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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 02, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Doughnuts and Quirky Shopping Districts

Why does North Carolina's commemorative quarter make the same embarrassing mistake as our license plates?

I refer to the picture of the Wright brothers' plane and the empty boast "First in Flight."

Yes, the first controlled heavier-than-air flight took place at Kitty Hawk, and Kitty Hawk is in North Carolina.

But the Wright brothers did all their work in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. They only came here because the conditions in Kitty Hawk -- sea breeze, lots of sand, steep hill, no obstructions -- were right for the potentially disastrous thing they were attempting.

It's not as if North Carolina sponsored a contest and the Wright brothers won it. North Carolina, as a state, did nothing, nada, zilch -- except ignore those wacky inventive boys and stay out of their way.

So for us to claim flight as our accomplishment makes it look like our state is so lame the only thing we can brag about is that we had the right configuration of sand for a couple of really smart guys from another state to change the world.

Here's what I think we ought to claim: Best in Doughnuts.

That's right. The whole country is finally learning what we've known for nigh on sixty years -- you can actually make doughnuts that don't leave an aftertaste like detergent in your mouth for the rest of the day! (No offense to Dunkin' Doughnuts, of course. They can't help it. They weren't invented in North Carolina.)

In fact, while people in L.A. and Philadelphia are asking each other in hushed voices, "Have you had a Krispy Kreme yet?" we here in North Carolina are so good at doughnuts that Krispy Kreme isn't even the best we've had.

I speak of the brilliant doughnuts that were made at Glazer's on Lawndale. The owner closed the store for personal reasons, but that doesn't mean somebody can't offer him a good deal, learn how to make doughnuts his way, and then franchise them six ways from Tuesday.

But only within the state. There are some things so fine that outsiders just aren't ready to appreciate them.

*

In the past couple of weeks I've been zipping around the country from bookstore to bookstore, and some of them have been located in really cool shopping districts.

For instance, there's Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, California. A mile or two from the cheezy but fun Boardwalk district, Pacific is one of those quirky streets that combine unusual shops with old-fashioned architecture built before the Ugly Period brutalized American cities.

It's a delight to walk down a lovely street where every building pleases the eye and every shop invites you to explore because it has stuff you haven't seen everywhere else.

The only chain store I noticed was a Jamba Juice, which is never a drawback. But there was a coffee shop where you could pick your own madeleines -- a delicious cakey French cooky -- out of a jar, a great little toys-and-games store, and Bookshop Santa Cruz, which is eccentric in all the best ways.

There's plenty of parking in a garage just behind one row of shops, so you know the city government is aware of what a treasure they've got. Is it possible that besides providing parking, they're also protecting the street by keeping The Gap and The Limited and Banana Republic from buying up the buildings?

Because that's what seems to happen, inevitably, to all the great shopping streets in America. People start going there because the stores are so unusual and interesting; the big chains notice that people are going to these wonderful shopping districts; they move in (or are invited in by landlords who smell a buck), replacing five or six shops with each of their massive installations; and pretty soon there isn't much reason to go to that shopping street, because it doesn't have a darn thing you don't have in your mall at home.

This has happened to M Street in Georgetown, DC. Why go? I don't, any more. The galleries and shops I used to delight in visiting are gone, and so am I. And Old Pasadena in California still has the lovely architecture -- but that's all. You've seen every store before, so why bother unless you live right there?

It's happening to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. The wonderful little stores can't afford the rents. The only thing that keeps me coming back is that there's still a pleasant ambience, with a wild array of street musicians, a few good restaurants, and some quirky stores that have survived by moving from Third Street itself into the nearby side streets, so they're still within reach.

I just don't understand why the government of Santa Monica, having built all those parking garages to make shopping on Third Street practical, did not do anything to prevent the street from turning into nothing more than Four Seasons Mall with topiary.

Better off is the Plaza district in Kansas City. Right now it's hovering between being malled up and failing entirely. The attraction is some wonderful old churches and some not-bad new buildings surrounding a lovely plaza and bordering on some funky old streets with cheap rents and weird stores. The biggest drawback is that it's just too spread out. You have to walk a lo-o-o-ong way to get from one place to another, because they've allowed a few key stores and office buildings to fill whole blocks without any interesting store fronts at all.

And yet there are several good restaurants, some furniture-and-art galleries that have things I haven't seen everywhere else, lots of free parking, and plenty of local color.

They also have great public art: teddy bear statues, of all things, titled with truly awful puns. But we walked blocks out of our way just to read look closely at the statues and read the plaques and laugh with delight that a city could have such a sense of humor and be proud of it.

On Euclid in St. Louis, on the other hand, you can see a cool shopping district being born. The only adequate parking is near the library at one end of the street -- and it's too far from the really cool stretches to be useful. Instead, you have to compete with the residents of the surrounding neighborhood for on-street parking, which is not cool. But when you get to the restaurant district, anchored by Left Bank Books, you'll find some of the finest food in the midwest.

We only had time to sample one, the Bistro Balaban, which truly captured the ambience of a French bistro -- along with good live music in the bar. The food was innovative and delicious, the service was cheerful even though we arrived just before closing. Best of all, as we left, some of the establishments seemed to be just getting started -- night life! In a midwestern city! Who knew!

What about Greensboro? The closest we come is State Street, and there the look is almost too planned. The charm was all designed by a single architect, and so there are really no surprises. Yet ... there are unusual shops and at least one of our favorite restaurants -- Café Pasta -- and the parking is decent enough. It just feels ... ersatz.

The sad thing, though, is that Greensboro used to have the real thing. Our downtown once had wonderful old buildings and unusual stores. An interesting new bookstore had just opened, there were signs of life. Sadly, Greensboro's is not a downtown that simply died, like all the WalMart-slain downtowns in America. No, downtown Greensboro was murdered before it had any chance to evolve into something wonderful.

And next week I'll tell you just who killed it.

Here's a hint: Our taxes pay their salaries.

And, like quack surgeons, they killed it by the very steps they took to "save" it.


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