I was invited to a northern Japan town to see the beautiful museum where a close friend has become the director. The town has built a lovely modern building with a great permanent collection. The theory is that support for the arts will revitalize this nearly dead town. I’ve heard similar ideas proposed for Detroit.
Towns usually live, grow or die because they have all the ingredients of modern commerce. A qualified and relevant labor force. Good local government and necessary resources for the lowest cost production. Which is usually a traffic nexus. Towns in agricultural areas are mainly for shopping.
Small towns all over Japan and America have died because agricultural production got more efficient without labor. Global agriculture. Farmer’s children moved to cities for jobs and conviviality. A two century long process.
The issue I saw in the Northern Japan town was that the main street in town was dead. Abandoned. In the photo you can see the sidewalk area is covered with overhead plastic, the last time an effort was made to save the street from death.
There were shopping centers and retail businesses scattered around town. The question was whether the older shopping street, four blocks long, could be revived.
I have watched shopping streets in all sizes of towns and city neighborhoods for decades. I’ve seen a few revitalized.
Union Street in San Francisco was brought back to life in 1964 by a wise commercial group and a good architect. Beverly Willis developed some design and color schemes that gave the whole street a continuity. Empty stores were given several years of low rent. A few good bars and restaurants brought life to the street.
After 25 years, the street died. Two main reasons. Strong opposition to chain stores and bad night-day balance.
Chain stores are vital for tourism. Tourist only feel safe and comfortable if they see a few chains that they know well from home such as the Gap, Wendy’s, Walgreens, etc. Global brand names are signs of safety.
Also a balance of daytime shopping and night-time entertainment is necessary to keep street traffic high. Too many jewelry stores with too many make-up stores and too few bars and restaurants changes the balance and traffic becomes inadequate for every type of store.
Twenty-fourth Street in San Francisco came near death and remains on life-support after the main local organic grocery store had an employee strike demanding a union. The owner closed the store and a two decades later it is still closed. The store was the main source of foot traffic. Every idea the Lefty city planners have tried to save the street have failed. Outside chairs, trees, a weekend farmers market have all been futile.
The opposite can happen too. On Sacramento and Presidio in San Francisco a small boutique with brilliant original hand made women’s clothes opened. It was so good that rich women inundated it. A dozen stores opened nearby within a year. Including restaurants. The problem here was that street traffic increased so much it caught the attention of a bank. The bank paid high rent for a corner location and consequently raised the rent at the next door original magnet store. When the magnet store closed the street entered a slow decline.
Lots of lessons. The main one being the delicate nature of shopping streets.