Going Downtown

Just got back from a round of Monday morning errands with my mom.

We went grocery shopping.

Then we got back in the car and drove a mile down the road to Walgreen’s.

Then we got back in the car and drove two miles to the fruit market.

Then we got back in the car and drove three miles to the bank.

Then we got back in the car and drove to Panera for lunch.

“Gee, wouldn’t it be nice,” I mused, “if they would cluster all these important kinds of commercial places in one square mile so that you could park in a central location and walk to everything you needed?”

My mother laughed. “It’s called a Downtown,” she said sarcastically. “It’s how things used to be, and it sure made life a lot easier.”

Ah, how things used to be. It’s a phrase I find myself trotting out more and more often these days.

“Look at the way that girl is dressed,” I’ll say. “It used to be that a girl would never be allowed out of the house looking like that.”

Or, “I used to pay less than a dollar for this tuna fish and now the same can costs $1.98!”

And “It used to be that I could drink coffee or tea anytime and I wanted and it wouldn’t bother me a bit.”


This is downtown Northville, the city where we’re moving. IIt comes pretty close to having everything you need in one location.

Seriously, though, some things were better in the “old days.” Take the concept of a downtown. We’re always hearing about conserving energy, but look at all the traveling we have to do just taking care of basics. Does it matter if there’s a bank, gas station, drugstore, and restaurant on every corner when the corners are so far apart you have to drive to them to get there?

I don’t remember much about the days when my parents lived within walking distance of “downtown.” But I suspect that’s why my mother never learned to drive. Between her two legs and the public transportation system, she didn’t need to drive in order to get everything done.

I do recall the first indoor mall that opened about two miles from where we live now. Along with the “big box stores” – which meant Sears and Montgomery Wards – there was a Sav-On Grocery, a Cunningham’s drug store, a Kresge’s (we called it the “dime store,” the 1960’s version of a “dollar store”) a barber shop, a shoe repair shop, a couple of restaurants, and a the movie theater.

It used to be (there I go again) that you could park your car in the huge parking lot and live your entire life within the climate controlled confines of Livonia Mall.

They tore the whole thing down about five years ago (except for the Sears, which is still standing), and now the spot contains a Walmart, a Kohl’s, and a collection of four or five min-strip malls with four or five stores in each one. No drugstore. No grocery store. No bank. No gas station. And nothing within walking distance of anything else.

It’s nuts.

Progress is great and all – and I do love some of the 21st century conveniences (cell phones! ATM machines! drive throughs!)

But I do believe there were some things that were better back in the good old days.

Like downtowns.

So I’m excited about living in close proximity to a “downtown.” Northville, our new city, has retained the small town feel while keeping things updated and upscale. I’ll have to get in the car to drive there, but I’m hoping to develop the habit of doing as much of my daily business in one location as possible.



16 thoughts on “Going Downtown

  1. That’s one of the things I love about living in a very small town (4,000 people): once I’m in town, I can walk everywhere. I do about a mile or so loop every workday at lunch to take care of all my errands. The grocery store is right across the street from my office, so I can even manage that part without driving.

  2. Oh my goodness, I was just having a conversation about ‘downtowns’ the other day!!! We determined that every neighborhood in Brooklyn has a ‘downtown’ (a market, a butcher, a fish market, a church, a pharmacy and a bank) It’s funny, sometimes big cities can feel more like small towns than small towns 🙂

    • Melissa, I’ve heard New Yorkers talk about the mini-downtowns within their neighborhoods, and I’m glad to hear they exist in the midst of a huge metropolis.

      I think here in Detroit part of the reason we’ve spread out so much from the city was economical. After all, our biggest industry is automobiles, so they wanted to make sure every family needed one (or two or three!)

  3. Becca, I have been talking about this for ages too. Wasn’t it Dorothy Parker who said, “There is no there, there”.
    In Europe, there is always a sign pointing toward the Centre of the city. Our cities in the U.S. and Canada have no heart, no core area, no pedestrian-oriented neighbourhoods.
    Our cities were planned with the car in mind and as a result we lost something truly profound in the resultant sprawl. Small towns were the right way; the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker…I don’t feel this is just nostalgia talking. I think it makes sense to get out of our cars and on to our feet.
    Thanks for a great post.

  4. I remember downtown. My mother never had a driver’s license either. We walked up to Harris’ Store and waited for the city bus to arrive. Off we went for the afternoon. Downtowns made a lot of sense. Then they built lots and lots of highways and created the burbs. Living in the burbs required gas and cars and fertilizer for lawns and did I mention GAS. Lots of gas. And that is the history of the world as we know it.

    I’m enjoying the sound of your new neighborhood. You’re going to love it.

  5. Yes – gas and cars. If you lived in the suburbs you had to have a car to get into the city to work.
    And then you needed one to get to the grocery store and the bank and the post office…

  6. Geography is destiny, sometimes. Cities like San Francisco and New York (the ones I’m familiar with) have good urban transit and clustered neighborhoods partly because of limited land. Houston spread because there was so much land, and room for freeways.

    On the other hand, there are changes taking place in Houston. We actually have about a half-dozen city “centers” now, spread out around the metropolitan area. Maybe more, depending on how you define them. There’s the old downtown, mostly abandoned but now coming back as an entertainment center, but there’s also the Galleria, the Medical Center, the Woodlands, Sugarland, and so on. And many of the new neighborhoods in Houston accomodate pedestrians and bicyclists as well as cars.

    If you want the symphony, a sports event or a certain eye doctor, you go to Houston. Otherwise there’s no need.

    • I’ve noticed a trend in some of the newer outdoor shopping areas in Florida and Arizona to be build them as if they are little downtowns, with high rise condos and apartments above the storefronts. It’s not quite the same thing, but it shows that there is an interest in this kind of living again.

  7. Oh, are you and I on the same page on this one. I envy you moving to a town like Northville! I have to say it’s one of the things I like most about going north to Gaylord, although that little town has certainly been corrupted (and deeply damaged) by a WalMart and Meijer on the outskirts of town. How many hardware, grocery and apparel stores closed… Lansing certainly felt the effects of the Lansing Mall on the West and Meridian on the East. Now it is downtown only during the day with some lunch restaurants and a few stores for the state workers. No movie theatres, only one or two nice dining restaurants. It makes me pretty angry.

    I’m lucky in my ‘hood to be within walking distance (about six blocks) of the grocery store — not a gREAT one with a huge selection but a perfectly goodone for most things — and about a mile from a two larger shopping areas. Not that I can get everything there, but there’s not a lot of mileage to deal with. Rick never goes anywhere out of the hood or in the car. Hardly ever. But when his glasses broke in his bike crash, it was driving downtown to the optician. I miss it, too.

    • I have fond memories of Gaylord – The Sugar Bowl restaurant?? and there was a Ben Franklin store my son loved to shop in when he was little.

      I love Northville’s downtown. I still have to drive to get to it (5 minutes), but I intend to make the best use of it I can! You need to come visit me when i get moved in – maybe when they have Victoria Day in Northville!

  8. It seems that “change” is another important theme on our minds these days. I’m glad that we can look back on our history and see it as good. The hard part is letting it go… sometimes preserving it in our memories just doesn’t feel like enough.

  9. the lack of downtown is what I miss in North American gridlined cities unlike European mediaval organically grown cities which have a clear center square near the church & townhall somewhere.

    Unfortunately having a downtown doesn’t always guarentee anymore to have the local tradesmen locally there…surely a pity

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