Sunday, August 28, 2022

Opening Installment on Downtown in the Sunday Paper: Nostalgia and Churn

The paper's cranking up a big series on downtown. When they had announced a poll earlier this month, it seemed like they were going to stoke the parking mania, but at least in today's introductory survey and background discussion, they represented things reasonably and alluded to oversupply.

The parking issue seems to be more perception than reality, at least based on numbers. Downtown has thousands of free parking spaces with additional metered spaces.

[Jim] Vu said the free parking garages, which have hundreds of spots, are underused. People often don’t want to walk that far, not realizing if they’ve ever parked at Costco, they are walking much farther, he said.

The comparison with big box parking lots and walking distance is a good one.

Hopefully they will drill more into the reality behind parking and discuss the "high cost of free parking."

Another line they touch on is the need for people living downtown.

More people living and visiting downtown will bring an increased demand for entertainment, specialty stores and eateries.

But living and visiting should be separated analytically.

Historically we have stressed attracting and serving visitors too much, and not stressed creating housing and downtown residents enough. 

We have had decades of the model of downtown as a drive-to destination to visit. It has not succeeded. Any "golden age" of downtown, the one we celebrate in all the old-time black and white photos, had a much higher proportion of downtown residents and close-in residents. Downtown was lively because people lived in it and very near it. The loss of "piety hill" symbolizes this and deserves more attention as harm to the downtown ecosystem, not just the loss of grand old houses we might wish we had preserved.

The foundational element for downtown health is not copious parking, but is copious downtown residents.

Maybe too much nostalgia

Finally, there is the way history is handled.

The piece scatters photos of various age throughout the piece. But it seems to use them for atmosphere and to invoke that lost golden age more than to argue a point about current policy or future policy.

Just on the front page there is so much more to say. The crane and building under construction seems to be one side of a "dichotomy" and the old historic buildings the other side. It sets up a now-and-then dichotomy, the history we should preserve and the threat of new disruption or demolition. The text of the piece limns a more subtle dichotomy, but the imagery points this way.

And it's not really very accurate.

On the top left, the Steusloff building, built in 1902 had a thorough moderne remodel in 1948. That's the version of the building we know. Several buildings downtown got this treatment, at mid-century, and their older brick facades lost. Drastic remodeling is normal history.

The middle building, the Bush-Breyman is largely intact.

The photo on top right shows the McGilchrist block on the corner, very nicely refreshed a few years ago, and the Bligh building, demolished after a fire and now a surface parking lot.

The idea, then, of a "dichotomy" right now, may erase something of the normal dynamism of a city. and focus too much on a presentist set of concerns. 

The Belluschi crater downtown is a present problem, but so are all our surface parking lots, also generally the result of demolition, and a decades-long problem. 

Bligh Hotel served as SRO when it burned down
June 9th, 1975

The Bligh Building had been an SRO, and provided housing for people who today might find themselves in a tent on the street. This piece from 1975 called them "transients or winos." The Belluschi bank was likely worth saving, but it had ceased to be a bank and never provided housing, even crappy, substandard housing. 

In this functional way, apart from aesthetics, the loss of the Bligh is much greater.

The allure of a "unified" vision also might hinder the vitality that comes from jumble.

Parking (housing for cars) vs. housing for people is a perennial theme here, threaded through many posts. Here are a few of them:

There will certainly be more to say as the series rolls out, and we may come back to revisit this initial installment once the shape of the whole is more clear.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

The Monday entry on nightlife really stresses the drive-to destination model:

"But Salem residents say downtown still needs more: More music, more comedy and more places to eat and drink. They want their city to be a destination apart from Portland and Eugene."

That also misses ways we need to drive less for climate.

Again, focusing on nearby housing with very short trip distance is the key. Businesses will follow that supply of customers.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

When I was a kid in elementary school my friend's father owned/managed the old Bligh Hotel. He also managed the Madison Hotel that was over on Marion Street. I was there often and saw the conditions and the motels as well as the clientele. Today we would never describe the tenants as winos or transients. They were mostly older men who had no family left in Salem. The Bligh catered to one night lodgers. They could get a cup of soup and a sandwich and a bed for 50 cents a night. Some lived there permanently others semi regularly. There were some alcoholics for sure, but there were strict rules about behavior. It was a place where men who could not get into the Mission could come. The Madison was more of a weekly or monthly tenant motel. Most people there has some modest income.

Conditions were always clean to my understanding, but old for sure. My friend's family lived in the Bligh and their apartment took up two previous hotel rooms with kitchen and two baths. It seemed very nice. But, of course, the fire was a disaster and why the owners never chose to rebuild was not something a child would know about.

I agree that the loss of the Bligh, Madison and the Senator Hotel created a real hole in the housing capacity of the downtown population. We have nothing like it now and it is sorely missed.