Wednesday, July 23

The Center of Helena, Montana

The "Where is the center?" project is a series of posts based on my visits to various towns across the country. My goal is 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.

When I asked Irene, an insurance company receptionist from Helena, where the center of town is, she paused for a while to think. This is the reaction I would get from almost everyone I asked. There didn't seem to be any obvious answer.

"I don't think I can answer that question. Helena is really growing up around the edges," she eventually told me. Pressed a little further, she did say that the historical center was around Last Chance Gulch. As a tourist I may be more interested in visiting this part of town, but I never got the impression that this was the same answer for local residents.

Based on several people's responses, I've identified four possible locations for the center of Helena, none of them an indisputable answer to the question.

A - Last Chance Gulch

Pattie at an Albertsons grocery store quickly pointed me to Last Chance Gulch, the historic downtown. A gas station attendant whom I later questioned hesitated for a while but did tell me that the historic downtown was the most interesting place to see.

Originally founded as a mining town, the historic center of Helena is unique in that it directly abuts the hills where the mines were located. As the city expanded, most of the developable land was to the north of town in the valley. Eventually, the old downtown found itself on the geographical margins of the city. Blessed with a number of fine buildings left over from the mining boom of its earlier days, the Last Chance Gulch and surrounding area is sitting on a gold mine (no pun intended) of architectural resources.

Urban renewal did hit this spot pretty hard. In the 1970's a number of beautiful historic buildings were razed in an attempt to usher the downtown into the modern age (this website provides an impressive collection of pictures and information from this era). The hotel pictured is a perfect example of this hubris. Turning away from the street and placing a solid brick wall against the public space, it doesn't even attempt to blend with its surroundings and is devoid of context and character. During the same time, the main street was converted into a pedestrian mall, and it still remains as one of America's few surviving examples of this popular trend. The pedestrian mall is very well landscaped and adorned with interesting sculptures that recount its mining history.

At the time of our visit, city officials were considering uprooting many of the trees on the mall to open up the view, but the consensus at the Firetower Coffee shop was that this was an awful idea. For a Tuesday in the middle of the day, I would hardly call the Last Chance Gulch bustling. Everything was clean and the businesses were well-kept, but there was a conspicuous lack of vitality. This empty store was not the only one on the block. In the last few years, Helena citizens have narrowly voted to prevent the pedestrian mall from being opened up to automobile traffic.

Blaire and Bill see new life for the Last Chance Gulch coming. They have purchased the tallest building in the city, an historic residential building named the Placer, and are renovating it into condos. Their vision is motivated by Smart Growth and New Urbanism, and they are banking on a downtown with a symbiotic relationship between the existing commercial establishments on the ground floor and new residential condos above. Blaire even envisions the renovation of a jazz club and artisan bakery in the building.

B - Women's Park

This was the answer our friend Caitlin gave us. She felt that this was the social center of Helena. It's the location of the farmers market as well as numerous summer concerts and community events.

C - Great Northern Town Center

Ok. I'm cheating here. Nobody I talked to gave me this as an anwser, but the developer of this new pedestrian-oriented district with an entertainment focus is clearly positioning itself for this title. It's anchored by a large hotel, a multiplex theater, and a carousel that is obviously well-used. It has the advantage of being located adjacent to Caroll College. The only trouble is that it is not yet very well integrated with other streets.

D - Shopko Parking lot

Our friend Larson is an economist, so he gave his opinion of strictly what the geographical center of business activity is: the Shopko parking lot. All of the standard box stores have opened up in the last couple of years around the intersection of North Montana and Custer Avenues. Since the main area of growth is exurban sprawl in valley to the north of town, it may not be long before these businesses also find themselves in the geographical center. I didn't take any photos, but the character of the location is fairly evident.

1 comment:

Yvonne Tornatta said...

I think the downtown area has the most potential for being the center spot. We stayed at the Placer this summer and it was convenient to dining, Mt. Helena, and attractions. The downtown area also plays host to many concerts during the summer.