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WHAT MAKES A PLACE GREAT?
For starters, its people—in the work they do, in the pride they show, in their commitment to community and to the world in which they live. In the wake of our recent tough times, cities across the country are being newly revitalized. Neighborhoods are being vibrantly reborn. Follow us down the path of inspiration and see for yourself: America’s new great places. (Above photo by Susan Seubert)
Who in the world thought to put lawn chairs in the middle of Times Square? Someone who knew about making a place great.
Perhaps it has something to do with how technology has driven us deeper within our work and living spaces—and within ourselves. Maybe it’s about civic pride as our cities are threatened to be undone by neglect. Or perhaps it’s just a reflection of the pleasure we take from discovery, from a commitment to something larger than ourselves, and from feeling part of something emergent and special.
Whatever its roots, there is a growing movement in America dedicated to the creation and resurrection of Great Places. The places we’re talking can be high-profile—think of the imaginative makeovers New York has given to Times Square and Bryant Park. But often they begin with the personal: the desire of one woman or man to clean up a city block or turn an empty lot into a garden. It’s about the sanctuaries we seek in a noisy urban setting. Maybe it’s a scene, a place we go to find community, friendship, and good conversation.
Whole cities can be Great Places, and we see a lot of them heroically reinventing themselves in the wake of recent natural disasters. So can neighborhoods, whose blossoming often begins with the appearance of artists in search of low rents. Then a bar appears, and a burger joint. And a sense of home is made.
Even parkways, those rectan-gular patches of turf that sit between sidewalks and streets, can ignite new life. That’s where, a half-dozen years ago, Ron Finley first tried to make a difference for himself and his community. He wanted to beautify the curbside strip outside his home in South Central Los Angeles by planting banana trees and lush aromatics. “I wanted people to walk by and smell tuberose and lavender and jasmine; I wanted them to get not only a great visual but a smell. A garden supplies all of that,” he says. Remarkably, the city shut him down; Finley’s living canvas exceeded height limits. “I literally got a warrant and had to go to court.”
In 2010, he went at it again, this time with a second motivation: Beauty was a priority, but so was his appetite for healthy living. The nearest quality market was a 45-minute drive away, so he planted organic vegetables inches from the curb. And a global awakening was begun. (See below.)
The four guys trying to make a go of it at Four Corners Brewing Company in the upstart Trinity Groves section of Dallas chose the name for their young business with a prototypical Great Place in mind—the intersection of Davis and Llewellyn, a few miles away in the thriving and history-rich neighborhood of Oak Cliff.
“When we were in the process of naming our company, we kept coming back to this one specific location that, to us, represents the spirit of the neighborhood we call home—what makes it real, what makes it work, what makes it unique,” says Greg Leftwich, one of the brewery’s co-founders. “The businesses on those four corners are very different from each other, but they work together in a way that is a metaphor. At that one intersection, you have a collection of socioeconomic groups and races, history and families, some brand-new and others going back three generations. What happens on those four corners—the life that goes on there—is the essence of what we wanted to put into a bottle.”
It’s the essence of Great Places, too. It’s dreamers like Ron Finley who get things rolling. In the best cities, local entrepreneurs and visionary officials accelerate the growth. What’s left is for you to discover it—the cities, the ’hoods, the stunning, new green spaces. In a phrase, the spectacular now.
MEET RON FINLEY
He planted a seed, and from it an ecosystem of good will and good works has blossomed.
“All I was looking for was some decent food,” Ron Finley says incredulously, laughing the laugh of a man who went from anonymity to worldwide visibility in a matter of hours. The self-proclaimed “guerilla gardener,” whose modest effort to spruce up his curb and grow a fistful of mustard greens has made him a local hero in South Central L.A., was asked to give a TED Talk in February, espousing his belief that “gardens build community” and that no person should go hungry or be without good food. Within a day of its posting, the profoundly inspiring TED video elicited messages of gratitude from around the globe. “To have affected so many people—it was so overwhelming, I cried,” Finley says. His deep impact continues locally with the L.A. Green Grounds group, but the edible plantings won’t end there. “Now I want to green the whole planet,” he says. (Above photo by Stephen Zeigler/Alternative)
LIVIN’ FOR THE CITY
The best cities draw us with their vitality, not their size. Some of the country’s most energized locales are small wonders of enterprise and renewed faith.
After a 2007 tornado leveled 95 percent of its homes and caused half its population to flee, Greensburg and its remaining 777 residents decided to make the environment their No. 1 priority. It took months of contentious town-hall meetings to cement the city’s eco-future, but today this model of sustainable living, two hours west of Wichita, operates on 100-percent renewable energy and has more LEED Platinum-certified buildings per capita than anywhere else in the world.
Fort Collins, Colorado
Beer, bikes, and business have taken this mountain town from recession to recovery. This city 65 miles northeast of Denver has maintained its manufacturing base (Hewlett-Packard and Anheuser-Busch employ a combined total of almost 4,000 locals) while attracting major tech startups. With jobs aplenty and the Rockies out the back door, the bikeable city has become a mecca for Millennials.
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
When the residents of this artists’ enclave returned to an unrecognizable home devastated by Katrina in 2005, they found a scene reminiscent of 1969, the last time a hurricane had decimated the city. With federal disaster-relief funds, local organizers, businesses, and residents took to the streets of Old Town and downtown districts, once again resuscitating the weary upper–Gulf Coast outpost. But formidable Bay St. Louis hasn’t stopped there; the city has undertaken a massive rebuild of its port, aiming to remake it into a destination for boaters from as far away as New Orleans to the southwest and Alabama to the east.
Greenville, South Carolina
Make the trek to this city midway between Charlotte and Atlanta, and you’ll find a quality of life so high, a downtown so vibrant, and tax incentives so tempting that individuals and businesses alike are flocking here. The linchpin of Greenville’s revitalization—the breathtaking Liberty Bridge at Falls Park—is at once a pedestrian walkway connecting downtown areas bisected by the Reedy River and a dramatically curved suspension bridge that gives visitors and commuters a perfect view of the city’s waterfalls. No wonder small-town leaders with midsize-city dreams have come here for a look.
The NBA’s Thunder debuted here in 2008, and immediately a downtown struggling to rebrand itself 13 years after tragedy struck found new life. The determination to keep raising its game is what makes OKC a standout among big cities. The sparkling, new Boathouse District offers everything from kite-boarding to zip-lining. And the rebirth has spread beyond downtown to the hamlet of Paseo, where shops and restaurants galore are sprouting.
This historic fishing village 90 minutes north of Seattle boasts the cultural ambition of a major metropolis. A reinvigorated city core has drawn artists eager to leave behind the rigors of urban life, making it an inviting place for the imaginative. Even during the recession, public and private support increased, financing the restoration of venerable institutions (the Whatcom Museum of history and art) and the creation of new public spaces. That energy is manifest in the vibrant Arts District: galleries, theaters, and markets that now call downtown home.
ROLLING THE DICE
Another American city in rennaisance is Las Vegas, which is betting that a revitalized downtown will add even more luster to an already glittering town. Read the full story in our December 2013 issue.
JOYS IN THE ‘HOOD
It’s said that neighborhoods are the soul of a city. These five are proving it with passion and imagination. (Above photo by Mary Beth Koeth)
Bywater, New Orleans
The dream of a new bohemia emerged here in the ’90s, but Katrina interrupted it in 2005. Eight years later, the stomping grounds of a diverse urban population is garnering national attention. The area’s go-to pizzeria, Pizza Delicious, didn’t begin serving full-time until a Kickstarter campaign raised the cash for a new oven last fall. New boutiques and bars are joining long-standing art collectives from St. Claude Avenue to Chartres Street, making this a thriving hub in the new NOLA.
Old Fourth Ward, Atlanta
Once home to a thriving black middle class that largely depart-ed in the ’60s, this district began attracting Atlantans looking for a part of town with an underdeveloped feel. They, in turn, reimagined rundown Edgewood Avenue as a home to lively bars, culinary hot spots, and entertain-ment. The recent completion of Historic Fourth Ward Park honors the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. and provides verdant grounds for the new and old residents of this neighborhood.
The Third Ward, Milwaukee
It used to be the home of whole-salers—dry goods, groceries, booze. The Irish settled here, then the Italians. Today, the historic Third Ward is Milwaukee’s thrumming arts and fashion district. From such earthy roots have blossomed a second theater district (Skylight Music Theater), lots of great bars (Milwaukee Ale House), and restaurants (Coquette Cafe).
Like a lot of gentrifying neighborhoods, Remington was once a working-class stronghold. But unlike many, the central Baltimore hub retains the communal spirit it’s had for generations. Bounded to the north by Johns Hopkins and to the south by an industrial zone, Remington is home to Charm City Cakes, made famous by the Food Network, as well as eclectic local diners like The Dizz. Even when a potential hipster hangout, like the speakeasy W.C. Harlan, opens, it takes on the easy-going vibe that surrounds it.
Wynwood, Miami (above)
The people who live here are, by and large, the same hardworking Puerto Rican families who, for decades, have made their homes among the area’s desolate warehouses. There’s not a Cronut or a Marc Jacobs shop in sight. But, oh, what there is to see! One journalist calls this 18-block stretch of Miami an “art safari,” and that captures the color and wild invention that covers every inch of wall space on the avenues and in its abandoned factories. The community is the canvas, and each blast of spray paint lends Wynwood vibrant life.
X MARKS THE SPOT
They’re the essential X Factor of every great city: the places where we play and chill. (Above photo by Stephen M. Keller)
It’s an exquisite sign of the times: Green now means quality living, not dollar signs. And these vital new parks should be the envy of every city.
Klyde Warren Park, Dallas (above)
The goal is to bridge the Uptown and downtown sections of the city. A bonus would be the enlivening of Big D’s sprawling but alarmingly whisper-quiet arts district. This civic flowering may be years away. In the meantime, what blossoms every weekend and lunch hour in Klyde Warren Park—5.2 acres of lushness and sublime food trucks, romping kids and ambling lovers—is a celebration of sunshine and sheer pleasure.
Citygarden, St. Louis
Failed attempts to build a pedestrian mall connecting this city’s north and south downtown date back to the ’20s, but none possessed quite the ambition that went into St. Louis’ striking Citygarden. Two full city blocks offer scenes marked by world-class sculpture, fountains, plazas, and waterfalls. The park, with a brazen commitment to beauty and daring design, stands ready, rain or shine, to quench the soul.
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, Boston
A karmic thank-you to weary taxpayers who endured 15 years of construction on the most expensive highway project in U.S. history, this newly opened greenway follows the path that I-93, Beantown’s central artery, took before it was relocated underground. The sinewy, mile-long string of sparkling parks, promenades, and plazas offers ample room for urban escape—all courtesy of the exit of a rumbling expressway.
These sites of serenity aren’t new. Places of tranquility earn their om over time. But follow, and find, your bliss here.
The Gardens at St. Luke in the Fields, New York City
You wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t know it was there. Just outside its unfussy gate and tall brick holding wall is bustling, overcrowded Greenwich Village. Pass through the gate, and a sun-lit bench awaits. And serenity. And rapturous fragrance. And transporting loveliness. A secret garden worthy of the storybooks of youth—but perfect for wrung-out adults.
The Bishop’s Close, Portland, Oregon
If you’ve never heard a Portland-er brag about this suburban oasis, it’s not because of Oregonian modesty—it’s a secret Rose City residents prefer to keep to themselves. Secluded, peaceful, and splendidly quiet, this 13-acre collection of gardens is particularly beautiful when the magnolias bloom in spring, but you’ll feel calmed and rejuvenated no matter when you visit.
Gilgal Sculpture Garden, Salt Lake City
This strange swath of stillness, located in downtown Salt Lake City behind a house and next door to a Wonder Bread factory, is loaded with sculpture (odes to Mormonism) and engraved stones (with scripture and poems). Enveloped by luscious greenery, it invites passersby to come in and consider the cosmos seven days a week.
YEP, LUVED THAT
Southwest customers hashed out their own thoughts about great places using #PlacesWeLuv
Greg Miller: “Paddle-boarding on WHITE ROCK LAKE, overlooking the Dallas Arboretum. Drinks at the Loon!”
Amy Graham: “Hiking CAMELBACK MOUNTAIN in Phoenix. The views just can’t be beat.”
Steve Schmidt: “My favorite new place in downtown St. Louis is called BLUES CITY DELI. The Italian and BBQ sandwiches are delicious, but I mostly love the atmosphere and the live music. I’m a sucker for live music.”
Ellen Lynn: “FRANKFORT, MI. Cool little town on the shores of Lake Michigan and a stone’s throw from Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Lakeshore. Great restaurants, shopping, etc.”
Wayne Willis: “When I was a child, my mom would park on [Dallas’] Denton Drive, and we would watch the planes land and take off at LOVE FIELD.”
Josh Masterson: “Look up RONIN COOKING IN BRYAN, TX. Awesome little farm with farm-to-table philosophy and a pretty incredible dinner under the stars.”
Jeff Stemler: “THE VELVET TANGO ROOM in Cleveland. Live jazz and the perfect cocktail. Cleveland’s best-kept secret.”
Jennifer Todd: “My great place is the COVE PALISADES STATE PARK in Oregon. It’s right there by Lake Billy Chinook. Beautiful, serene— except in cases of freak thunderstorms and flash flooding. Oops!”
Will Allanach: “Glad for service to Portland, Maine, to enjoy THOMPSON LAKE! My family has a home there that serves as our summertime base for togetherness— and kayaking, sailing, water-skiing, tubing, canoeing, etc. The clear waters and cool temperatures are a great escape from the Texas heat.”
Ecclesia Weltman: “ALTA, MY FAVORITE COFFEE SHOP in Newport Beach, CA. It’s a few block from the beach and serves the world’s best chai tea latte and BLTA sandwich!”
Eldis Sanford: “I love flying Southwest to NORFOLK, VA, to see my wonderful 3-year-old grandson!”
Mary Bubala: “Our visit to Springdale, UT, and ZION NATIONAL PARK (above) ranks as our favorite family vacation ever! We stayed at the Desert Pearl Inn, which is surrounded by majestic mountains and incredible canyons. Thanks for the ride to this magical place.”
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