Saturday, July 26

The Centers of Sheridan and Gillette, Wyoming

The "Where is the center?" project is a series of posts based on my visits to various towns across the country. My goals are to determine where local residents consider the heart of their own town to be and make some outsider's observations about it. Do you live in this place? Please weigh in on your answer to the question.

Everyone in Sheridan unanimously agreed that Main Street was the heart of their community. Our hotel receptionist quickly circled the downtown on our map. Our waitress told us this was the place to be to see friends. The trolley driver concurred, downtown is for residents and tourists alike. Even the satellite picture gives little doubt about where the concentration of development is.


Main Street



Of any town I've ever visited, Sheridan fits the bill as the prototypical western town. Most of the original two-story mix of storefronts are preserved, giving an eclectic and colorful backdrop to the street. There are multiple shops dedicated to nothing but boots and hats, and they are not merely peddling tourist kitsch. One person told us that the upper-floors are mostly being used as "really cool condos" for those who prefer urban living. Clearly, the citizens take pride in the particularity of their heritage. The fast-food joints and Walmart were tucked safely away on Coffeen street by the interstate, not to be confused with Sheridan proper.

All of this contrasts sharply with the numerous faux-western towns out there. Deadwood, South Dakota, for example, may look similar at first, but a closer examination reveals that casinos had bought out entire blocks and gutted the interiors. The second-floors were abandoned and used to store junk. Sheridan, on the other hand, is no Potemkin village.

A downtown shopkeeper told us the story of how a mall on the outskirts of town was fought off in the 70's. She said it was mostly the old-timers who rallied together to preserve the Sheridan they knew. The downtown coffee shop sells "friends don't let friends go to starbucks" stickers. Unlike most other communities around the country, Sheridan had the wherewithal and civic pride to keep their downtown alive. They actually won the battle.

An impressive collection of public art is sporadically placed along Main Street, some of it western-based and others fairly whimsical. The historic Sheridan Inn, along the train tracks, is in the final stages of renovation, and Kendrick park, right in the residential core, holds regular concerts and events. There is plenty of evidence that new developments are being concentrated in the Main Street area, keeping the same compact and walkable boundaries around the town. The urban sprawl is fairly limited, and really only extends to the south of town.

Gillette, Wyoming

The next town to the east of Sheridan with a comparable population is Gillette. The contrast between Sheridan and Gilette is immediately apparent. When I asked at a gas station for directions to the center of town, the clerk just looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. She turned to her co-worker, "He wants to know where the center of town is." Her co-worker just shrugged and told me to get off at the next exit.

The next exit led me to South Douglas Highway, a typical wide street of parking lots and chain stores. A strip mall named "central square" on the other side of the interstate would seem to function as the practical center of town, although I couldn't tell if said square actually exists.

I might be a little unfair. There is a small downtown along Gillette Street, and it looks as if there has been some effort to draw people in. But it only extends for a couple of blocks and seems very limited in scope. We didn't spend enough time in Gillette to get a clear picture of how this downtown functions in the community.

So what could have caused these two towns to shape themselves in very different ways? Perhaps Sheridan, being closer to the Big Horn mountains, draws more tourists and thus has an incentive to maintain a quaint and unique environment. Maybe the types of industry in each town led to different development patterns. Maybe Sheridan developed earlier, before the era of the automobile, while Gilette had its growth spurt when different development patterns were in fashion. It could simply be that the concerted effort of a small group of citizens in Sheridan had a lasting impact on the built environment, and Gilette may have lacked this movement. I'm not sure, but it certain is an interesting question.

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