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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 5, NO. 4 -- FALL 2003
 

Excerpt From a Main Street Diary

I am standing on a desolate corner in central Texas at 7 a.m., setting up my tripod and camera to shoot the Main Street of the distressed town of Taylor. As I move the tripod away from a vast encrustation of pigeon droppings on the sidewalk, suddenly the door behind me opens, and a man pops out from what I thought was a long-abandoned, derelict warehouse.

This often happens when I'm shooting for my main streets project; another photographer sees me and comes out to talk.

He turns out to be one of those urban pioneers you hear so much about. His name is Jim; he and his wife moved to Taylor recently, looking for big cheap buildings in a town that has nowhere to go but up. Eventually I follow Jim inside his warehouse to see his studio, which is clean and cavernous, equipped with sophisticated lighting and computers.

In urbanism they speak about the Three Waves of Gentrification. It goes like this: the first people to move in to a crummy neighborhood are the "risk-oblivious" -- students and artists, mostly. They're willing to live in a place where crackheads hang on the street. As the neighborhood begins to look better, the second wave is the "risk-tolerant," and finally the sign of full gentrification is the coming of the "risk-averse." (These people will want garages for their Audis.)

Jim tells me they're trying to help this dying town find new life by encouraging "artists and wackadoos" to move there and buy the empty buildings. The architecture here is quite beautiful, but the street life is sad. There's a good cafe, but also a lot of consignment stores, the fallback business of 21st-Century Main Street America. I ask him, "Was your Main Street killed by that Wal-Mart a mile outside the town center?" He says, "Have you been in our Wal-Mart? That Wal-Mart's lousy. People drive 17 miles to another town's Wal-Mart."

Taylor is part of the Texas main street revitalization effort, but Jim says for the purposes of the program, Main starts across the street from his place. The section south of Second Street, which was historically the "color line," isn't eligible for grants. Yet the best architecture is there. Unfortunately a highway bridge over the railroad splits the street just at that spot, and trucks speed down Main. But to me it seems redeemable.

Jim has started a jazz concert program in the old theatre on North Main, but hardly anyone comes. He is still waiting for the First Wave.


I e-mail Jim to find out what's happening now in Taylor. He reports: "We have a new Main Street manager. I spoke with her last night and she said that five businesses have closed this last month on Main Street. There's a lot of development under way on the north side of town -- including a new Super Wal-Mart -- but downtown is worse than ever. Keep in touch."




Photographs by Sandy Sorlien, Taylor, Texas, Spring 2002.

Sandy Sorlien is a photographer and writer living in Philadelphia, Pa. The working title of her book-in-progress is The Heart of Town: Main Streets in America. Visit www.sandysorlien.com for more information.