Friday, August 8

The Center of Bismarck, North Dakota

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.

Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota, with a metropolitan area population of roughly 100,000. I spent about a week there and asked a number of different residents where they would consider the center of their town. A few responses emerged as the most common.

A - The Capital

North Dakota's Capital building is very distinctive. Built during the depression, state legislators opted to conserve resources by adopting a modernist style and using concrete. Dubbed the "skyscraper on the prairie", the capital is the dominant landmark on the horizon for miles around the city. This makes it a good visual focal point.

The capital, once well to the north of downtown, is now quickly becoming closer to the geographical center of Bismarck. This is because the lion's share of new development, mostly in the form of big box stores and suburban subdivisions, is occurring on the northern end of the city around I-94 access points.

One young man, who works as a photographer, added that the capital grounds have become a cultural and social center. He said you can always catch a frisbee game there if you want to. Shakespeare in the park was playing on the capital grounds during my stay. Bismarck takes a lot of pride in their system of city parks, and the capital grounds may be considered a capstone in this system.

B - Main Street area

Several people mentioned a few points in the general area of main street, around the historic downtown. The Radisson hotel was mentioned specifically as a landmark that could constitute the center of downtown.

One obvious feature of the downtown area is that it has over time been retooled to meet the needs of automobile users. Two huge parking garages seemed out of proportion with the size of the downtown, and on a regular business day many of the parking spots were unoccupied. As a pedestrian there one afternoon, I spent quite a while going from bank to bank looking for an ATM I could use. The only one I could find was a drive-thru teller, which led to the surreal experience of waiting in a line with cars in order to use the machine.

There are some nice historic neighborhoods in the vicinity, but often there is no pleasant walk available to downtown. Custer park, for example, is a wonderful city park in a residential section, but the route to downtown goes through two blocks of abandoned buildings and rundown auto part shops. It appears as if most people drive there.

There are efforts underway to revitalize the historic downtown. The state-wide renaissance zone project allows for the rehabilitation of buildings on the national historic register. Since most of these are in the downtown area, it amounts to an economic boost to this infrastructure. There is also a street fair and market called the Urban Harvest which was taking place during my visit. The brochure states that the central intersection of 4th and Broadway is usually very quiet. Urban Harvest transforms this spot into a lively public square. It is fairly small but very well attended, which suggests that it will grow in time.

C - Kirkwood Mall

One person mentioned the mall right away, but another person I asked just as quickly said "not the mall!" without any prompting. So this one is a bit controversial.

Unlike most malls built in the 1970's, Kirkwood mall was not placed on the periphery near a major highway but rather right in the center of Bismarck. It's a suburban styled mall in an urban setting. A civic center arena has since been built adjacent to the property. In recent years, it has been losing its retail dominance to the newer generation of retail box stores, which, as I mentioned, have all been concentrating to the north of town.


J.W. said...

This segment you're doing on city "centers" is incredibly thought-provoking. It's clear to me that Nashville has multiple epicenters from which radiate the lifeblood of the city. It also has multiple "non-places" as you move out of the first ring subdivisions on the pike roads where no discernable center can be detected at all. These latter areas are deadening places, lacking in visual interest, character, the aura of liveliness, etc.. Now, I've been trying to decide what I think about the fact that Nashville has multiple centers. I think I've come to the conclusion that I prefer a polycentric city. I live multiple lives in this city: I live on the east side in an area called Five Points, which is primarily low to medium density single-family residences clustered around a prosaic commercial district with an organic neighborhood market, bike shop, hardware store, and so on. It's mostly inhabited by pretentious, snobby, democratic types with small, pampered dogs and tattoed, black t-shirt wearing hipsters. In other words, it's a pretty good place to live. I ride my bike across the Cumberland river (on a pedestrian bridge, mind you--perhaps the most exciting development in Nashville's recent urban history) everyday to Vanderbilt, which is located in upscale Hillsboro Village. Hillsboro Village is mostly populated with affluent music industry types, attorneys, doctors, and undergrads. It is largely still low to medium density, with a much larger and rationally planned commercial district. The retail tends to be primarily boutique-oriented (I think higher commercial rents dictate this), with fewer anchor businesses like grocery stores, pharmacies, etc. Nonetheless, Hillsboro Village boasts a vibrant pedestrian culture, stemming largely from undergraduate activity, manifests a high level of visual interest, and contains large swaths of intact traditional urban form. Other centers of the city might include Germantown and the 12 South neighborhood. Fortunately downtown is also reemerging as a focal point for cultural activity. A ban on residential construction downtown was lifted about a decade ago, and a gorgeous new symphony hall was finished in (I believe) 2002. So things are looking up. The point of all this is that central Nashville appears to be largely a city of neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has a distinctive culture that it radiates and a certain type of individual that it attracts. Anyway. Thank for running this segment--I'm really enjoying it.

J.W. said...

Also, this segment got me thinking about an essay I read recently by Walker Percy, called "Why I Live Where I live." It contains a great deal of his characteristically semiotic ruminations on the individual's relationship to self and place, and on individual and place as commodity:
"Free people have a serious problem with place, being in a place, using up a place, deciding which place to rotate to. Americans ricochet around the United States like billiard balls. Swedes, Americans, Germans, and the English play musical chairs with places....Here is Covington [Percy's hometown], one is able to insert oneself into the South, a region celebrated for its strong sense of place and roots, which most Southern writers can't stand and have to get away from and god North, where they can sit in desolate bars and go on about how lovely the South looks--from there....What makes the insertion possible is that Covington is a nonplace but the right sort of nonplace. Here is one place in the South where a writer can live as happily as a bug in a crack in the sidewalk, where he can mosey out now and then and sniff the air just to make sure this is not just any crack in the sidewalk....The pleasantest things about Covington are its nearness to New Orleans--which is very much of a place, drenched in its identity, its history, and its rather self-conscious exotica--and its own attractive lack of identity, lack of placeness, even lack of history. Nothing has ever happened here, no great triumphs or tragedies....When I first saw Covington, having driven over from New Orleans one day, I took one look around, sniffed the ozone, and exclaimed like Brigham Young: 'This is the nonplace for me!' It had no country clubs, no subdivisions, no Chamber of Commerce, no hospitals, no psychiatrists (now it has all of these). I didn't know anybody, had no kin here. A stranger in my own country. A perfect place for a writer!" in Signposts in a Strange Land, pp. 5-7.

Scott said...

I think you'd have an interesting time with Ames, IA, or Ankeny, IA, also in case you are ever passing through. Multiple "centers" of town in Ames. And in Ankeny, I doubt most peole know that there even used to be a business district. said...

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