One sunny Saturday afternoon we cruised along Highway 67 into Cleburne, Texas, a town and county seat about 26 miles south of Fort Worth. As we approached we were assailed on both sides by large plastic signs advertising the usual mix of chain stores, fast food restaurants and car repair places. We reached downtown, parked, got out of the car and looked around.
It was dead. Apart from a few people painting a Christmas mural on their church window, there were no people around, no cars parked, and very few shops open. This, you will recall, was a Saturday afternoon, in near-perfect autumn weather. Where was everyone?
Travelling around Texas, you soon learn that nearly every community will try and lure you in with the promise of a "historic downtown". As far as I can gather, this merely means that some of the buildings have been there for more than fifty years. A few, notably Granbury and Jefferson, are actually attractive and contain some functioning businesses. Many others consist of two dusty antique shops, an aging department store with a mannequin featuring styles from 1970, and a shut cafe. Incidentally, I have never understood why antique stores count as a tourist attraction. Do people really go on holiday with the intention of buying a claw-footed bathtub and a set of dusty dining chairs? Or is it more of an impulse buy? "Oh yes, darling, I'm sure we can tie them on the car roof somehow."
To return to my point. Which is, that many Texas towns somehow fail to have any kind of functioning downtown area. And Cleburne is a case in point. It's trying, certainly. After walking past a few shuttered antique shops and weathered buildings we were suddenly confronted by a magnificent mural depicting the cattle routes and trains that are part of Cleburne's heritage. The bright images overflow their frames to really hit you in the face. It's an awesome piece of work. Round the corner, the glint of a neon OPEN sign led us to Mill Street Coffee, one of the quirkiest and homeliest cafes I've been in. The menu's not extensive, but the "take one and leave one" bookshelf, the checkers table and the guitar leaning against the comfy sofa make it a place where you want to grab a few lattes and settle in for the afternoon. But the total number of customers while we ate a late lunch and played checkers? About three.
It's not that the area is under-populated. Cleburne boasts a population of around 29 000, and is a mere half-hour drive away from the vast DFW metroplex. While perhaps not enjoying the importance it had in previous years, when it was a junction and supply area for several railway lines, it appears to be reasonably prosperous. There's a state park just down the road with all sorts of interesting fossils, and a nearby lake in which you can fish, should the fancy take you. While not a place you might immediately think to visit, chances are good there is a reasonable throughput of out-of-towners.
Trying to think of a suitable British comparison, I hit upon Todmorden, where Graham's parents live. Much smaller than Cleburne, at about 11 000 inhabitants, it hasn't got the prosperity it used to when wool was king and mills were round every corner, but it's not doing too badly. It's a similar distance from the nearest big city, in this case Manchester, and is close to the Pennine Hills. However, wander into the centre of Todmorden on a typical Saturday afternoon and there will be plenty of people around. Although some of the pubs have closed recently, you have your choice of half a dozen cafes. There's both an indoor and outdoor market, a couple of supermarkets and a host of smaller shops. It's not a tourist destination, but if you happened to be passing by you could easily quench your thirst, eat some lunch, and buy a newspaper. Despite the loudly-lamented demise of many local shops, you could say the same for most British towns.
So why is it that so many downtowns here are either preservation-heavy tourist traps or tumbleweed-ridden ghost lands? The easy answer is to blame the car culture. Plenty of people probably live within ten minutes' walk of Cleburne Main St. Most of them would never think to walk there. They would much rather drive ten miles to the superstore. Some would say that the distances in Texas make driving a necessity. To a point this is true, but the main residential part of Cleburne is no more than 3 miles in diameter. Admittedly walking a mile when it's 110F is liable to reduce you to a sweaty puddle, but during the cooler 9 months of the year it is not a difficult distance.
For those coming from outside the city, I guess the familiar names on the busy billboards capture them before they ever reach downtown. Need a coffee? Well, we've heard of McDonalds, Starbucks, Dunkin Donut. We know the routine. Why risk going to some local place which is probably closed anyway? This way we can whizz into the drive-thru and keep right on going.
I think it's sad. Maybe downtowns have had their day. Maybe we should embrace change and let life move out to the crowded aisles of Walmart. But a Walmart is a Walmart is a Walmart, and I want to know what makes Cleburne Cleburne. What makes it different to Jacksboro, Weatherford, Fredericksburg? If the only atmosphere is one where time stopped 50 years ago, that doesn't tell me much about the town now. By all means honour the past, but let's give downtowns a present and a future. Americans unite! Support your local downtown!