What a difference a downtown can make

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I am writing my column this week in Los Angeles. We’ve come here to close a major chapter in our lives. The house we built from scratch 20 years ago will soon be occupied by another family. I haven’t met them. I don’t want to. The deal is done. We’ve signed the papers, and will be on the road home to Winters by the time their moving vans arrive.  The selling of the house was a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Our real estate agent blamed it on a “downturn in the market.” I think it was fear, and it works like this: a few houses sell for less than asking, and suddenly word spreads among the brokers. Sellers get nervous. Prices are cut. There’s blood in the water, and the sharks start circling.  To give myself a break from packing, I walked around the corner to Larchmont Boulevard, a shopping street thats pretty much the same size as our downtown Winters, minus the charm. It got me thinking. There’s a pretty good warning here for Winters, when the inevitable arguments about growth and development come up.  Two decades ago, Larchmont Boulevard was truly a local street, used everyday by people living nearby. There was a small grocery store, a cafe, a fish market, a hardware store, and a locally owned book store. Only the book store remains today.  The rest are chains, or other ultra-trendy shops, like the one where you can custom design your own shade of lipstick. (I guess there aren’t enough standard colors.) There’s a Starbucks and a Peet’s coffee, a sneaker store, a hat store, a sushi restaurant, and two bagel shops.  Turnover is high because trends fade quickly. Today, there’s a brand new Jamba Juice franchise near the corner. Last time I was here, that space was occupied by a shop which sold only French macaroons. I worry for the citizens of LA now that their macaroon supply has dried up—-how will they survive without their daily fix?  As for Winters, we are one of the few California cities with a working historic downtown, not simply a tourist attraction. We are authentic. We serve not only visitors, but the working people who live here. Can you imagine Main Street Winters without Gino and the boys at the hardware store?  This means as Winters evolves, we should keep in mind that as we add new businesses, they should first and foremost be places to serve the community.  My vote is for a bakery with an honest-to-goodness wood- fired oven, where one can pick up a fresh loaf of bread in the morning. There must be some young entrepreneurial baker who’d love the opportunity. Mr. Donlevy, lets get on it!  It’s also time to finally find a way to seismically retrofit our great historic buildings. I got a chance recently to walk upstairs at the old De Vilbiss Hotel, above the Buckhorn. Its fascinating. Only the original 2×4 studs remain, but the outline of the 40 sleeping rooms and the parlor is still there. I could picture Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty walking hand in hand down the hallway, sometime in the late 1800’s.  But back to the present. My walk down Larchmont Boulevard was eye-opening. In the span of five minutes, I saw no one I could remotely describe as clean cut. It was a sea of ink, as though everyone here under the age of 30 is required by law to be tattooed head to toe. OK, I’m exaggerating. A bit.  I dodged a lot of electric scooters, and waded through clusters of bearded men in skinny pants, and women in yoga tights, desperately clinging to their designer water bottles and sequined iPhones.  Truth be told, I felt like an alien being who had just landed on another planet. I was dressed in the standard men’s uniform of Winters—-jeans, plaid shirt, baseball cap with tractor logo. It’s what I call Charley Wallace chic (moustache optional).  It was definitely time to go. Believe it or not, I’m actually looking forward to that mind-numbing drive north up Interstate 5, LA in the rear view mirror. Ahead: I-80 to the 113N to Covell, and straight home.  If I’m not too tired, I might stop and stretch my legs, with a stroll through a real downtown. ]]>

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