by LOUISA ARONOW
Ukiah Daily Journal 7/12/09
July 14, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino County, North California
In the summer of 2002 my family and I took a car trip from Massachusetts to California. I was curious to see how the many towns and cities we visited along the way might reflect the incredible beauty of the vast and varied landscapes we passed through, so I decided to search for those elements that make a place authentically unique. I wondered what features might distinguish one town from others. Were there interesting restaurants, architecture, stores, parks, historical places, vegetation, or anything special I wouldn’t see in other regions of the USA? How does a town represent its inhabitants and the land from which it grew?
My entertaining investigation became sadder and sadder and we visited more small cities and found nothing authentically unique. Most cities consisted of the same franchise businesses by the highways or interstates, and a depleted downtown. Sometimes the downtown included city and county offices, but all included many empty buildings.
One small city we stopped in was a rural county seat; I wondered if it would be similar to Ukiah. The downtown had many elegant old three-story buildings, with copper trim and sculptures, but it seemed to be a ghost town. In the late afternoon, no humans were in sight and our footsteps echoed in the canyon-like streets. I felt that the heart and guts had been ripped out of the city. There was activity in the chain stores and restaurants by the interstate exit, but the shopping center included nothing authentically unique.
The few exceptions were the places that had preserved a bit of history to attract tourists. It was interesting to learn a few tidbits of history across the US (especially the sod house in Kansas), but it didn’t seem that the attractions were interesting for local people.
I was delighted to return to Ukiah, where downtown is a pleasant place to walk around and shop at locally-owned businesses. The shops and restaurants reflect our unique community, with its mixture of grape ranchers, Mexicans, Native Americans, and tie-dyed hippies. My appreciation of the Main Street Program has grown since I’ve attended some “First Friday” events, the “Taste of Downtown,” and of course the concerts in the park. Tourists are welcome, but Downtown Ukiah is mainly for and by local folks.
Of course more money is spent at Wal-Mart and FoodMax than downtown; we all know that locally-owned businesses cannot compete with the low prices of big box stores. But we still have a downtown. Maybe it’s not chic like Healdsburg, or cute like Mendocino, but it’s authentic, it’s unique and it’s home. We have restaurateurs who offer creations that would not be found in 1,000 other cities, and clothing stores where salespeople still give fashion advice if requested. We have music stores owned by people who love music, and bookstores owned by people who love books. A myriad of art galleries display work by local artists. All profits from these locally-owned businesses return to our community, not to stockholders around the globe.
Walking around Ukiah, you encounter a church on almost every block, from St. Mary of the Angel to Church of the Nazarene to Center for Positive Living. The great diversity of churches and other places of worship are not found in every small city; this also makes Ukiah special
How might these characteristics of Ukiah change if Developers Diversified Realty succeeds in building a large mall at the north end of town? Will our unique shops survive the competition of lower prices? Will our small churches survive the appeal of an exciting new mega-church? Will the dollars spent in bigger big-box stores be recycled into our community? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’ve seen many ugly half-abandoned minimalls in counties south of us, and the vacant downtowns in cities across the USA. When I pass yet another new shopping center by a freeway exit, I often wonder which state of the USA I might be traveling through, since they all look the same.
In November, you may have the opportunity to vote on your vision for the future of Ukiah. Do you want a city with a few huge stores at the north and south end, offering the same cheap items you can find in Hamilton, Ohio or Greenville, South Carolina? Or do you want a community that includes a few big box stores as well as an authentic, unique, lively downtown?