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Death of the Downtown

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Few people around Rock Island had ever seen a downtown die. Since Midwest towns began to sprout up in the 19th century, downtowns big and small had been the heart of American culture. Here we gathered for our social moments. From benches in the park we watched the seasons pass and stood each 4th of July to hear the Gettysburg Address after the parade. Here we came on Friday nights when the stores stayed open to shop and discuss life in small groups around streetlights, while the kids watched the free movies in the vacant lot. Here we came after church four times a year to eat Sunday dinner at the hotel.

No one noticed in the late 1950s that a tangle of new highways had surrounded the downtowns, and that out along these highways, auto dealerships and supermarkets had already begun to relocate. They were followed, one by one, by movie theaters, and new merchandizing concepts: fast food, the discount house, the strip malls, and by 1970, the giant enclosed malls with department stores and specialty shops—the complete replacements for the downtowns.

Around Rock Island, the downtowns turned into war zones, stores boarded up, out of business signs. Bustling streets emptied until a lone walker could hear his own footsteps echo. In some doorways, drunks lay like war casualties; in a few other dimly lit stores, customer-less shopkeepers stood looking out their picture windows.

Eventually, even those of us who loved the downtown could not watch, and we stopped coming. We followed the rest to the bright lights and the music of the malls.

The downtowns died without fanfare, suffering in absolute silence, and without any movement at all, as still as those animals hit by cars or caught by legs in traps.

It is one of those ironies humans exhibit, that if Rock Island should ever become a theme park, we would recreate these downtowns there like Disneyworld does, add a ride or two, charge a steep admission to experience the good old days, and watch those storefronts fill up again.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.