Monday, April 21, 2014

Democracy of Culture, or, Saving the Old Hometown

A young man with Asian features and 1990s-ish heavy metal swagger sets his guitar case down before a wooden bench. That’s all it takes to claim a spot on the moderately crowded sidewalk. The guitar that emerges has a matte black finish and uncut string ends waving from the tuning pegs. When he sings a mix of originals and covers, perhaps inappropriately loud, his voice has distinct Liam Gallagher qualities.

I’m on Massachusetts Street (“Mass Street”), the heart of downtown Lawrence, Kansas, a college town in the classic sense. Locally owned businesses do admirably selling locally made and major-label clothes, small book and music stores attract customers partly by the cat sleeping on the counters, and aggressive international chains like Starbucks rub shoulders with upstart hometown competitors. A department store sells bespoke suits catty-corner from a head shop selling crystals.

Across from the Oasis wannabe, a pretty woman in mime makeup, with a remarkable ability to stand stock still between sets, makes balloon animals for children who put tips in her jar. Mormon missionaries have occupied all four corners of Mass and Eighth, distributing pamphlets to passersby; yesterday it was the Kansas Green Party. Every Sunday, a scruffy guy with a knit cap waves a “Honk For Hemp” sign nearby.

A popular local bumper sticker proclaims: “Lawrence. 27 square miles of reality surrounded by Kansas.” I know what they mean. The Kansas legislature has recently passed numerous retrogressive measures, including a “Don’t Say Gay” bill and an attempt to regionally nullify the Endangered Species Act. The state’s Tea Party-dominated administration consistently makes attempts to inhibit progress, reject modernity, and willfully engineer a Koch Brothers-friendly libertarian paradise.

But Lawrence feels different. People walk Mass Street, window shopping and tipping street performers, chatting amiably, sipping homemade root beer floats from biodegradable plastic cups. Women in hijabs and men in kippahs stroll graciously, smiling around, completely ordinary in this street scene. Sitting with a book and coffee, I watch an attractive young couple walking hand in hand. They’re mixed race, but same sex.

And everywhere, people make or consume culture. Some, like Liam Lite over here, do it guerilla-style, grabbing his place and belting out Clinton-era classics. Others partner with fixed establishments. One bookstore features a grand piano, encouraging local artists to reserve time. A local venue hosts live music, poetry slams, and occasional eloquent speakers. Many restaurants have designated spaces, intermittently used, absolutely perfect for poets and one-(wo)man bands.

Lawrence zoning laws shape how businesses interact. Many stores that normally anchor enclosed shopping malls, like JC Penney and Kohl’s, instead occupy freestanding buildings. Businesses accustomed to attracting large crowds generally build on Iowa Street, an imposing miles-long stretch of concrete parking and prefab steel structures. Customers who prefer vetted commerce in standardized chains keep safe by doing business along Iowa’s impersonal but familiar storefronts.

Mass Street attracts businesses that enjoy rubbing shoulders. Restaurants encourage sidewalk seating, permitting customer service in proprietary space directly melding into public trafficways. Chain stores and local shops overlap; Mrs. Fields shares a back wall with a hometown t-shirt screen printer, while Starbucks and locally owned La Prima Tazza stare down across the street from each other. The heart of Mass Street resembles a pedestrian mall, and remains busy year-round.

This public companionability encourages buskers, street theatre, and other democratic culture. People don’t need street performers: Mass Street’s business district is bounded by Liberty Hall on the north and the Granada on the south, sizeable theatres that attract national-grade performers, from Gordon Lightfoot and Patty Griffin to Haim and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Yet this shared public space apparently reminds locals that they can create culture, not just buy it.

Many Midwestern cities and states lament the “brain drain,” outward migration of ambitious young residents. How, they wonder, to keep potential innovators and entrepreneurs from fleeing to lucrative coastal cities to find better jobs? Repeatedly, these communities respond by authorizing newer malls and big-box chain retailers. But while these actions arguably advance communities’ commercial prospects, they privatize formerly public space and reduce opportunity for resourceful guerilla innovation.

Like Austin, Texas, or Greenwich Village, Lawrence has taken the opposite tack. Commerce happens openly, not in hermetically sealed, climate-controlled boxes. Any company can buy into Lawrence’s economy, but they must honor Lawrence culture. And as Lawrence proves, money and culture travel together. Street guitarists encourage commerce, and commerce attracts street performers. Money and art serve the people, not vice versa. And Lawrence feels like someplace real life happens naturally.

See Also:
One Possible Cure For Small Town Malaise

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