A generic side to Dover’s downtown transformation

As I’ve looked with delight at the renaissance of my small city’s downtown, one modeled in part on Jane Jacobs’ then revolutionary attack on urban renewal back in the ’50s, I am a bit bothered by how much of it is now based on a commercial cookie-cutter concept known as mid-rises – five-story stick-frame construction above a steel-frame pedestal that’s then given a brick or similar exterior facing.

It’s happening all over the country, actually, and not just in the heart of a city, either. Even here in Dover, we’re seeing something similar happening about a mile south of downtown as an over 50s-something neighborhood called Pointe Place with rents that astound me. Who can afford it? Some retirees, apparently. It’s a downtown within a doughnut, in effect. You can’t really walk there from anywhere else.

Of course, the Covid-19 pall casts a big shadow over these developments, but some observers say it might encourage more people to move from big cities to smaller communities like ours. We’ll have to be patient and see what actually unfolds.

As I’ve argued here in various forms, I’d rather have a real city center abutting organic neighborhoods, one with a funky fringe of mixed-use buildings, unlike apartment complexes surrounded by parking lots along the major highways or shopping strips.

What we definitely have here in Dover is the attraction of a river that rises and falls with the tide, as well as the historic mills once renowned for their calico and now serving as entrepreneurial incubators and housing.

Call it atmosphere and scale.

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As Dover’s emerged as New Hampshire’s fastest growing city, the bulk of the new downtown residents are presumably singles and child-free couples, either young professionals or older folks who want the amenities of living close to restaurants, parks, and public events.

The retail and professional rentals are a larger concern, though, especially as many small merchants find themselves at a disadvantage against Amazon. Take the local hobby shop as an example. And that’s even before the bigger threat of coronavirus hit the entire economy.

Even so, these projects haven’t been on hold.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The new Orpheum takes shape downtown, matching the height of the old Masonic building to its east and the old Strafford Bank across from that. The spire at top left is city hall, a block away from the back of the new building in what was previously a parking lot.
The Robbins Block storefronts are now gone and a five-story Orpheum is rising in their place. The hardware store, lower right, is still there. From the top left are the library, community center, and district court.

The old block may look charming in the photo, but the buildings were rundown and unwelcoming to pedestrians, as was the sprawling parking lot behind them. There was also a traffic bottleneck that’s being eliminated.

Greetings from the bunker

Unlike many journalists, who lust after the scoop – to be hailed as the first to the punch in revealing the newest surprise in a hot ongoing drama, especially – I preferred to wait for the dust to settle a bit so we could discern the bigger picture. Yes, I was still competitive, but too often all the latest clamor struck me as confusion. What’s REALLY going on here, rather than who’s speaking the loudest or all that, is what I wanted to hear.

(Actually, with the presence of ’round-the-clock cable news and Internet connections, it’s gotten much worse. Just look at how the current resident of the White House stirs up something fresh before the outrage of his last errant lunacy can even sink in.)

The Covid-19 situation is turning into something similar. Who can keep up with the story? There are so many elements, not just the latest numbers or locations.

We’re definitely facing some ominous long-term impacts here, and we’re not getting much clarity yet.

A big exception has been voices like the Atlantic, as well as the New York Times and Washington Post.

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For me, many of the biggest issues emerge around the question:

Who’s going to pay for this?

Wall Street still hasn’t factored in the debt load, unless maybe as inflation. Make that HUGE debt load and HUGE inflation, unless the wealthiest five percent of the population come to the rescue, whether they want to or not. We can look at their gains via tax cuts as longterm loans to be repaid royally now.

As a few of the clairvoyants have noted, many of the problems now emerging have been long simmering and coronavirus is merely bringing them to the fore.

Student debt loan would be one, especially if bankruptcies become widespread.

The future of retailing would be another. And the entire medical system.

The lack of antitrust action in the face of cable operators, Amazon, Walmart, and the like would be yet another.

We get glimmers here and there, but little in the way of big pictures, which are ominous.

As one voice emphasized, we do have socialization in America, but not for the people. We’ve privatized profits while socializing risks for big corporations. That’s not real capitalism. Just watch as they line up for a bailout at the public trough. Keep an eye especially on the ones laying off people and closing plants while taking the aid for themselves and their overpaid top executives. How about tying any aid to an exchange of stock placed in public trust funds, for starters?

By the way, is anyone else aghast at the Donald’s insistence on putting his signature on those relief checks, as if he’s paying out of his own pocket? Such bombast!

Well, we can’t go out to dine, but we can get an early start on grilling in the Smoking Garden beside the barn. Cheers!

~*~

One canary-in-the-mine-shaft question of mine asks:

How will performing arts organizations survive this shutdown?

For me, they’re essential components to society. The artists have trained all their lives for what are often marginal wages, and the supportive structures are not easily created. Rebuilding audiences will not be easy, especially in the face of damaged incomes in general. Yet they’re crucial to the fabric of civilized community.

Unlike sports, the arts don’t have huge advertising revenues. They reflect a number of similar services that make our communities better places to live, no matter how modest their seeming place in the overall scene. We need to make note of them, too, and redress the suffering.

~*~

Is anyone else watching the impact as Covid-19 spreads from the big cities into the suburbs and rural areas – that is, from urban (which also translates as black and immigrant and blue) into red-district Trump country? The virus is no longer a safe distance from “them,” or what was originally dismissed as a liberal hoax to tarnish their cult leader, and instead clearly appearing as a cruel reality. We’re back to the already fragile state of health care in rural America, for starters.

~*~

The fact is, at the rate Covid-19 cases were initially multiplying, we could have had 40 million infected people by Easter, had we not gone into quarantine. As I almost quipped back then:

How would the nation’s funeral industry cope with an extra 450,000 corpses?

Does Covid-19 spell the death of local newspapers, too?

Jack Shafer of Politico magazine recently aired his argument against including newspapers in stimulus aid for companies hurt by what he calls the coronavirus apocalypse. As his title says, “Don’t waste stimulus money on newspapers. You wouldn’t put a dead man on a ventilator, would you?”

It’s a harsh assessment, coming not from a right-wing fanatic but someone who values the experience of reading the news on paper. He knows all too well the precarious state of the news industry even before the Covid-19 devastation, and I hate to admit I have to agree with him.

If you want to see my take on some of the deep systemic financial problems, just turn to my novel Hometown News, available as an ebook.

For a little perspective, you have to realize you can’t even purchase blank newsprint for the cost of your local paper, and that’s without anything on it or delivery to your doorstep or favorite store or the box on the corner.

Shafer is not talking about the handful of national papers that are thriving, thanks to a surge of online subscribers during the Trump nightmare. He’s talking about the local papers across the country, many of them now owned by hedge funds and similar short-view gaming investors. The kind of enterprise that has gone from family ownership with roots in the community to a global conglomerate that sees money in liquidation, as in who-are-you-all-anyway and why-do-you-matter when it comes to the locals.

Well, with oil companies lining up for relief aid, newspapers definitely should be higher on the list. But I digress.

In some ways, the papers are a canary in the mine shaft, or a dinosaur looking into the eyes of an approaching train, if you care to mix metaphors. Remember what happened to the railroads, after all, when the Interstates were built … with public money. Again, I digress.

The biggest question for me is what happens to local communities if and/or when the local papers expire.

First, of course, is that the public loses an essential watchdog on grassroots level politics. Believe me, local officials act differently when they know they’re under scrutiny. It will cost you dearly when they’re not.

Covering their meetings and the impact takes time, knowledge, ability, and courage. If you’re simply blogging in your spare time, you can be bullied or miss the follow-up phone calls. ‘Nuff said there. We’re facing a threat to ground-level democracy, OK? How many of us can really afford a lawyer?

Second, though, is the loss of local identity. I think most newspapers have fallen down here, failing to raise distinct columnists you just have to read first thing in the morning, but that’s not the only problem. How important is your neighborhood and the general area to you, anyway? Do you even know your neighbors?

A third problem involves the local economy. For one thing, there’s been a huge shift in local retailing, from mom-and-pop stores to the big-box intruders at the mall or Miracle Mile and then online, as in Amazon. The mom-and-pops are the lifeblood of newspaper revenue. Those glossy inserts pay next to diddly. And when’s the last time you saw anything from that monster Amazon or even Craig’s list, which is killing the classifieds?

The obvious shift would be from on-paper publication altogether to online presence only, but no newspapers have figured out how to manage this. It requires subscriber-paid content. Web users are way too used to getting everything for free.

By the way, I hope television and radio are not included in the assistance packages. Yes, they, too, are suffering loss of ad revenue and audience. Rotsaluck. Their news coverage, meanwhile,  often rips off a lot of newspaper stories and then act as if they actually had reporters there. Who will take up the slack? Again, rotsaluck.

Which leads me to one more thought. Sports radio. That once hot-in-the-ratings screaming format that pushed broadcasting from music to talk and then to professional, mostly, athletics – with regional loyalties and identity. What’s happening there, now that nobody’s playing?

Where are you getting your community news?

IKEA, where small is stylish

The Swedish retailer of low-cost home furnishings, appliances, cookware, and the like is a magnet for folks trying to make the most of tight spaces like apartments. Say a challenge like a 400-square-foot apartment.

Even if you have an old five-bedroom home like ours, the interiors can be challenging. IKEA has frequently come to our rescue. Yes, some assembly is usually required, and I can attest it’s not always idiot proof, but overall, we’ve been pleased with the results.

The closest IKEA superstore to us is located south of Boston, and since deliveries aren’t cheap, it’s worth the four-hour round-trip, even if you get lost inside once you’re there, as I have. The cafeteria, by the way, is quite the bargain.

Are you one of those intrigued by the small-scale living space displays in the IKEA superstores?

What’s your experience been?

Well, there were architects

In drafting my novel, What’s Left, some of my favorite passages came about while sketching the family’s business possibilities. What would be involved in transforming their restaurant? In expanding their real estate holdings? In undertaking alternative financial models?

Well, this is a novel, and in the revisions, they story’s become much more about Cassia than her parents’ generation or their roots. Or even my passion for architecture.

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Gardeners’ mecca

It doesn’t look like much, this former chicken barn at 688 Bellsqueeze Road  up in Clinton, Maine, but it and a larger shed behind it are the operations center for Fedco Seeds, a seed and garden supply co-op geared toward the Northern New England climate. (I had to get that name in, Bellsqueeze, it’s a real, longstanding country road.) Members vouch for its high quality, low prices, and range of selections.

Well, they do call this a warehouse, even if you are welcome to stop by to browse and buy. Mostly, it’s mail order.

I still have mixed feelings about genre and series

Somewhere along the way, I developed an aversion to “commercial” writing. Maybe it was the “hack” label I encountered, back when I was in college, when I read Samuel Johnson’s dismissal of most of his contemporaries, or maybe just a heightened sensitivity to the low esteem given journalists, which is where I spent my work life. (By the way, I’ll still argue that some reporters are better writers than what I find in many literary circles.)

Have to admit, what I aspired to was critical recognition. Respect. Self-worth.

That’s changed somewhat, especially when I consider so much of what I’ve encountered in that critically acclaimed list over time.

Gee, when it comes to admiration, which would you rather have – adoring readers or a circle of critics and academics?

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