Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Ghosts of the CBD

I was trained, during my time in college, as a geographer. So I am familiar with the term CBD. CBD stands for Central Business District, and it's a term that is used in geography and economics and planning to describe what is traditionally known as downtown: that area of a community where there is a high concentration of business and often government activities located centrally in an area. This is sort of a dying concept in some suburban and ex-urban areas where strip malls and commercial strips along multi-lane highways tend to rule the roost. But older and more traditional cities and most small towns still have a CBD, and most of those CBD's have living spaces in them in the form of apartments above the businesses that line the streets.
I live in a CBD. Many of you have probably lived in a CBD especially if you have lived in a college town and lived off campus. And certainly everyone has gone to a CBD for shopping or a show or that sort of thing. But have you ever noticed that the residents of the CBD are rarely ever seen or heard from by the other masses that populate that area? I came to that realization today as I entered my apartment building and a family of kids stared at me as I entered a door that wasn't a store like I was doing so with my pants off. And I checked, my pants were on AND appropriately fastened.
The point here folks is that the patrons of the CBD and the residents of the CBD rarely ever mix, and when they do it is very rarely noticed. I think of all the time I have spent in the downtown areas of all the towns in which I've lived and I can't think of a time when I noticed the people who live there. Certainly one notices when there is an event occurring. I always noticed those watching the dogsled race from the comfort of their living rooms while I was standing outside in the bitter cold. And when I was sitting with my legs dangling out of my apartment window watching the Independence Day parade the people in the street noticed me too. I know because they were looking up at me and pointing like I was going to fall down upon their heads like rain or a meteorite or something.
The problem is two-fold as far as I have been able to discern. And believe me I have been studying this problem for quite some time in all sorts of depth. First is that when you are down in the CBD, whether it is for a concert or a play or to go to the bar or whatever, you aren't thinking about the people who live there. You aren't thinking about the people who live there when you rev the engine of your truck every time you go down the block, which is about every five minutes or so. The point here is that when you go downtown you usually have an agenda - a mission if you will - that you are focused on and thinking about. You are going to the bar. You are meeting your friends. You are hurrying to the show. You aren't thinking about the fact that there are people living around there. You also aren't looking up. All the housing in the CBD is on the second floor and above; the first floor is all about business, which is why you are downtown in the first place. So the residents tend to go unnoticed.
Part of the reason that occurs, however, is because of the residents of the CBD themselves. Like I said before the Worldwide Headquarters is in the CBD of my town, so I know how CBd residents think and act and move. And part of the reason they are so infrequently noticed is because they take pains to not be noticed. Not so much not to be noticed but to not be inconvenienced. See, when you live somewhere and there tends to be mass influxes of people on a regular basis, that really makes it hard for you to get around and get anything done. So residents of the CBD, faced with this very situation, tend to find ways to get away from that. I take back doors and alleyways every chance I get. If I am in my car I take the most direct routes out of downtown that don't have to cross busy main drags. I do my best to not actually be downtown among all the people because it inconveniences me in so many ways that I can't even begin to describe. In fact, I wouldn't have been using the front door of the main street if there hadn't been construction going on out the back. Usually the shoppers and the bar hoppers are just voices outside my window or faceless bodies passing by below me.
So there it is: a pretty potent mix of behaviors on the two sides that creates all these sort of ghosts of the Central Business District. And that's the look that I got from these kids - this sort of incredulous but intensely interested and a little bit frightened look like one would have if they saw a ghost. But it wasn't a ghost, it was just me, going home to my place in the CBD. So next time you venture downtown for whatever reason, keep your eyes peeled. Look in the back alleys and sidewalks and most importantly look upward. Chances are you will catch a peek of one of the ghosts of the CBD.

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