People needed to affirm something after the earthquake, to reassure themselves that the loss they were feeling was not going to be permanent. Environmental Design professor Jim was beginning to organize speakers to come talk to us about planning the rebuilding of our downtown. Some opportunistic consultants offered to organize a workshop for the town folk, replete with maps and markers, subgroups and scribes. The old downtown had looked dated to these academics. Roy’s hexagonal brick planters and tile patterns were so Seventies, as was his potpourri of specimen trees. The moment was perfect to guide people toward a more contemporary, disciplined approach, one that characterized great streets in the great cities that these experts had studied and measured. The workshop would be an easy introduction to their ideas and their portfolios; the city would soon be in need of design services.

The Town Hall Meeting took place in the high school gym. I was asked to lead a table. Each group was supplied a map of the downtown area, and asked to mark what they considered to be the ‘number one location’ for Pacific Avenue. It was the same toss up at each table; some said the Cooper House, others insisted on the Bookshop. Both had been reduced first to rubble, and then to history. That leading, ingratiating question had pointed people to the past, and they went there willingly.

The experts then primed the participants with slides of the patinated urbanity of European streetscapes; the Champs Elysee was the rue du jour that nuit.

Afterwards, as I was talking with one of the presenters, a woman approached; she had that freshly inspired brightness of eye. Why couldn’t our town be like Paris? The experts smiled. Why not, indeed?

I told them both why not. The answer was simple, final, and self-evident. The people living in this town were not Parisians. They were Americans who commuted to work, took a half hour for lunch and were in bed by 10:30. Summer nights here are not warm. The workshop had lasted over two hours, and no one had cared to ask the people who lived here what kind of downtown their lives required, or what kind of town their culture could support.