The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Facets of a Small Downtown

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I’ve been blessed with a lot of travel opportunities this summer, particularly in July. Two weeks ago, I was—as we say in Minnesota—“up north” in Grand Marais, which is about sixty miles from the Canadian border. Next weekend I’ll be in Chicago, IL and Milwaukee, WI visiting family and friends. But last weekend, I took my first solo road trip down to the tiny town of Grinnell, IA to see a close friend who just finished college there.

As I’ve done with previous trips, I collected some urban observations in this new place. Grinnell seemed like a typical Midwestern town. It had a handful of employers (the college and some nearby factories), some fast food joints and gas stations, rows of tree-lined residential streets, several churches, and a quaint, historic city center. Here are a couple features of that small town downtown which seemed prominent and beneficial to the Grinnell community.

The coffee shop


Doing triple duty as a café, communal gathering place and concert venue, Saint’s Rest coffee shop seemed like the go-to hang-out in Grinnell. I found myself there on a Saturday morning for a bluegrass concert, and I couldn’t have been happier. I hope every town (and every city neighborhood) has a place like this.

The local businesses


Antiques stores, gift shops, a bank and so on—these small businesses provide some income for the town and in addition, they draw tourists and residents alike for a pleasant stroll on a weekend afternoon.

The newbie restaurant


This delightful, wide-open and adventurous restaurant was a newcomer in Grinnell, but clearly already a community favorite. The owners were able to open Prairie Canary because they won start up cash and three months free rent through a contest sponsored by the Grinnell Area Chamber of Commerce to design the best new restaurant plan. That idea intrigued me and one bite into my grilled cheese sealed my support for more contests like this in other towns or cities.

The arts center (not pictured)
Grinnell is home to a thriving artist community for young and old, actors and painters, participants and supporters. In the span of a day, I sat in a full auditorium for a community theater production of Peter Pan and wandered through a gallery with art from a recent artist residency program. Other towns have their own specialties—foods, festivals, football—and whatever they are, it’s good to see collective support for those pursuits. The new arts center is housed in an old library building, adding additional history.

I know this takes a detour from my usual city-centric posts, but I believe we can learn just as much about urban development by looking at smaller communities. They provide a counterpoint to our cities as well as, surprisingly, many similarities. I see remnants of this pastoral downtown vision in the old movie theaters and antique stores that pepper my city, despite the grander landscape that has been built up around them. My trip to Grinnell reminded me that people all around the world are going about their lives in much smaller places and—with a few choice features—getting by just fine.


One thought on “Facets of a Small Downtown

  1. Pingback: Summer City Goals—Revisited | The City Space

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