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Curating an Authentic Downtown Experience

August 5, 2010

Llano Texas--A bar that knows its customers

This Spring Anthony Rubano an architectural designer and old friend from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and I teamed up to develop a training workshop about how downtown managers “curate” their downtowns as they seek to establish a compelling sense of place.

We were drawn to this topic because we believe that managers were frequently striving to nurture and maintain that which is authentic, quirky and inherently local about their commercial districts. They are doing this amidst competition from fake lifestyle centers that borrow heavily from the downtown visual collage of buildings and downtown event programming.

LanTex Theater in Llano Texas, operated by Main Street volunteers

I focused my research around retaining and promoting the authentic character and creating memorable experiences for shoppers. There is plenty of recent research about why residents and visitors want “real places” to shop rather than manufactured environments.  Some new articles and books I came across on tourism and the quest for authentic experiences—such as those provided at farmers markets, craft fairs and social media meet ups—were fascinating.

We hang some of our talk around one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s five principles for cultural tourism – authenticity. My research made me think that our downtowns must retool some of their events so that they become lasting memories for residents.  Many special events would be well served if they were adjusted to include multi-sensory and hands-on activities and thus create new experiences for shoppers. To be competitive today, we must go beyond the traditional downtown attributes of quality products, personal service and convenience in the shops themselves.

Farmers Markets like this one in Evanston IL are viewed as authentic experiences

Our talk “Curating an Authentic Downtown Experience” includes Anthony’s sharp and witty commentary as he offers up his take about commercial districts that have developed over time, containing many different building types, uses, ages, and styles.  It is his contention, that the rich heterogeneity of this urban and human collage can provide the key to a successful, authentic downtown experience.  Because there are few things as resilient yet so easily diminished as historic commercial districts, we believe that our task as Main Street professionals is to maintain and enhance our downtowns’ real and authentic character, both physically and programmatically, in order to remain truly vital.

Guthrie OK has a distinct sense of place

Greater understanding of how downtown buildings fit into the large arc of American architecture, gives managers and volunteers the tools they can use to better advocate for the authentic historic building, to assure its proper stewardship and the overall districts’ sense of place.

We both loved putting this talk together and have both long (half and whole day) and short (90 minute) versions of it available.  We found a very receptive audience at the Pennsylvania Downtown Center’s annual conference in Lancaster this June, and will be presenting this topic again at the joint conference being organized by the Delaware, Maryland and Baltimore Main Street programs in Rehoboth Beach DE on September 28.

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