to live and work together.