As I’ve explored Indiana on its back highways, I’ve come to have a heart for historic preservation. While my first love is old bridges, I also really enjoy a restored historic building and I am always delighted to enter one of Indiana’s many small towns and find a vibrant, vital downtown. A real favorite is Plymouth, in the north central part of the state. As you enter from the south on the old Michigan Road, you cross a recently restored Luten concrete-arch bridge on your way to the city’s heart.
Plymouth’s residents are very lucky to have such a charming and well-cared-for main street. Whenever I visit, I feel gently tugged to live in a place like this.
But charm doesn’t necessarily translate to utility. A Plymouth resident can’t do all of their shopping downtown; the available stores just don’t support it. I don’t know whether the Wal-Mart Supercenter on the far north side of town helped cause that or merely filled a gap a once-declining downtown created. (My buddy Kurt is a preservationist in Plymouth who participated in some of downtown’s restoration. If he’s reading today, perhaps he knows and can explain in the comments.)
I grew up in the 1970s just 20 miles north of Plymouth in South Bend. I lived in a real neighborhood, with a grocery, two pharmacies, a dry cleaner, a dairy store, a five-and-dime (with a gleaming stainless steel soda fountain!), a library branch, several restaurants and bars, service stations, doctor and dentist offices, two municipal golf courses, and two public schools all within walking distance – sometimes a longish walk, but a walk nonetheless.
Regardless, my family did most of its shopping at a strip mall south of us where the suburbs began. Those stores had more to offer at better prices, and we could park our car once and do the entire week’s shopping in a couple hours. That was, and remains, a compelling value proposition.
Today only the library branch, the golf courses, and the schools remain. I can’t say for sure that families like mine are fully to blame for that. The neighborhood is much poorer than it used to be; its ability to support those businesses waned over the years. Many business owners couldn’t find buyers when they wanted to retire, so they closed their shops. Perhaps zoning has changed to encourage more residential growth there, blocking businesses from opening. Still, when I visit today, I feel sad that there are no more chocolate malts at the soda fountain, no more running down to the corner for a gallon of milk, and no more riding my bike to the dentist for a checkup. But that strip mall is still there, as are two or three more, and their parking lots seem always to be full.
Because it’s what I can afford, I now live in what used to be suburbs before Indianapolis annexed the entire county in 1970. It’s all cul-de-sac neighborhoods, strip malls, and four-lane roads out here. A few neighborhoods like the one in which I grew up still exist in Indianapolis, and they’re sought-after addresses. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to afford to live in one of them. The one nearest me features a few great local merchants who have persisted primarily by moving upscale. There’s an absolutely fantastic butcher shop there, for example, that now sells higher-end meats and attracts customers from far beyond their neighborhood. Perhaps this is how local businesses can survive, as there’s no margin in such madness for Meijer (a midwestern chain that’s like Wal-Mart, but slightly upscale). But even if I do move there, I’ll still do most of my routine shopping at Meijer because of price and convenience.
And so it should probably be no surprise that I’m on the fence about protecting heritage business districts by trying to block development of big-box stores on the edges of towns. I see the damage the strip malls and big box stores have done to small-town downtowns and city neighborhoods. But I also don’t see these large-scale retailers as patently evil; people seem to like them. Perhaps an environment can be created in which local businesses can adapt.
I took photos of that nearby neighborhood last summer with my vintage Agfa Optima camera. See the photos.