There’s a price to be paid for convenience

Carrie Click

How did America go from a country made up of one-of-a-kind small-town downtowns to strip malls and Wally Worlds?

I’ve been wondering why towns in the Colorado River Valley are slowly and surely looking like each other. I know you’ve seen it too. Downtown cores are being vacated and replaced by franchise fast food restaurants, chain stores and big wholesale markets.

Do we like this? Do we want this? Do we prefer a chain hardware store on the outskirts of town rather than a vintage one downtown? Would we rather go to a restaurant that has the exact same decor and food as any of its franchises across the country, or a little cafe downtown?

I think there are a few things at play here. Convenience is a big factor. With our fast-paced drive-through mentalities, we want what we want and we want it now.

Money is another. Corporations can set up shop more easily on an empty lot on the outskirts of town than in an existing funky old building downtown.

But what’s happening when we put convenience and money above all else is that we get a lot less personality in our townscapes. There’s a price we pay to zip in and zip out. There’s a price we pay to go to a big wholesale warehouse rather than patronizing a local bookstore owner. And that price is the cookie cutter sameness that allows us to pull up and run in to buy what we want right now.

I remember going to Florida with some friends a few years ago. As we were driving down a strip-mall-filled boulevard in Tampa, it looked exactly like places I’ve been to in California. There were all the familiar bookstore, clothing, restaurant, home decorating, hardware and gas station franchises – but here we were, on the opposite side of the country. The only things different were the license plates.

My husband and I were in Crested Butte recently, looking for a place to have breakfast. There were no franchise storefronts beckoning us in, so we looked inside three restaurants before we decided, “Yep, this is the one.” The restaurant we picked was funky and friendly, and a couple was behind the counter cooking up their own breads and breakfast fare. Our search was totally worth it, even if it did take a little doing.

A couple weeks ago, I went to the opening of a “new” art gallery in Carbondale. “New” is in quotes because the entire gallery is pretty much a shrine to a part of America that is all but vanishing in front of our eyes. Roadside Gallery is right in the middle of downtown Carbondale – the old part of Carbondale that’s still alive and kicking with unique shops, restaurants, and the one-screen Crystal Theater.

The gallery’s walls were covered with photographs of vintage American roadside sights – diner signs, decrepit gas pumps, brick walls with big vintage signs painted on them, electrical motel marquees, silver trailers. Giant service station signs hung from the ceiling.

The gallery opening was packed and as I walked around, I could feel the people around me longing for a time that has gone by. They’d stare at a photograph, and glance at each other with a kind of whimsical, knowing look. Many of them remembered what it was like before the interstates connected the country, driving on two-lane highways across the United States, discovering little towns along the way. Many of them wished they’d been alive to discover what is now disappearing. The photographs struck a collective nerve.

As we pine about what has passed, I can’t help but wonder if the same sense of loss has hit those before us – and I think it probably has. As life shifted from the Victorian era to the Industrial Age, for example, I’m sure there were lots of people digging their heels in every step of the way.

“You can’t stop progress,” is what they say, and for the most part that’s true. But you can cherish the past, and you can preserve it whenever possible by taking that extra step to put your time and your money where your heart is. Walk to that one-of-a-kind bookstore. Visit that bakery. It’s part of what will keep our towns unique, while making sure the past is kept as alive and well as it can be.

Carrie Click is a Post Independent staff writer. Her column runs on Tuesdays.

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