Friday, February 20, 2009

When Is "Near, but Not In" Enough?

One of my recent posts ("Filling in the Gaps: Things I Wish Were in Uptown") was recently picked up by the Secrets of the City, giving a broader spectrum of readers the chance to weigh in on their personal visions for Uptown. There were some great suggestions (personal favorites include a toy store, gay bar, and Norwegian sweaters) but what really got me thinking was one poster's comment that both a farmer's market and good Mexican food both exist within relatively close proximity to Uptown. This is true, of course, but where does one draw the line between unnecessary and necessary (or at least desirable) duplication of services? It's an issue I've been struggling with for some time now, and for me, at least, I think the answer is that - unscientific as it sounds - I'll know it when I see it.

Unnecessary duplication homogenizes neighborhoods: In an ideal world every urban neighborhood would contain (and support) core basics. Everyone deserves to have a grocery store or market within close walking distance to their home; same with a pharmacy, a laundromat (or dry cleaner), a coffee shop, and other similar businesses. I'd like to think that every neighborhood could have their own bookstore, a basic array of restaurants (my personal must-haves would include Thai, Chinese, pizza, tacos/burritos, and a greasy American diner type of place), bakery, pet store, and hardware store. The exact mix doesn't need to be the same in every neighborhood, and it's that individual blend that helps create a distinct neighborhood feel.

Independent stores make duplication less of an issue. I like certain local chains - Davanni's and Dunn Brothers, for example - but wouldn't want to see one in every neighborhood. Independent, one-site-only businesses, even those located within walking distance of other businesses of similar types in adjacent neighborhoods, help define local communities. This doesn't work for all businesses - some stores simply need to draw from a larger area to survive - but others, your local neighborhood burrito purveyor, for example, have a better chance of making a go of it by serving primarily their immediate neighborhood. Sometimes you don't want to walk ten or fifteen blocks just to get a good taco/bagel/boba tea/ice cream cone.

Physical distance alone doesn't necessarily matter. Uptown is fairly close to the main Minneapolis farmer's market. I wouldn't suggest that an Uptown farmer's market would or could ever replace it, or even provide much direct competition. The farmer's market on Lyndale is both socially and physically separated from Uptown; Uptowners can and do walk or bike there, but once you go past Loring Park and the freeway it ceases to offer that larger community feel. It does provide a broader Minneapolis/Twin Cities appeal - certainly something to embrace and support - but I think, in this case, an Uptown farmer's market offers far more than just good food. It offers a sense of local community, and is therefore not an unnecessary duplication of services.

The Creative Kidstuff question: I've been thinking for some time now how nice it would be to once again have a toy store in Uptown. There used to be a great one in Calhoun Square; I think it was there for most of the 1980s, and possibly some of the 1990s. There is, however, a perfectly nice toy store - a major destination in its own right - in nearby Linden Hills. Creative Kidstuff is, after all, only a short bus or bike ride, walk, or drive away from Uptown (and is sort of the Minneapolis Farmer's Market of local toy stores). Given the close proximity, then, does Uptown really need a toy store of its own? Speaking from a community point of view (and not as a potential shop owner worrying about profits), then yes, Uptown could benefit from its own toy store. An independent toy store with its own unique vibe and inventory would be a great asset to the neighborhood. Linden Hills helps define that neighborhood; a great toy store in Uptown would help further define Uptown and to distinguish it as a separate and unique community from its neighbors.

Really, when it comes down to it, not every neighborhood needs or wants every given type of store or business. Sometimes just having something close is good enough. In other cases, though, I think it's appropriate and desirable for Uptown residents to be able to enjoy a broad array of businesses in their own backyards. It won't stop anyone from going out to explore the many other fascinating areas of the city, but it will provide people options for those times they just want to stay near home.

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