Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2003 / 11 Teves, 5764

Greg Crosby

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Road Thoughts, Part II | There were lots of surprises on our cross country road trip, like the vast amount of wide open space that still exists across much of America — not just in the west. Throughout the south and even into northern states like Pennsylvania and Ohio there remain miles and miles of countryside. Only the big cities are over populated and congested. Even so, we enjoy big cities and wanted to visit a few on this trip that we'd heard and read about but heretofore never actually seen. Places like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Springfield and St. Louis.

One of the most noticeable trends we saw in the cities we visited is the "preservation" of old bank and other grand buildings by turning them into restaurants, museums or hotels. I have mixed emotions about this sort of half-handed preservation; while it's nice that the old buildings themselves are still standing, it saddens me to see what was once a proud bank building or dignified state house totally stripped of its insides and redesigned into yet another tony nouvelle restaurant.

It reminds me of the compromise which is made when developers want to tear down an old movie theater and the preservationists want to keep it intact — the usual outcome being that the fašade remains but the interior is completely gutted and reincarnated into a bookstore or something. It's sort of like taxidermy — the stuffed animal still looks like itself but its soul is gone. In the same way the dignity of the building has been lost when it is gutted — its soul is gone. I'm not so sure that it isn't better to just demolish the structure altogether and put it out of its misery. I love historic old buildings but I want them to be what they were built to be — a bank building should be a bank not a Starbucks, a vintage department store should be a department store not an art school.

Gone, also, are the old time "hangouts" — the corner bars and established restaurants which were once the heart and pulse of downtown American cities. I'm talking about real joints with a history, not the sanitized sports bars, retro eateries and faux-deco themed cafes with their chocolate and apple martinis and their goat cheese salads. I looked for an old-time cocktail lounge, a joint catering to adults, not children pretending to be adults. Just try, as I did, to find a real neighborhood bar. Nonexistent. The dark, cozy, wood paneled bars of yesteryear have been replaced (if they exist at all) with bright open spaces in pastel colors more in keeping with ladies tea rooms than men's saloons. Try to find an old fashioned heavy-set, jowly-faced, middle-age Irish bartender who'd greet you with a "what'll ya have, pal?" Bartenders are now twenty something young women. Character is gone, replaced by cute.

Even the hotels have either eliminated their bars entirely or changed them into open-spaced extensions of the lobby, better suited for tea and scones than bourbon and water. I'm sure this has been done to adapt to the growing number of business women who travel these days. Sixty years ago the hotel bar was the important gathering spot for the traveling businessman — now, with more and more women traveling on business, the hotel spa has replaced the bar as the gathering spot of choice.

Much of what used to be seedy areas of downtown cities have been "cleaned up" and in so doing a lot of the character has been lost. Drastically removing the dirt and grime from a city's core can, many times, also remove the very bone structure of the place. I know it's a tough call to make when a city or section of a city becomes really depressed or burned out. No one wants to keep a rat's nest of drug dealing, robberies, and decay festering in what was once a proud, handsome city, but going too far with redevelopment can take the very essence out and turn the place into a family-oriented theme park, not unlike what has happened to Times Square in New York. What was once an area populated with dime a dance joints, bars, liquor stores, and flophouses is now an amusement park with Disney stores, kiddy fast food chains, and T-shirt shops.

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Yes, there should be places in a city that are kept squeaky clean and family-friendly. Manhattan's Central Park should be maintained in that way, getting the druggies and bums out and making the area clean and safe for all. But not ALL places in a major city need to be sanitized. Sometimes it's good to have a little grittiness and a few rough edges to a place. Broadway and Times Square was never intended to be for children — that's why they built places like parks and zoos and playgrounds. Does the whole world have to be "Chuck E. Cheese?"

One thing that is thriving in the cities today is the sports stadiums and arenas. Big brand new ballparks surrounded with the accompanying parking structures and fast food chains are filling up the central core of many downtown cities. Pittsburg has no less than three huge stadiums downtown, all within a three mile radius. I guess that's where the money is today — sports teams, amusement parks, health spas and fast food. No real stores, restaurants and businesses in downtown anymore — just Wendy's, KFC, maybe a chain drug store and a couple of shops selling sports merchandise. When no games are being played at these arenas, the pedestrians downtown are exclusively joggers and street people — with the exception of my wife and me desperately searching for a bar. Oh where oh where are all the great old bars when you really, really need them?

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2004 Greg Crosby