Ever since I moved downtown, I find myself walking a whole lot more. It's a healthy habit, one that's good for the body and the soul, as the slow pace allows you to catch and contemplate things you'd miss zooming by in a car.
Sounds utopian, but lately, the vision has been kinda apocalyptic. Put simply:
Downtown retail space
It's staggering and sad. Two weeks ago, I gave Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere a tour of what used to be Montreal's most vibrant retail blocks. That day, what was not vacant was filled with rickety, low-end stores and sketchy restaurants on their last legs.
And this sordid situation ain't unique to my hometown. Recent trips to New York, Chicago and Toronto (Have you seen Yonge Street recently? Frightening...) have told the same tale.
The culprit? Well, you're using it right now. The Internet has replaced the big box store as the deathstar of downtown independent retail real estate (it's basically replaced the big box store too, but that's another blog post). On one hand, the digitization of music, film and books have eliminated the need for actually posessing them in a physical form, so no more need to head out to buy 'em. On the other hand, you can buy everything from socks to diamond rings to farm equipment via the Net these days, so no need to venture out at all, never mind to a crumbling central urban landscape.
Now, I love living downtown, and that means "living," not just sleeping and working there.
But I do see its future, and it ain't pretty.
So here's my solution to ensure that it can be:
Bring the Internet
from the outskirts
to the center of town.
Everything. From storefronts of web retailers to webdev companies to server farms.
The Net is now our mainstream. It has become our core, like stores and store-owners used to be. And if that is indeed the case, give it front-and-center positioning.
I know the argument--cost per square foot in the burbs and industrial areas vs. a city's core (which is why I have to travel over a half-hour to meet Beyond The Rack CEO Yona Shtern next month). Now I ain't no economic genius, but I'd rather have a tenant paying me something than nobody paying me anything. And unless I start filling my buildings, they're gonna be worth shit anyway. If nothing changes, a hard rain's gonna fall on retail square footage prices before we know it. Downtown had better start thinking like an industrial park before delapidation turns to abandonment.
Sure, the look will be different; window displays may feature eclectic hipsters at desks instead of well-dressed manequins in poses. But that type of "peering behind the curtain" didn't seem to hurt street-level TV networks (a la NBC in New York or CTV in Toronto) or centrally-located, open-air kitchens in restaurants. At least a downtown jaunt will focus on living beings instead of "For Rent" signs.
Just think of it--a city's core filled with smart, young, vibrant, energetic, bleeding-edge-economy workers who will, in turn, need places to eat, hang out and--gasp!--maybe even buy stuff.
This may not be as crazy as it sounds at first. Amazon is reported to be looking at opening a concept retail location in Seattle. And everyone should do as poorly as Apple does with its retail locations. They trailblazed their place in cyberspace and then on terra firma. Let the others follow.
The Internet has shaken the foundations of brick-and-mortar.
Now it's time for the Internet to build it up again.
And, in the process, make my walks a little more pleasant.