PlaceShakers takes a very literal step off our comfortably beaten paths of urban design, zoning reform and community resiliency today to focus on, as the software industry calls it, the “end-user experience.” Despite, or perhaps because of, having no vocational connection to placemaking at all, explorer / spelunker / observer John Watts offers up some poignant reminders of why our work towards endearing — and enduring — human-scaled places is so important. For today, certainly, but ultimately for tomorrow.
My drive from Sterling, Virginia, heading due west, started out as a yawner and then turned to a downer. The bumper sticker battle slogan seen often a few years ago stating “Don’t Fairfax Loudoun!” (meant to admonish Loudoun County to not repeat the same mistakes Fairfax County had made in over-developing) appeared to be becoming moot. Rapidly. The tangle of traffic congestion at 1:30 in the afternoon was as formidable as anything Fairfax can conjure up.
It was largely due to the highway construction, with traffic being funneled down to just one lane on mighty Route 7’s westbound leg. Glancing at the scenery was the real clincher though. For a several mile stretch, as I gazed out from my car, all I found was upturned clay mountains and huge claw marks from bulldozers gouging the top layer of ground. “I have been away too long,” I thought to myself. The tug of inevitability was very evident on this stretch, as progress was moving on without me.
But then, reaching the Leesburg town limits, I found myself increasingly comforted as familiar landmarks, minus the construction, returned before me. I crossed past the first few shopping centers on the outskirts of town, following the main road towards the heart of the city and then, suddenly, the standardized predictability of VDOT signs and precise highway lanes abruptly halted and the main street was split by a pie-shaped wedge of land fittingly belonging to Mom’s Apple Pie bakery. This little peninsula with the tiny parking lot beckons drivers to have a hot coffee and pastry, that is, if they can manage to make a split second decision and park the car before it is passed by.
In this day and age of constant change, with its disposable, dumbed down architecture showcasing even blander stores, the old town section offers a respite. Thank God for old towns. They continue to hold their own and remain intact just as firmly as a river or national park, serving as vital centers of physical and cultural geography in these transitory times.
From this point on, everything seemed fresh and exciting. Instantly the commonplace ways of conducting public life evaporated. Delightfully unexpected buildings and stores cropped up in unconventional places. The first place I noticed this was at the gas station behind Mom’s Apple Pie bakery. As I walked in to buy a newspaper, I was startled to see a side door with row upon row of tables with fancy silk tablecloths. I did a double take. “Is that a restaurant?” I asked the cashier at the gas station. “Why yes,” he replied, “we have a Thai restaurant under our roof.” He gave me a menu to take with me as I ran back to my car. I looked back several times at the incongruity, as this was the first time I had ever seen a fancy, sit-down restaurant sharing quarters with a gas station.
My next magical visit was to a fairly new British tea room (at least new to me), called the Aylesbury Tea Room and antique store. The gift shop seemed to entail most of this historic house beyond the opening tea room, and it seemed to extend forever. I marveled at how many entrances there were all around this old brick house.
This British tea and scone shop, which served tea from 12 to 4, had all the refinement and delicacy of a BBC set in one of those Agatha Christie Miss Marple mysteries. But since I am all thumbs in a tea room anyway, I gravitated to the antique and UNIQUE shop that covered a whole block and produced the real “Wow!” factor. Each room was a revelation. A telling sign at the base of the staircase stated plainly, “Mind Your Head—Low Ceiling!” It was the type of fun house where a group of kids could get lost in a wardrobe closet that turns into a fantasy world. Fascinating wall hangings and knick knacks adorned the place to tantalize collectors in search of a distinctive gift.Further into the heart of downtown Leesburg, the Black Shutter Antique Center offers the same novelty and sense of adventure. These huge historic homes of great character, off plumb and full of eccentricities, are like falling down the rabbit’s hole in Alice in Wonderland. You take a fanciful plunge into room after room and staircase after staircase with surprising collections of merchandise around every corner. You feel alert like a trail hiker as you scan for arrows to tell you what direction to go to next.
Old towns compel you to linger longer. You are meant to try out an endless variety of sequences such as reading the newspaper at a café in between shopping. On one visit to Leesburg, I can choose to go to an authentic dark pub atmosphere like the Balls Bluff Tavern for a cold beer. On another, during a cold winter’s day, I am comforted by a cup of hot cocoa with whipped cream at the old Georgetown Cafe.
Diamond-in-the-rough deals beckon the discerning antique buyer. In the used book section I found a John Steinbeck novel first edition that I had never heard of before called The Wayward Bus. I also ended up buying a very strange and dated children’s book called The Gnomobile, written by Upton Sinclair, who was not known for being a children’s writer. Old towns are great for breaking preconceptions and delivering plenty of surprises. I walked out with my book, feeling very proud indeed.
After years of visiting the downtown, suddenly on this trip, I noticed a venerable Ohio Buckeye tree for the first time on Cornwall Street with its own historic sign on the bark signifying that it was registered as an historic tree. How had I missed this before with all my many walking trips around old town the past few years? I made a note to myself to come back for a future trip and take its picture.
The eccentric arrangement of houses, with their funny angles and maximized spacing, are also a hallmark of downtown. To attest to this fact, I saw a thin old brick house comically crammed in between the addresses of the bigger houses listed as 14 and 15. Naturally it was listed as a fraction in between its neighbors — 14 and a half.
So many aspects of old towns are ethereal and elusive, requiring the right childlike spirit and receptivity to be noticed. Like the mythical island in the musical Brigadoon, certain treasures suddenly seem to sharpen into focus out of nowhere, when the stars are aligned just right for that particular visit.
Old towns are a feast for the senses. Alleyways can be secret little worlds unto themselves as well as short cuts. Stylish shops can make gift buying fun again as one of a kind knick knacks compel you to not walk away until you take them home. Casting your eyes up to the rooftops reveals all types of patterns and shapes ranging from old to oldest. The colorful randomness of the rooftops is a great relief to the human spirit worn down by sterile shopping centers. Humor and elegance are found side by side as you notice distinctive weather vanes such as the one at the Carriage House, or the many church steeples with the occasional bell tower.
Whether I am on foot or driving a car, I find myself getting sucked into the vortex at the center of an old historic town. I feel a gravitational pull to walk or drive into the heart of a town or city. Old towns are a patchwork quilt of unexpected and unscripted adventure. To me, an old town feels like an animate object whose presence I can feel, from the cobblestone pavement to the cellular bricks in the old buildings. Old towns keep alive ghosts that tell us stories. The ubiquitous predictability of mass marketed chains and standardized products are kept at bay and are replaced by bubbling hot springs of individual human ingenuity and handiwork.
I have been blessed to roam the streets of so many classic old towns. Old Town Alexandria, with the Potomac River as an added gem, Winchester, Leesburg, Warrenton, Staunton, Front Royal, Fredericksburg, Annapolis, and Purcellville, to name some of the most frequented in the region. Virginia alone has so many delightful old towns brimming with history and unique stories.
So when you are stuck in the traffic, and bored with the national franchising of your suburban mailing address, take my advice and allow the gravitational pull of an old town to reel you in and revive your senses for a few hours or a whole day. Each visit offers a new adventure for picking out a different sequence of sightseeing with never before seen attractions to add to your repertoire. I always come home revitalized, feeling like I have experienced a mini vacation from a one day outing to an Old Town. If you expect precision and punctuality to get back in time from your 30 minute lunch break, then it is not the place to be. It’s not safe and predictable and you can’t set your watch to it. Family-run stores may suddenly and for no clear reason be closed at an odd hour. Hand written signs may offer vague, personal reason for not being open such as “Gone Fishing,” or this amusing and expansive sign I read in historic Ellicott City, Maryland, at the front door: “Cat does not run out. Please allow door to close on its own. Thank you.”
And don’t expect to find parallel Men’s and Women’s restrooms in old towns, lined up neatly as they’re customarily situated in chain establishments. An example being the 2 flights of stairs I once walked to chase down the Men’s room at a cool coffee shop in Falls Church, Virginia. This amusing experience, in which I dodged crates, squeezed by stacked merchandise boxes, and almost trespassed into a quasi “Employee’s only” section, was a powerful testimony to me for how old towns, and only old towns, can transform an ordinary customer into a combination of explorer/spelunker/and maze navigator on a simple quest to locate a bathroom (which also often come in amusing designs and states of repair). It is certainly true that by their very nature, old towns aren’t predictable and they are certainly not good at complying with ADA specifications in granting smooth access for people with physical disabilities, but for those that don’t mind the inconvenience and can hoof it on foot, the adventures are endless and spring directly from the pages of history and tradition.
Anxiety may ensue as you gamble and try a new dish on a menu or hunt around to locate merchandise in a store with an unorthodox floor plan. But if you can roll with its unscripted qualities, you will consider it a small price to pay for all the upside you get in return. It is a 100% certain guarantee that if you allow your car to cross the threshold beyond that first disposable epidermal layer of chain stores, you will feel a part of something bigger than just a shopping errand–you will be communing with the heart of the old town.
John Watts was born in Denver, Colorado, but has lived most of his adult life in northern Virginia. A teacher for many years, he revels in the writing of essays and short stories, weaving mischief and streaks of whimsy through what he lightly refers to as “heartfelt transcendental observations of daily life.”