John recently spent some time in Texas with an emphasis on San Antonio. If you are into urban planning, downtown revitalizations and streetscaping, then you know that San Antonio has its famed River Walk. Actually, if you know Greenville history, the San Antonio Riverwalk was often used as an example of what could be done with the Reedy River in the early 2000s. Basically, creating a pedestrian friendly pathway along the water with plenty of shops and public art. John approached the idea of finally seeing San Antonio the way a painter may get seeing a true Picasso. This was the masterpiece that Greenville copied.
Well, John being John, he came back unimpressed. First, it took him awhile to figure out how to get to the River Walk. He was thinking Greenville where you can’t miss the River and how to get down there. There are access points everywhere. Not so in San Anton’. By the time, he found his way down some steps; he was on a backend of the River Walk where there were no people, no art, just a litter-strewn walkway on a muddy canal. For those who don’t know, the River Walk ain’t the Reedy. It is completely below street level. He eventually did find “the heart” of the River Walk where all the restaurants are, and well, that may have been worse. It seemed everything was a chain restaurant and while seeing boats busking tourists up and down the canal was interesting, it was uninspiring. There was little public art and it was crowded in a way that felt claustrophobic. It was clear the River Walk was a victim of its own success.
John spent the next day exploring the street level version of downtown San Antonio. Again, he saw little public art, littler greenery and while the people were friendly, there were not a lot of them. A lot of the storefronts were vacant and, sort of surprisingly, there was little new construction. Spend time in the other Texas big cities (Austin, Houston, and Dallas) and you see new buildings, new architecture, and new developments. It ain’t happening in downtown San Antonio. It is happening in the suburbs around there, and on the interstates. Just not downtown. John has remarked that “it was like they took the least charming parts of Boston and plopped them down in the middle of Texas.” And “least charming parts of Boston” is Johnspeak that it looks like his hometown of Scranton, Pa., but since most people only know Scranton from NBC’s The Office he says the least charming parts of Boston, which is more familiar.
Where is this leading? It got him thinking about what could happen to Greenville’s vaunted downtown in the next 20 years. Will the hype overtake the reality? With so many cities and communities visiting Greenville and trying to copy what we have, is there a chance that someone from Rochester, or Akron or Athens can come here in 20 years and smile because they have outdone downtown Greenville? It is something to think about. John being John, he has created a Facebook page called Greenville Vs. The World. It soon will be a website soon where people can share their ideas on what Greenville is doing right, what it can do better, and what other communities are learning from.
Also, since, we like to give homework. Read this piece in The Atlantic by Greenville’s non-native writer-in-residence James Fallows about Greenville and cities like it.