Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Three Cities and soul

When Swankette and I moved, we wanted to find a neighborhood--a city, even--with what we called a "soul." When asked to define that, we couldn't quite pull it was just something we sort of felt. I think it has something to do with number of parks, a cared-for look, a thought-out plan, but I can't really define it.

My minor-league baseball travels have brought me to smallish cities and even the occasional smallish towns across the USA. It has continued to instill in me that some towns have souls and some do not.

Five years back, I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ick, ick, ick. I picked an Outback Steakhouse on the river for dinner, figuring that the riverfront anywhere would be a good place to see people and be in the middle of a little activity. The place was deserted, the river dry, and there was no visible sign of people enjoying themselves. Yeah, it was a Sunday night--Easter Sunday--but still, it was a little icky.

Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee, however, was really awesome two years ago. There was immense character about it--State Street running down the state line, an old downtown that was both active and cared for (those awesome movie marquees!), and lots of people out on a weeknight. Even tiny Batavia, New York had a lot of charm about felt like about 40% of the town was green grass in parks. I went to a family deli down the street from the ballpark for dinner. I can still taste that pickle.

Fast forward to yesterday. Because of some trouble with my wife's bag (which went on a separate trip from ours), we were compelled to spend a little time in Little Rock sooner than we expected. We picked out a restaurant called The Purple Cow and headed there. Every neighborhood we went through appeared cared for. It had a regional feel all its own, to be sure--I'm not an expert as to why, but when Swankette pointed out that these houses, no matter the age, would not be found in Seattle or Portland, she was right. But it was just lovely, and the restaurant was the kind of killer wonderful independent diner that every town should have. It just felt good.

Then today, we drove through Springfield, Missouri. We took the business route through downtown in an effort to get a sense of the place. While the ballpark looked lovely (we'll be there tomorrow, almost undoubtedly getting rained out), the rest of the town did absolutely nothing for me. It was endlessly sprawly, loads of strip malls, and any neighborhoods I saw didn't feel as loved as the ones I saw in Little Rock.

I want to be able to write out the criterion for soul. Does anyone else have a sense of what I'm talking about? In any region in the US, there are cities with a soul (Spokane) and cities without a soul (Yakima). Is it socioeconomic? Historical? Are some cities simply built with love and some without? Someone smarter than me in these matters--can you help me out?


brooklyn said...

I know you are absolutely right - between touring the US and touring Europe, I have found so many towns and cities I LOVED, and so many others I couldn't wait to leave.

I also have no idea how to quantify it.

Some common elements of towns I didn't feel good in: Repetitive 'economic-based' architecture, strip-malls, lack of greenery, lazy young people loitering.

Common elements of towns I loved: Artistic outlets, vibrant populations, open-air markets and city-centers, coffee houses, booktores and cobblestone streets.

But I suppose the cirteria are different for everyone.

My least favorite towns of all-time - Saginaw Michigan, Wichita Kansas, Wiener-Neustadt, Austria. No offense intended to residents of those towns, just my experience.

I also noticed that your 2 "bad" towns were in the midwest, opposed by your 2 'good' towns in the 2 'bad' are also in the midwest.


TeacherRefPoet said...

Been to Wichita for baseball. My impressions of towns are possibly overly influenced by their ballparks, but I thought Wichita wasn't bad. Not good, either, but it made some efforts...a nice "old town" with clubs and stuff (not my style) and a good use of its river.

Batavia, New York is not in the South, is it?