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I Miss the Clock at the Crescent

Recovering a community’s heart and soul in the 21st century

May 31, 2001 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

“I’ll meet you under the Clock at the Crescent.” If you grew up in Spokane, Washington, before 1985 that’s what you’d tell anyone you planned to meet downtown. For years the Crescent was Spokane’s premier department store. The “Clock” — a handsome, four-sided timekeeper — marked the center of the store and the heart of the community.

Whenever you went downtown you’d meet your friends under the Clock. While waiting for them, you’d inevitably encounter other friends and they would introduce you to theirs. In this way the Crescent and the Clock served as a central gathering place. In an intangible but powerful way, they were part of the “glue” that held this northwestern city together.

Unfortunately, over the years, city and county officials approved one sprawling retailer after another on the outskirts of town, and the life slowly went out of Spokane’s downtown. The Crescent building still stands, but the store itself is gone. The randomly located retailers on the city’s edges do a brisk business today, but none of them serves, as the old Crescent did, as the heart and soul of the community.

Urban sprawl has been damned for a lot of things, but the worst offense may be the insidious way it has eroded our sense of community. Robert Putnam, the author of the wonderful “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” describes sprawl’s incursion into community and social life as the “civic penalty” that millions of Americans pay for living in places that are less and less hospitable.

All across the nation big-box retailers have redlined older cities and towns, choosing instead to build look-alike mega-stores engulfed by seas of asphalt. While paving over farms and forests, these retail behemoths have killed off thousands of locally-owned stores designed to fit gracefully into town centers and owned by families who had a vested interest in the community’s long-term health.

The privately-owned sprawl-marts and sprawl-malls have lots of company in the public sector. The U.S. Postal Service and local school districts also contribute to the dismemberment of communities by closing downtown post offices and neighborhood schools and building new ones on “sprawl sites” in outlying areas.

Several years ago the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed a historic post office in downtown Franklin, Tennessee, on its annual list of America’s most endangered places. The postal service wanted to close the post office and build a new one in a field on the edge of town. The most vocal advocates for preserving the downtown post office were senior citizens.

Why? Because they saw the post office as a central gathering place, a place where they could meet and greet as well as buy stamps and mail packages. The proposed new post office can be reached only by car, and many senior citizens can’t drive.

Likewise local school districts are replacing smaller, community-centered schools that have anchored older neighborhoods for generations with schools that look like factories in middle-of-nowhere locations that no child can walk to. This happens because state standards for school facilities typically recommend such large construction sites that few new schools can fit easily into established neighborhoods.

Meanwhile the commercial buildings in today’s sprawling suburbs are so poorly placed on the landscape, it’s as if they were dropped out of an airplane. If you live in such a community — and I use that term loosely — a typical Saturday might have you driving five miles in one direction to mail a package, three miles in another direction to get groceries, six miles in yet another direction to buy a wrench, and four miles more to fetch clothes from the cleaners. Add a few more chores — like getting a haircut and taking your kids to a soccer game — and you can easily chew up three hours on a gorgeous spring weekend. It makes the prospect of driving several more miles to a dinner party seem more like a chore than a treat.

One by one our cities, towns, and neighborhoods are losing the places that bring people together. By creating needlessly long distances between the places we need to go, sprawl shrinks the joy and novelty of community life. It reduces the amount of time we have for civic life and socializing with friends, and it virtually eliminates the likelihood of chance encounters with friends.

Today’s sprawl-burbs don’t have wonderful meeting places like the Clock in Spokane. They don’t have sidewalks. They don’t even provide decent settings — like a real Main Street — for the simplest civic event, like a parade. I ask you, who wants to hold a parade in a parking lot?

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