Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Telegraph Road" and second chances at the Cottonwood Mall

Remember Dire Straits' "Telegraph Road"? "...the other travelers came walking down the track/and they never went further, they never went back..."

So, OK, Knopfler's guitar is the best part of that song. The lyrics are all but cribbed from Springsteen, and they give a problematically unproblematic account of Anglophone westward expansion, and a few of the couplets go clunk in that way only Dylan can ever pull off -- but "Telegraph Road" does nail a certain inland American nostalgia dead-on. Especially with that opening on a quiet high note. It's the sound of a whistling industrial fan keeping people awake in a gritty downtown on a summer night...

Among other places, the travelers who didn't go back stopped in Holladay, Utah. Holladay's General Plan gets cited in a HUD feature on second chances for dead shopping malls. The HUD folks link to, and were probably inspired by, this NY Times article about dead malls being turned into small-scale old-fashioned neighborhoods. Design expert Ellen Dunham-Jones told the paper, “The idea is to demolish a dead mall and build the downtown area a suburb never had."

Some people do remain nostalgic for Holladay's former Cottonwood Mall. (Who knew, it even has its own page on a site called DeadMalls.com.) Apparently the mall building is mostly gone already: it was demolished to build a mainly-retail thing called a "lifestyle center" as of mid-2008, but then of course the financial bottom fell out.

The General Plan section on the Cottonwood Mall site, which seems to be Appendix F, doesn't explain what's going on at the site now -- it only explains what new development ought to happen. So I'm guessing the HUD people chose to mention Appendix F for its poetry rather than its specificity.

There really is poetry in Appendix F. Lyrical, yearning praise for a smaller-scaled America with real town centers. The writer of Appendix F has been dreaming of Jimmy Stewart. She (I want to say it's a "she") has been waking up in tears for a Main Street that never was.

In this part especially (transcript lightly proofed):
"Within a few years after the first settlers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley a short-cut of sorts was established from the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon to Salt Lake City. A portion of that route, County Road (Highland Drive), crossed the bed of Cottonwood Creek where it fanned out creating a natural stream crossing for horse and wagons. Here the route intersected the main east-west route from Murray to the settlement of Holladay on the banks of Spring Creek. This intersection became a natural business center... the first general store, called the Big Cottonwood Cooperative, opened in 1869 and was built by an association headed by LDS Church bishop David Brinton. Mr. Brinton purchased most of the surrounding land from the original settlers and established a blacksmith shop on the southeast corner..."
Development proceeded from there. Draining of swamplands in the 1950s. Then the mall's grand opening in 1962. A theater in 1967 "and a traffic light was approved at the north entrance". Remodel in the early '80s. But in the '90s, competition from "new freeway oriented mall developments across the Salt Lake Valley," and decline. In the undertow of which, our anonymous writer concludes that "Smaller, human scale places are desired and vast oceans of asphalt are no longer enticing or justified." There's talk of "a pedestrian oriented streetscape," and "public gathering places," and even restoration of Cottonwood Creek. "The new neighborhood should include street-front shopping, offices, and the opportunity for walking along tree lined streets, through gardens, plazas, and along a creekside trail." Also "cottages and single family homes that face tree-lined streets and greens on the perimeter."

Eh, probably Cottonwood Creek wasn't any great paradise even before Bishop Brinton set up his forge by the swamp. I don't suppose small-town neighbors ever live fully wonderful lives even in towns that have satisfyingly central Main Streets with multistory stone office blocks and affordable apartments with ground-floor retail and all the Jane Jacobs etceteras. People do leave towns like that, and never go back, for good and sufficient reasons.

But it's something to see official encouragement behind the Appendix F author's real hunger for towns with neighborly centers. Could be leading somewhere good.

Or maybe my taste in official dreams is as soft-centered as my taste in 1980s guitar.

Fine, I'll be harder-edged in the next post, OK?

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