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How smart towns fight dark winter




 

 

Do plunging temperatures, gray skies and the year’s shortest days have to force us to huddle indoors? When we flick on the television, do we have to cringe at the weathermen’s dire warnings of monster storms on the way?

Not at all, argues Jay Walljasper, a writer on world cities, in a Christmas-season bulletin for Project for Public Spaces. There’s a tremendous amount that cities, towns, even individual neighborhoods can do to brighten the wintertime scene. And not just for Christmas and the holidays – though that’s a great start – but until the crocuses bloom.

An explicit case for enlivening America’s winter cities has long been overdue. For too long, we’ve assumed that just flashy places such as New York’s Rockefeller Center, with its wintertime skating drawing huge crowds, can make a virtue of the cold weather.

But in Europe, almost every city aspires to as much. My favorites are the Christmas season markets in such places as Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Stuttgart, Strasbourg and Paris. By the tens of thousands, from late morning into the icy evenings, people flock to city blocks set aside for artisans’ stands, puppet shows, candies and gingerbread houses, miniature steam train rides, hot spiced gluhwein and much more. It’s almost impossible not to enjoy one’s self. Now, at long last, holiday markets are coming to North America – New York City (at Union Square and Columbus Circle), Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Santa Fe, N.M., Santa Monica, Calif., Washington, D.C., and others. Some of our efforts are pale shadows of the European models – but at least they’re a start.

One strategy is to extend the ever-more-popular farmers markets – which normally close down in autumn – past Thanksgiving through the holiday season. Christmas tree growers can be invited in, plus local artisans to exhibit their creations for giftbuyers. Recruit church and school choirs to sing carols, sponsor a snowman or ice sculpture, or perhaps find vendors to sell cappuccino or hot cider, suggests Walljasper, and you’re well on your way to a European-style holiday market.

Post-Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s, there’s the potential for winter carnivals. For more than a century, St. Paul, Minn., capitalizing on its winter environment, has excelled with torchlight parades, dogsled races, an internationally acclaimed ice sculpture exhibition, and more. Dartmouth College and Quebec City also have famed midwinter fetes, and could help inspire others – maybe, suggests Walljasper, for March when merriment seems to fade even while chilly temperatures and cabin fever endure.

We’ve all seen how smart cities string artistically arranged holiday lights in their downtowns and neighborhood business districts, creating an ambiance that encourages one to linger even in the cold. Scotland may be the world’s creative lighting leader today, with imaginative schemes for whole streets. Paris uses pale blue lights to decorate trees at traffic circles and intersections, delighting passers-by and calming traffic.

But we Americans (except on some ingeniously lit private lawns) rarely illuminate so cleverly. The point is to enhance what a city already has. One smashing longtime success: white lights outlining the roofs and forms of boathouses along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia (a visual treat for passengers in passing Amtrak trains).

But when I suggested to a mayor of Manchester, N.H., that the city could celebrate its special history with wintertime lights outlining the wonderfully restored textile mill structures along the Merrimack River, all I got was a blank stare.

And too easily we lose what we used to do best at Christmas: wonderfully decorated and animated department store windows, a treasured memory for millions. Today’s mass retailers, hiding behind their mass-produced blank walls, couldn’t be less interested.

Walljasper sums up the problem: “Lack of vision – not freezing temperatures, cloudy skies, early sunsets or deep snow – is the biggest problem facing America’s winter cities.”

Yet even when downtown doesn’t respond, he notes, neighborhoods can. Bright lights decorating neighborhood centers can help – and make them white and multiseasonal, so they don’t have to come down in January.

But lights are just the start. A Minneapolis neighborhood, Bryn Mawr, has a December Saturnalia, with streets blocked off, sleigh rides, Santa Claus at a home and garden show, the Minnesota Women’s Drum Corps coming to play, hot cider and chocolate served.

All sorts of ways residents can organize neighborhoods for activities, sprucing up, pride-building at all seasons of the year, are outlined in Walljasper’s recently published book, “The Great Neighborhood Book – A Do-It- Yourself Guide to Placemaking” (New Society Publishers).

The book is a sort of declaration of independence for America’s neighborhoods, showing it hardly matters how rich or poor you are, or whether City Hall recognizes your ZIP code, you can learn to organize, enhance, create a special sense of place in your own neighborhood. Even, it turns out, in the “dead” of winter.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

©07 The Washington Post Writers

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