A town’s downtown is the new (old) way to live
The sun rises over the mountains and floods my room with light. I lie in bed and listen to the cooing of conspiring pigeons on the roof. I've lately moved from Cody, Wyo., to Salmon, Idaho. Cody, like other towns surrounding Yellowstone National Park, has become an expensive place to live, especially for a freelance writer accustomed to the bohemian life. So I've moved on to continue to cultivate the Old Urbanist in me, this time on the second floor of an old red-brick building downtown.
I read in the Wall Street Journal that Americans are embracing a New Urbanism, as if residing downtown in a city were a new thing. The piece gave examples of a young couple starting out in a city loft rather than a suburban starter home, and of retirees moving back downtown for urban amenities such as restaurants, museums and theaters that they can walk to.
High gas prices are making life in distant suburbs, well, a bit dear. The daily commute is inflicting economic pain. For instance, my sister living in the New York metropolitan area spends $600 per month to drive roundtrip to work. People have started selling McMansions when they can and are moving to downtown condominiums and renovated lofts in formally commercial buildings.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City has issued 194 (and counting) condominium construction permits in the last 12 months, compared to just 13 for the previous year. Billings, Mont., and Boise, Idaho, have both recently revitalized their previously moribund downtowns.
My building has an outside entrance on Main Street that opens up to a wide carpeted staircase that reminds me of the one that Clark Gable swept Vivien Leigh up in Gone with the Wind. I'm on the second floor of the back of the building.
My kitchen window looks northwest over Salmon's rooftops to the timber-fringed Salmon River Mountains. My bedroom window faces northeast and takes in the snowy Beaverhead Mountains, a line of peaks that are the southern spur of the Bitterroots.
I enjoy these vistas from an apartment that reminds me of my late grandmother's in New York in the 1960s. The only thing missing is an elevator. The scheming pigeons in the morning compete with hammering-sawing construction sounds as the apartment's manager -- in my grandmother's time they were called superintendents or "supers" -- renovates another unit for the building's owner, a businessman in San Diego.
Living downtown, especially in summer with the windows open, can be noisy, and not only due to traffic. Three bars line two blocks across Main Street, and a public parking lot is next to my building. Weekend closing times can feature drunken brawls or loud marital/lovers' spats in the parking lot under my bedroom window. Either the cops show up, or these disturbances pass as quickly as a summer storm. It took me awhile to get used to them. At first, I'd awaken with a start, thinking these obnoxious revelers were actually in my room, but nowadays I mostly sleep through it all. Determined not to throw myself into an already volatile mix, I refrain from shouting "Quiet!" from my window. Thankfully, no one has been shot -- yet. And once the weather cools in the fall, I'll be able to shut my windows and not hear a thing.
As for the town in the serene light of day, everything is in walking or biking distance from home. The grocery store, the bank, the post office, City Hall, the public library and Island Park on the Salmon River.
One of the reasons I left Cody is that it got too big for someone without a car. Despite having a relatively low population of10,000, Cody is 10 miles between city limits. A trip to the grocery store or Wal-Mart was -- for me -- a journey. Salmon has one-third of Cody's population contained in about a mile, with most municipal and commercial activity concentrated downtown. There are no big-box stores.
I spend as much time outdoors as possible, and as I ride my bike out of town through the cottonwoods, I pass emerald pastures peppered with black angus cattle. The irrigation ditches brim gin-clear. The snow-gashed Beaverheads pierce the sky.
It's a warm, almost hot, summer evening, and if it doesn't cool off, I might even sleep out on the fire escape tonight.
Bill Croke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Salmon, Idaho.