Historic Downtowns: Where the Real Action Is

It may have been gussied up for tourists, but downtown Bisbee, Arizona retains the character of its mining past

It may have been gussied up for tourists, but downtown Bisbee, Arizona retains the character of its mining past

I recently read a New Yorker article on the demise of the traditional megamall, with their soulless concrete façades surrounded by a moat of parking somewhere in the suburban sea. It got me thinking about the entrances/freeway exits to most North American cities and towns.

Like a Las Vegas casino, they inexorably parade you past a gaudy, neon spectacle of gas stations, chain motels and the usual fast-food outlets. So familiar is this blueprint that without a map, you’d be hard pressed to tell where you are. It all looks the same.

The cookie-cutter gas/motel/fast food strip entrances to most North American towns and cities tell you nothing about the character of these places

The cookie-cutter gas/motel/fast-food strip entrances to most North American towns and cities tell you nothing about the character of these places

But from all my road-trip travels, I’m detecting a kickback. The glittering entrances may be where the traffic is, but the real action is someplace else—in the centre, in fact. And the key to finding it lies in the freeway signs, not the ones luring you to the chains but the ones saying “Historic Downtown.” (This obviously applies more to compact towns than sprawling cities, where interesting, independent places are harder for visitors to find).

Take that exit, drive for a few minutes and look for another indicator: a line of low downtown buildings, with little collections of cars and trucks parked out front. Not surprisingly, these businesses are often literally on Main Street. This is where these towns got started, where the remaining historical buildings are, where the true soul and character of these communities reside.

The historic downtown (the main street here in Lacombe, Alberta) is where the heart of these communities resides

The historic downtown (the main street here in Lacombe, Alberta) is where the heart of these communities resides

It’s where, as a road-trip diner, you’ll usually find two things. One is the local hangout, a diner or coffee shop where the regulars banter with the servers on a first-name basis and where the fare is basic but filling and affordable. The other is older buildings refurbished by, typically, youngish entrepreneurs interested in more modern cuisine but in a historic setting.

The character-filled Palm Cafe is where the regulars hang out in Orick, California

The character-filled Palm Cafe is where the regulars hang out in Orick, California

EXO Roast in Tucson, Arizona is a superb example of translating history into a funky cafe

EXO Roast in Tucson, Arizona is a superb example of incorporating history into a funky cafe

Finding these places involves a willingness to get off the bypassing highway and do a bit of exploring. There’s no guarantee you’ll hit pay dirt, but at worst you’ll get a drive past what defines, or once defined, these communities.

Recently, for example, three of us were driving on Highway 6 between Salt Lake City and Moab, in southeast Utah. It was a scenic road I’d taken half a dozen times without stopping. But this time, I glanced over at some old buildings in the small community of Helper and took the exit into the historic downtown.

Artists are leading the charge to revive historic Helper, Utah

Artists are leading the charge to revive historic Helper, Utah                                   Photo: Kairn Kunelius

While I was ordering a coffee at the nicely renovated and wonderfully named Happiness Within, a companion ducked into a potter’s studio and discovered that Helper had become a magnet for artists, who were helping refurbish a town named for the extra engines required to pull trains up nearby steep grades. I wandered across the street to the spacious, wood-floored Balance Rock Eatery & Pub. We’d already eaten, but I was impressed by a monstrous breakfast burrito being tackled by a local diner.
Balance Rock Eatery & Pub on Urbanspoon

A similar willingness to explore led me to one of my favourite western U.S. towns, Salida, in mountainous central Colorado. The approach on Highway 50 promised nothing but the usual commercial strip, but we persevered and drove into the heart of downtown. There, we discovered great galleries, an art park and, alongside the headwaters of the Arkansas River, painted containers of flowers and great little eateries like The Fritz.

Even the public flower planters are funky in Salida, Colorado

Even the public flower planters are funky in Salida, Colorado

The lesson here is what is old is new again. Finding it will unlock you from your chains.

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4 thoughts on “Historic Downtowns: Where the Real Action Is

  1. Patricio O'Bagle

    Historic Main Street in downtown Cottonwood, Arizona: Good dinner choices, beer, and wine — not so cheap though. Very good breakfasts and lunches at Crema Cafe and Red Rooster Cafe.

    Seligman, AZ: On old Route 66, Westside Lilo’s restaurant has breakfast plates piled high with food — cheap, filling. If you dare, follow that fill-up with a 3″ deep creme pie of your choice. Don’t fall asleep when you pull out on the highway after a binge at Lilo’s.

    Reply
    1. bcorbett907 Post author

      I had an excellent torts at Verde Lea Market in Cottonwood. Can I hire you as a pie researcher? Maybe you should check out Pie Town, New Mexico (actual name)

      Reply
  2. Patricio O'Bagle

    The pie research protocols are clear: only hand-built, home- or house-cooked pies, filled with fresh fruit (no frozen lumps or canned goo).
    When we were in AZ a few weeks ago, it wasn’t fresh-fruit season, so we sampled no pies.
    Half of our field staff (that would be Jane) now avoid gluten. Indeed, a pie researcher needs to be Discerning (think Picky). However, Jane’s gone over the top and now won’t taste pies! However, Jane can use her Discerning proclivities to rate restaurants’ non-pie variables (such as access/egress, wash/restroom, cultural diversity, etc).
    So, depending on the fruit season (affected by latitude), we continue with the pie research.
    We have friends in Silver City NM, so maybe will one day check out Pie City. I have fond memories of the Gila River area.
    PS — Verde Lea Market is out on the strip (although it’s indeed located on “Main St”). We were being snooty and avoided the strip.

    Reply

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