Growing up in Louisville, Ky., I never noticed how our downtown served as backdrop for our city’s culture. I was probably too young to realize because I wasn’t able to experience nightlife or even drive for that matter. But now I know that our bustling Main and Market Streets are lined with the staples of our city: the Kentucky Derby’s Churchill Downs and places like the 4th Street Live! show strip, the Kentucky Center for the Arts, the Muhammad Ali Center and the KFC Yum! Center, home of the 2013 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball champions the University of Louisville Cardinals.
But Downtown Louisville hasn’t always been so popular to its city residents. Like many that have fallen before them, with the suburbanization of the mid-21st century and the emergence of commercial centers like malls and megaplex movie theaters, downtowns have become a thing of the past. Outdated, considered dirty and dangerous, downtowns don’t offer what they used to.
Upon moving to Johnson City in 2010, I definitely was not turned on by its country culture or lack of abundance of activity in town. I’m a city girl, so the mountains took some getting used to. And downtown Johnson City itself, served, in my former mind, as a four-street construction zone with a few decent restaurants and a church or two that I might check out next Sunday.
After spending more time on Main Street in those first few months, taking 35 mm black and white photos for my film photography class, I began to notice the incredibly diverse architecture of the various buildings. All clumped together, they form different versions of aged red brick, decaying tile, peeling paint and old facades. Even the faded windows and rustic doors give glimpses of story. Each building’s design not only speaks of its current business, giving it character and a landmark to go by, but reminds us of what downtown used to be.
Johnson City was a railroad junction, so clearly, it had to be a popular place to stop. Just picture families crowding the streets on Sunday afternoons pre-World War II, window shopping, people catching a movie at the dollar theater. Life was good and downtown was utilized to its potential.
Speaking of potential, have you ever noticed the Kress Building downtown, currently home to Main Street Antiques and Mercantile? Chances are you’ve peaked inside and lingered over a perfectly timeworn table or hunted for Persian rugs. While doing all that, did you know that you were standing in a rich piece of American history?
Samuel H. Kress was the founder of S.H. Kress and Co. and built more than 200 “five and dime” retail department stores across the country. Throughout the early to mid-1900s, Kress stores were a familiar sight on the Main Streets of American cities, much like ours.
With their terracotta ornamentation, strong verticals and the golden letters spelling “Kress” engraved at the top of the building, Kress’ stores were pieces of fine architecture, works of public art that would contribute to a notable cityscape.
I imagine Kress stores to be the equivalent of a modern Macy’s. People strolled through the vast aisles and shopped in awe of the picturesque retail arrangements. If we had a Macy’s in downtown Johnson City, people would surely flock to it daily.
Unfortunately, in 1964, Genesco Inc. acquired ownership of Kress stores, relocating them to shopping malls and finally closing down original stores by 1980. And while the old Kress Building in Johnson City is already occupied, countless storefronts near it are vacant or up for sale right now.
It’s difficult to distinguish between some buildings downtown because they don’t even have display names for identification. How do we know they are in use? On another note, are the restaurants downtown as successful as, say, the chain eateries found on Roan Street and State of Franklin Road? Also, there is surprisingly loads of traffic for downtown with people passing quickly throughout their day. But do they ever stop and stay awhile?
You can find random clues on individual buildings directing you toward their past lives, if you care to do some research. For example, what does the name “Hannah” inscribed above Atomik Comics allude to? What about the train mural or the Coca-Cola wall? Even on the outskirts of downtown you can find traces of history on the outside of current factories and shops.
Hardly anyone my age, in their early 20s, will easily know the answer to these questions. We have never noticed the office spaces, or attended the Blue Moon Dinner Theater, or held events at The Charles. Our doctors’ offices aren’t situated downtown, we never knew old-fashioned barber shops even existed and some of us aren’t old enough to get into the bars. We simply see what is before us, which is not a whole lot.
But when I walk around downtown Johnson City, a fresh pair of eyes with a bit of bias toward outstanding architecture, I see the past and the future. With the upcoming additions of Tupelo Honey Cafe, the 26-unit Paxton Place apartment complex and continued work on flood alleviation, I think downtown Johnson City is making a comeback.
For college students, downtown is known as the bar scene and the bar scene only. Twenty-somethings fill up Capone’s, Tipton Street Pub, Numan’s, One12 Downtown and now The Battery every Thursday and Friday night. But is that really all our downtown can offer? I don’t think so.
It hard to imagine that downtown Johnson City once buzzed of news, shopping and socialites. We can easily ponder over a black and white photo of a crowded Main Street or speak hours with elderly Johnson City residents who remember the good old days. Or you can try to view downtown Johnson City with appreciation for the past and hope for the future.
I’m sure people have seen it in a sadder light for decades, as a scary and hopeless sector of town. If anything, the emptiness is room for opportunity. Look around and you will see we are finally taking full advantage of that little by little. Someday soon, we will take pride in our downtown.
Here is my theory: I believe that with the addition of a few new local restaurants willing to take a risk and invest downtown, integrating some well-known coffee shops and more living space for younger adults, bringing in two popular chain restaurants and a brand name retail store for, let’s be honest, younger women, downtown could become a place where people want to be again.
It might be years before it reaches the statuses of Downtown Asheville or Downtown Louisville, but they started from next to nothing, and we can, too.
Sydney Franklin will be a senior at Milligan College this fall.comments powered by Disqus