In just about any American city above a certain size — maybe it’s 50,000 inhabitants, maybe less than that — you can now expect to find a locally owned coffeehouse in a restored building in or near downtown. The baristas will be younger and cooler-looking than you, and there’s a fair chance that a dude with a strikingly well-maintained beard will be leading what appears to be a business meeting at one of the tables.
I know this in part because I just drove through the Midwest and stopped to caffeinate and use the free Wi-Fi in coffeehouses in or near downtown Columbus, Ohio; New Bremen, Ohio (population 2,973!); Muncie, Indiana; Champaign, Illinois; Peoria, Illinois; Des Moines, Iowa; Omaha, Nebraska; and Sioux City, Iowa. But I already kind of knew this to be the case from experiences elsewhere in the country; plus, I had read Oriana Schwindt’s essay in New York magazine last month on “The Unbearable Sameness of Cities,” which describes coffee experiences similar to mine and adds:
It wasn’t just the coffee shops — bars, restaurants, even the architecture of all the new housing going up in these cities looked and felt eerily familiar. Every time I walked into one of these places, my body would give an involuntary shudder.
Schwindt, who recently finished a reporting project in which she visited the city or town nearest the geographic center of every state, goes on to give a full accounting of these downtown archetypes, and her descriptions tend to be spot on. I ate a couple of meals last week, for example, at:
The American bistro or brasserie whose innards can invariably be described as “steampunk by way of West Elm.”
The barbecue place with lacquered-wooden tables that repel sauce, creating an atmosphere that is content to evoke the feeling of a roadside joint that roasts its hogs whole in a real pit for 12 hours, without actually providing that feeling in full.
I didn’t make it into any of the microbreweries that in Schwindt’s words have been “springing up in recent years like mushrooms after a rain,” but I passed a few. I can’t say that encountering these places caused me to do a lot of shuddering, though.
This could be because I can remember what small and mid-sized American cities were like 25 years ago, and now is much better.
In those days, downtowns were deserted after working hours, and in the smallest and/or saddest cities they were often mostly deserted during working hours, too. The main retail and eating action was on the outskirts of town in malls and at big-box stores, and it was dominated by national chains. If you actually moved to a city like Birmingham or Montgomery, Alabama (I lived in both in the early 1990s), you soon learned of interesting and stylish locally owned shops and restaurants, usually located on the edges of older residential neighborhoods. But on the whole, the dynamic was one of centrifugal sprawl and mass-produced sameness — and if you were just passing through, in those pre-Yelp and TripAdvisor days, you were unlikely ever to get beyond that.
There’s still lots of sprawl going on in the U.S., in part because that seems to be the only way we’re capable these days of adding new housing that people outside the top 10 percent of the income distribution can afford. But in cities that are struggling, the saddest-looking commercial areas now tend to be on the edges of town, and in those that are growing, the sprawl is usually complemented by a downtown sprouting new restaurants, hotels, apartments and commercial buildings.
The new apartment buildings do in fact look weirdly similar, most designed in a boxy, multicolored style that the developers tend to describe as “urban” (if any student of architecture has a better name for it, please let me know). And yes, one does sometimes get the sense that, as the Manhattan Institute’s Aaron Renn wrote in reaction to Schwindt’s essay, “American cities are all attempting to clone the attributes of places [that] are seen as hip, like Brooklyn.”
The food, entertainment and travel site Thrillist made this explicit a few years ago with a feature on “The Brooklyn of Every State.” But as I wandered Friday evening around what it deemed the Brooklyn of South Dakota, downtown Sioux Falls, it didn’t feel all that Brooklyn-y — there was far too much off-street parking, for one thing. But it did feel quite alive, which for a neighborhood that two decades ago had a 40 percent vacancy rate and a big problem with people defecating on front stoops seems like a pretty good trade.
One nice thing that locally owned downtown coffeehouses and restaurants and brewpubs do, even when they’re totally derivative, is make more efficient use of existing real estate and infrastructure that had been wasted for decades. Another is to create a new class of civic leaders strongly invested in local economic success — people like, say, brewpub-owner-turned-civic-activist-turned-Denver-mayor-turned-Colorado-governor John Hickenlooper. In their new book about civic revival, “Our Towns,” James and Deborah Fallows make a big deal about the role played by microbreweries, and I don’t think they’re wrong.
Yes, it’s more fun when these local businesses give some indication of where they are located, as with Omaha’s excellent “farm-to-table street food” restaurant Block 16, where Thursday night’s special was a “Nebraska bowl” of mashed potatoes, flank steak, roasted corn, hen-of-the-woods gravy and morel butter, or Sioux Falls’ Phillips Avenue Diner, where the drink selections include a “Beer Mosa” of Coors Lite and orange juice and an “SD Martini” of Coors Lite, tomato juice and olives.
And no, revived downtowns don’t solve all of cities’ problems. In the most successful cities, they have started to create all sorts of new ones. Still, it does seem worth reminding ourselves from time to time that the pre-downtown-revival era was pretty awful.