Good Intentions, and Planners,
Can Sap a City's Soul


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by Jack Cashill
Published in ingramsonline.com - August 2010


recently spent some back-to-back time in two cities, one run by merchants and one run by planners. The difference between the two is that the planners’ city, a veritable clone of Kansas City, does not work. The merchants’ city does.

Since 1955 my family has been spending a chunk of every summer in an around the wonderfully vulgar New Jersey burg called Seaside Heights.

“Vulgar” has several basic meanings. In this case, all of them are apt, and none are necessarily bad. One is “deficient in taste, delicacy, or refinement,” and that certainly fits. So too, in spades, does “offensively excessive in self-display.” It is the third and original definition--“associated with the great masses of people”—that makes the other two come to life in so fruitful a way. Yes, at Seaside, great masses of indelicate people wander about in excessive self-display, but, writ large, it is all glorious to behold.

If the natives are excessive, it is because they can be. An ethnic hotbed since its inception, Seaside Heights educates international visitors in one visual sweep on the difference between their working classes and ours. If theirs shuffle, heads down, ours strut, swagger even, heads up, plumage on full display. Ours believe in themselves and their futures.

It was not without calculation that MTV chose Seaside Heights as the locale for its improbable hit, “Jersey Shore,” a show that captures the larger gaudiness of the place and distills it to its truly vulgar essence. Vulgar or not, when my brother-in-law and I spotted two cast members on the beach, we were the envy of every female in our 50-member family compound, almost all of whom have college degrees. Vulgarity sells.

Seaside Heights works in ways that most cities don’t. Each summer evening its main thoroughfare, the boardwalk is jammed from end to end with throngs of people of all ages and stripes spending goo-gobs of money at miscellaneous shops, many of which have no parallel in the free world.

On the mile long commercial stretch of the boardwalk, there is not a single vacancy. I don’t remember there ever being one. The Seaside chamber boasts, only a little bit grandly, of thrill rides, a water park, fun-filled amusements, action-packed arcades, Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, an overhead chair lift, ski-ball, frog bog, squirt gun games, balloon darts, ring toss, mini golf, go karts, old time photo shops, tattoo parlors, trendy boutiques, massage parlors, bars, discos, numerous Italian restaurants, pizza shops, Philly cheese steak restaurants, a Mexican Cantina, an Irish Pub, frozen custard and soft serve ice cream shops, saltwater taffy and fudge shops, a new bakery, and, of course, shops that serve “Seaside Heights staples like the Fried Oreo.”

Of the above service, how many can you find in the Power & Light District? City planners would hock their first born to create this kind of pedestrian traffic, but they don’t know how. They can no more plan “fun” than they could anticipate a popular demand for a fried Oreo. This hodgepodge of stuff was driven by the consumers as gauged and tweaked by savvy, on-site merchants over decades.

Seaside represents America’s money culture at work. There is no public transportation anywhere near the town. There is not a single sign on the boardwalk in any language other than English. There is nothing even resembling a dress code. There is no convention center, no hotels, no buildings higher than three or four stories, no parking garages, no subsidies, no strip clubs, no “adult” book stores. Nothing is free, including the beach. And yet each weekend 100,000 or so people speaking a dozen or so different languages find their way to the boardwalk.

After a week at Seaside, I flew out of Newark to Louisville, a city I had not yet visited. To round out my New Jersey experience, I sat across from Dominic Chianese, a.k.a. Junior Soprano, on the little express jet. I struck up a conversation, never letting on that I knew who he was. I am sure I had him fooled.

I arrived on a Sunday evening for a conference at the convention center. If I did not know any better, I would have thought the plane had been diverted to KC’s Power & Light District. Other than the occasional horse statue, there was nothing remotely indigenous about Louisville’s downtown. It had all the stultifying cookie-cutter charm of a place that had been planned and heavily subsidized precisely for the benefit of ungrateful visitors like me.

My hotel was nice enough, but aren’t all hotels? On Sunday eve, my little group and I wandered up 4th Street to the city’s entertainment district. I passed a Borders, a Paneras, an Einstein Brothers, and a Hard Rock Café. The street was blocked off, and a rock band was playing loudly and badly in the created space. The only problem was that there was little foot traffic and even less audience.

We ducked into an elaborately fake British pub. To say the least, there was no wait. Our waitress was tarted up to look like Twiggie, but happily her inner cracker showed through. She was delightful even when botching our order. “Y’all wanted a shepherd’s pie?” My younger comrades wanted to hit the Hard Rock Café next, but I ducked out to watch the season premiere of Mad Men. I had watched not a minute of TV at Seaside.

There was a time, not that many years ago, when Kansas City competed against the likes of Chicago and Denver and Atlanta. Today, we compete—often unsuccessfully—with Louisville. The reason Louisville can compete with us is because we have become Louisville and Louisville has become us.

We have taxed our distinctive merchant-driven centers like the Plaza and Westport—and cannibalized their customer base--to subsidize a soulless, planner-driven downtown.

Only four years after its creation, city officials now project that the allegedly self-sustaining Power & Light District will require long-term life support to the tune of $10 million to $15 million in an annual cash subsidy.

It may be time to scrap all plans, exile all the planners and embrace the fried Oreo.

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