If you did not happen to get downtown on Friday, you should know that much of the conversation throughout the day had to do with little umbrellas. No kidding.
Faithful daily readers of these pages will not be surprised, of course. All of this was begun, you see, by a comment of Barry Cassidy's, quoted on the front page by Bill Rettew Friday morning, that "there is a need to start on the 200 block of Bridge Street to develop a critical mass of retail, dining and entertainment establishments. I want to see people dining out there with little umbrellas in their drinks."
The parts of the day's conversation on those umbrellas that I know about started at a meeting at Steel City Coffee House, way before 8 a.m. The temperature was a balmy 24, but felt like umpteen degrees below zero. My suggestion that we put little umbrellas in our coffee and move the meeting outside was not regarded as, well, a friendly motion. Even by Mr. Cassidy. But, clearly, the sentiment, the hope, expressed by his umbrellas was shared by all.
That was good evidence of how quickly and completely an image captures and speaks its meaning. Here, let's unpack it. (Or, for the post-modernists among you, let's deconstruct. We'll put it all back together, I promise.) The image presumes: Downtown as a bustling place. First, the most obvious element: little umbrellas in drinks presume that there's a bunch of people around to drink them. Downtown as a commercially productive place. It is most usual to stop for a drink or dinner along the way to or from other shopping or errands. A rich set of available retail options stands behind the image. Downtown as a pedestrian-friendly place. Outdoor dining means that the surroundings are conducive to civil conversation in a place patrons can walk to, and in, and around. Limited interruptions from surrounding vehicular traffic, walking distance from convenient parking - or, for those of us close-in, a comfortable walk to get to. Downtown as, simply, a pleasant place to be. Aesthetics matter. We enjoy surroundings in which we can live comfortably and happily, even for the space of a luncheon. Comfortability is enhanced, for us lucky folk, with an architecture on Bridge and Main streets rooted in a real and identifiable past, for us a Victorian past. Downtown as a publicly significant place. A drink outside is also an occasion, and a place, for private and public business. More people, more commerce, more conversation. Private and public transactions. And the more that gets transacted, the more importance is invested in that place.
The last item, the publicly-significant part, was demonstrated in action and in microcosm on Friday as well. The first meeting at Steel City was followed by another, then another, during the day - same place, different times, the participants in each meeting moving from table to table. An extraordinary day of public business, all accomplished in a comfortable public space on Bridge. Just, inside.
The language of "critical mass" is important in all of this. A sufficient number of appropriate businesses creates a sufficient number of patrons to make the image real. The more interesting the retail options, the better the aesthetics (and the aesthetics helps to attract the retailers), the better the sheer ease of use of place, then the more people, and vice-versa.
Earlier last week I had made arrangements to review midday Friday some photographs of Bridge and Main streets taken from 1902 to 1908. You see where I am about to go here, but please understand, I am not about to start a nostalgic reverie about a time and circumstances that never can or will be again. What interests me in those photos is, rather, three elements that Friday's early morning conversations brought into sharp relief.
What is most striking is the sheer amount of activity, the actual pedestrian jams, caught on film at the corner of Bridge and Main and on up each street. We no longer live in a local economy that will support the likes of three general dry goods dealers in a single block of Bridge, as it did then. But it is possible to imagine such traffic produced by a group of specialty shops and small restaurants - supplementing the traffic generated now by the Colonial Theatre and the antique shops.
Second, many of the buildings then carried extended rooflines, or erected separate structures, from facades to the street, over the sidewalk. I am not suggesting reviving that tradition. I note it here only to suggest the sense of intimacy of the streetscape that such features added. It was not only pleasant (especially in inclement weather), but brought a closeness of experience to a simple amble down Bridge. Aesthetics matters.
Oh, yes, a third element: patriotic bunting. Everywhere. The Phoenix Hotel, and most retailers, are covered from doorknob to window sash with stars and stripes. Even a straggling wheelbarrow descending Main Street Hill was so decorated.
The street was vibrant, commercially and socially. The streetscape was pleasant, intimate. The bunting seems like icing on the cake.
So, little umbrellas may be the bunting of our own day.
(As this was going to press, Hannah Kathryn Rabold joined our family, and this village. Mother, father, and daughter are all fine. That three-pound, eleven-ounce new soul, a bit anxious to be born, is getting the best of attentive care at Phoenixville Hospital. I look forward to many things for her and with her. Among them is a chance to walk with her downtown for a Shirley Temple - with a little umbrella.)
G.E. "Skip" Lawrence is a Phoenixville resident.