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One and Future City
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
Like most nihilists, I have a secret, romantic side that is as deep as it is surprising. No matter how critical I can be, I still cultivate an almost childlike belief that things will turn out okay and that most people are inherently decent. This optimism often makes me look foolish but I decided a long time ago that I'd rather be a sap than one of those smirking cool guys who constantly keeps the world at arm's length. It's too much work to be that cool all the time, I thought, so even at my most profane I remain almost embarrassingly wide-eyed.
Nowhere does this philosophy manifest itself as strongly as when I talk about Fort Wayne. I am an unabashed champion for my hometown. I love its peculiarities and I am endlessly entertained by the surprising mix of the bizarre and the mundane that radiates from this city. When people say that Fort Wayne is boring, I have no idea what they are talking about. I always interpret it to mean that the person talking is boring, because the city itself is far too weird for such an inaccurate label.
Like all modern cities, though, Fort Wayne is changing, and I have to admit that its current transformation has me a little uneasy. The one-two punch of losing the Acme Bar and the 412 Club has made me realize that many of the physical remnants of mid-20th century, industrial Fort Wayne are fading away. What made Fort Wayne so distinctive to me as a kid, the post-war topography of the downtown and the neighborhoods, is slowly, inexorably turning into something else, and I can't help wondering what the end result may be. I try to remain optimistic, but the thought of a future downtown dominated by a ballfield and a casino is just too depressing for words.
Most people see the loss of two of Fort Wayne's most venerable bars as nothing more than a further indictment on the smoking ban's disastrous economic impact, but I think there's something more complex going on here. I don't dispute the catastrophic influence the ban has caused — indeed, there is now a long list of casualties — but other social forces have been at play as well and have been just as important. The smoking ban was simply the coup de grace. What we're seeing in Fort Wayne is what all American cities have been facing for decades, namely, the migration from public interaction to the privacy of home. And while I don't want to become a complete Luddite — I do live in this world, after all — I wish there was something that could be done to stem the tide and get people out of their homes, just a little more.
When I interviewed the writer (and Fort Wayne native) Michael Martone last year, he said that the great modern tragedy in American cities is the death of the public space. In Fort Wayne, in the 40's and 50's, the downtown was a bustling place, and photos from the era show crowds of people mixing it up on the streets, in the shops, on the trolleys, in the bars. Today, most downtowns pack it up at 5:00 pm and head home, and the shiny new toys in the typical American home keep folks indoors. The modern replacements for the old public space — malls, movie theatres, sports arenas — have such a generic feel that it's hard to notice any local distinction. I remember talking with Martone about the proposed ballfield, and while he recognized it as an attempt to re-establish some public space for Fort Wayne, he wished that the city would take a more creative approach. Rebuilding the trolley system, he thought, would be infinitely more interesting, and would also serve as a working monument to an important part of the city's past.
But I wonder, in the long run, if people will support anything that goes on downtown. I know that DID has been throwing block parties, I know that Wayne and Calhoun Streets have become more vibrant with bars and restaurants. Still, I wonder if any of this will last. The current tide of social change invariably leads people back home, with the doors locked and the computers on. I'm one of the relics who likes to run errands, I like to go to the bank and to the drug store and to the bakery, and when I tell friends this they look at me as if I've lost my mind. Who'd want to waste time like that? they wonder. But I love wasting time, it's usually when the most interesting things happen. But most people don't think so. It's curious: people once chose to go downtown to interact with other folks, now they devote most of their energies to avoiding contact at all costs. I don't know a solitary person who answers their cell phone without scanning it first. I do it, too, but I can't help laughing at this bizarre practice. Is my time really that precious that I can't be bothered to say Hello?
I remember a cell phone commercial from a few years back, and the tag line for the spot made me so insane that I wanted to throw a brick through my (plasma, Hi-Def) television screen. "Make the world your living room" was the line, and it showed a 20-something dork blissfully staring at his hand as he walked through a gorgeous city landscape that he was wholly oblivious of. It seems so contradictory, to be so connected to technology and yet so disconnected from everything else. I know I shouldn't be so pessimistic about the future, I know that I should rely on my inherent cheeriness, but losing those two bars threw me a lot more than I want to admit. I'm afraid everybody's going to make the world their living room.