To my utter embarrassment, I wrote the following one Sunday afternoon a few weeks back and never posted it up here as intended. I’ll just leave it unfinished.
Somerville, TN — Today i finally got around to something i’d been wanting to do for a while: driving out to the seat of one of the counties surrounding Memphis, wandering around the courthouse square, and just basically getting to know someplace outside my daily millieu.
Somerville’s downtown sort of typifies the sleepy Southern town center. I’m sure being here on the Sunday before Memorial Day only heightens the effect, but i’ll just bet this place seems pretty sleepy the other weekends too. There are some little shops that look like they function during the work week: antiques, hardware, furniture. There are the lawyer’s offices, the insurance and real estate agents, a portrait gallery, the community newspaper, the county job center. And then there are an awful lot of closed up retail spaces, too, with their “For rent” signs. One little shop, long since cleared out, has a sticker in the door advertising fine soaps from Crabtree and Evelyn.
I’m left thinking about how our country has pretty much abandoned the town center. (To be sure, you could find plenty of abandoned storefront in Memphis too; I’m in no way asserting this is only true of hinterland towns, although at least Memphis’ downtown functions, barely, on the weekends.) It’s hardly a new observation, of course, but little places like this just aren’t central to life the way they once were, not unless you have a hearing scheduled or want to get your portrait done. I’m conflicted between lamenting this loss and stoicly asserting, “It is what it is,” time marches on, no one can stand in the way of progress. Certainly the Wal-Mart down the road will take care of your needs on the Sunday before Memorial Day, and cheaply!, so there’s no need to wait until Monday to visit one of these little shops. Save money. Live better.
But seeing these abandoned storefronts also rekindles some of the thoughts I discussed earlier, about creating a space full of meaning to young people, of feeling bold enough to dream that we could change our environment for the better. In the context of some daydreaming induced by a recent conversation with my insanely successful poker buddy, it gets me thinking: Supposing cost were no barrier, how could someone use one of these spaces to really bless a town like this? What sort of enterprise could help rebuild a sense of community?
I really don’t know. A non-profit youth hangout/drop-in center? An arts and performance space? A coffee shop? A highly-regarded restaurant that could draw customers from Memphis, Nashville, and points beyond? Or should we just accept that small-