Littera Scripta

Libraries and the Revitalization of Downtown
by Marylaine Block

One thing you may not know about me is that I was raised in a family of city planners, the only non-city planner in the bunch. Indeed, there was some family speculation that I had been switched in the hospital, and that somewhere in this country, there is a family of librarians or teachers that has produced a totally unaccounted for city planner. But I am in many ways one of them -- the city planning genes run deep.

I love good cities, with vibrant downtowns, full of places where people can go on purposeful errands and still leave themselves open to the adventure of meeting new people, or running into casual acquaintances. These are towns that are full of things to look at -- store windows through which you can see displays of books, clothing, flowers, jewelry, art -- and other customers enjoying themselves. But they're also towns that appeal to our other senses, with good smells coming from ethnic restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, and flowers. They're towns that, with parks, benches on every corner, maybe sidewalk cafes, encourage people to sit down, enjoy the passing scene, and chat.

Many of us had such towns once, and allowed them to decay. People moved to suburbs, or to outskirts of town so distant that downtown was no longer convenient. Lured by shopping centers and big box stores that offered plenty of free parking and the chance to shop without being exposed to the elements, many of us started to find downtown unappealing. Downtown merchants, unable to compete, started closing their doors (in Iowa, it's been documented that within five years of a Wal-Mart store being built, nearby towns have lost 60% of their clothing stores and hardware stores). Other merchants simply moved to the outskirts or the suburbs themselves. The vacant storefronts left behind are not only unattractive, they are contagious -- shopping requires a critical mass of stores.

If city fathers and downtown merchants want to reverse this process, they need to give people a good reason to come downtown. Their downtown library is a good starting place.

The thing is that shopping can be done almost anyplace -- people rarely have loyalties to specific stores, and will tend to go where there's a sufficient quantity of stores and parking. The library, on the other hand, is a specific destination. People who would not otherwise bother to go downtown will do it in order to take kids to story hour, browse through the new books and videos, do a little research, check their e-mail on the library's computers, ask their librarians to look something up for them, or maybe attend a meeting or book discussion group. Kids will come to the library to do homework assignments and use the computers.

There is no store, no mall, no other agency, that offers all these services in one place, let alone for free. Wherever the library is, people will come. Many of the people who come are not on a time deadline -- they're free to spend time browsing, seeing what's up, maybe running into friends.

In other words, the library has brought downtown potential window shoppers, potential bookbuyers and coffee-drinkers, potential restaurant crowds.

City leaders and business owners who want to bring business back to their downtown would be well-advised to start with their library. If they've allowed it to run down, become a bit shabby or overcrowded, they should spruce it up with some remodeling, or a new addition, or even a new building altogether. They should consider putting at least a small park right beside it, where people can sit down, enjoy the flowers, leaf through the books and magazines they've checked out, maybe buy food at some nice concession stands, as they can in Bryant Park, the lovely pocket park that adjoins the New York Public Library. They could schedule festivals, concerts and other entertainment in that park.

City leaders and local banks could offer low-cost loans and preservation grants for remodeling distinctive old buildings in the vicinity, offering would-be business owners a chance to capitalize on the presence of library users by offering the kinds of services that would complement the library -- bookstores, kid-friendly recreation, art galleries, music and video stores. Good nearby bakeries and restaurants would encourage people to linger.

This isn't theory, you know. It has happened, exactly this way, in many places. The area around the New York Public Library was once a decaying, crime-ridden neighborhood. The improved environment has given rise to bookstores, art galleries and restaurants, and rents and real estate value have increased dramatically. And it all started with a commitment to build on the existing library traffic by making the park safe and attractive, a place that encourages people to sit a while and chat.

There are city leaders who have decided that libraries aren't that important anymore, not necessary in the age of the internet. And if libraries were only about information, perhaps they'd be right. But libraries are about much more than that. They're about community. They're safe places for children, where trustworthy professionals take kids' needs and interests seriously. They're gathering places for adults. They're the place where communities store their history. There are as many reasons for going to the library as there are library users.

Any town that fails to understand that is missing the unique opportunity its library gives it to make its downtown as vibrant and alive as it used to be before Wal-Mart came along.

To see how other towns have rebuilt their urban core, see the book Cities Back from the Edge, by Roberta Brandes Gratz and Norman Mintz, and study issues of Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, sample articles from which are available at #www.nthp.org/.

Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.

My Word's Worth: an occasional column by Marylaine Block

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Recommended Books

Roberta Brandes Gratz. The Living City : How America's Cities Are Being Revitalized by Thinking Small in a Big Way

Richard Moe, Carter Wilkie. Changing Places : Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl


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