Why do Small Town Downtowns Suck?

In Canada, small town downtowns have much in common with one another: packed block-sized developments with shops on the ground floor and two or three levels of apartments above.

And they mostly really suck.

The instances where this model persists yield pretty consistent results: a feeling of dirtiness, a bizarre assortment of low-end businesses (ex. fortune tellers, pawn shops and porno dealers) and, of course, limited parking space. It just ‘feels’ poor, or something. And the trend gets worse as the towns get larger.

Thank God for Walmart

Box stores have convenient parking, better prices and no-nonesense homogeneous offerings (if the suburban economy has done nothing else, the removal of knock-off/junk dealers and astrologers from my shopping experience is enough to win my everlasting gratitude).

This results, my grandparents used to lament from their nice suburban home, in a “doughnut city”. Vibrant auto-driven (ha!) economy surrounding a run-down middle.

Why is this? Well, if BS sociology helps: I learned from Daniel Boorstin that settlers were required to actually live on their land and resulting dispersion made the idea of a ‘town center’ unworkable. Leisure was precious and walking to and from a town center was probably an unpopular hobby. Precedent set.

In any case, when land is plentiful, we live on it. And when we all have so much land, the only ones who live in close quarters are those who can’t afford bigger tracts.

Crappy, poor downtown follows and, bingo! Doughnut city.

So what happens when you can coax the middle class into a city? Manhattan happens, is what.

Extraordinary concentrations of wealth are like micro-economic rocket fuel. Massive spoils fund all kinds of businesses that ‘should work’ everywhere: food delivery, local wine and grocery stores that actually have nice stuff, esoterica for everyone,  renovated and maintained restaurants and pubs (“quaint and comfortable”, not “battered and tired”). All the while feeling like a ‘charming’ ‘authentic’ ‘neighborhood’. Or something.

The rule is that when you try to create this kind of personalized, consumer paradise in every city, you will fail. The Manhattan exception proves it.

It’s not just wealth, it’s the concentration. And that’s not for everybody. You need particular socio/demographic characteristics: under-representation of families with kids, over-representation of wealthy migrants, over-representation of educated people, over-representation of high-income earners and an over-representation of people who desperately WANT to live in the Manhattan of their dreams.

Manhattan isn’t New York. New Yorkers live in the other boroughs like real people. Manhattan is a fantasy land.

No wonder people like it so much.