Hidden Gems

August 4, 2022



Whimsy. Delight. Maybe it’s called charm. There is a facet to great places that I find it hard to put my  finger on, but it’s one of those things that you know it when you feel it. It’s a little unexpected magic that draws you in and gives you an emotional jolt. I love the pleasure of coming across one of these civic surprises. 

Last week, I was in DeLand, Florida with my colleagues Ben Muldrow and Bernice Radle, to host a conference session about creating place. This was our second trip to the Florida Preservation on Main Street Conference and it was a pleasure to reconvene with two of my favorite people working in the arena of place. 

We met up in downtown DeLand to get a cup of coffee and review our responsibilities for the upcoming session. Walking down a side street, some interesting details began to emerge. Unexpected urbanism was abound. This side street was full of cute little shops and restaurants. In just one block, we passed a local brewery, a funky little bar, a taco stand and arrived at a quaint little coffee shop called Trilogy. 

I was not expecting so much great space, which can only mean my expectations were set too low. I was extremely pleased to find I underestimated my host community. 

The coffee shop was clean, cool and welcoming. It was also quirky and slow paced.Trilogy was the antithesis of the ubiquitous Starbucks. No one was getting to-gos. Cars were not wrapped around the cul-de-sac. This was not a place to rush. This was a coffee shop as it should be, created to be social and not an isolated activity enjoyed in the empty cabin of your Tahoe. Trilogy had cultivated a crowd that appreciated such a setting. 

Wrapping up, we walked around a couple of blocks in the downtown. Flowers jumped out at me. Not literally, fortunately, though Florida climate might afford such things. The alley we strolled down was flooded with plants. Big and small, set at all different heights and filling all the different spaces. It is amazing how many sins plants can forgive. 

I’ve come to notice that great places are never perfect. Far from it, perfection would be stale, clinical and boring. The places people love develop a patina over time, which is why new construction never stir the heart. Colors fade, walls crack, and nature is relentless in its effort to take back what man builds. Even with all their faults and cracks, these places are easily dressed up to be beautiful and lovable. When someone just shows a bit of care and concern, a place can be transformed. 

The alley we found ourselves in was not always special. It was, by all means, just a typical downtown alley- expect for the fact that someone loved it. Attention was paid and affection imparted. A few small gestures turned an average alley into a great place. Pots, paint, tables, chairs, even some bat boxes. Nothing expensive, nothing overly ornate, but the overall impact was immense.

 

This place was not one of neglect, even though time had taken its toll. It was a place of delight. Someone had taken the time to love it and maintain it. It had dressed up for us! These simple gestures make a place lovable, memorable and photogenic. We all pulled out our phones to snap shots of what a great place looks like. 

Around the corner, we came across a piano sitting at the edge of some kind of municipal parking structure. This was a surprise. Typically one doesn’t expect to find string instruments residing in car storage. We walked into the garage and found it also had cafe lights strung across the ceiling. We figured out that this parking garage was used as an event space in the evening. All three of us were floored. Here was something simple and utilitarian that generally scars a downtown and it was being put to a creative use in the evenings. Amazing. 

On our way back around the block, we came across a big wooden gate. None of us were really sure what to make of it, but I assumed the worst. I figured that all the vacant property in the city must be sitting just on the other side or that it was holding a massive surface parking and municipal officials were hiding it while the conference was in town. 

After our session and on our way out for drinks, we came past this block again to find that the big wooden doors opened up on a kickass plaza. There was a stage set up at one side, a bar on the other. There was an entrance to Cafe DaVinci on another side and a taco shop by the front entrance. Bernice and I couldn’t help but get pulled in, because this is how great places work! 

The pull of beautiful and communal places is too great to resist. We can’t deny ourselves the opportunity to be with other people and to enjoy quality materials and handcrafted surroundings. The chance to sip a drink or a little music with the community is too hard to deny. 

These are the hidden gems that good urbanism affords. The chance to sneak in some surprises and delight those out for a stroll. This sort of mystery is never a facet of suburban spaces. No one every stumbled upon a secret courtyard at the strip mall. Sports Clips never surprised a single person. At least not for the right reasons. 

Cities don’t have to be boring, nor should they be. Peter Kageyama discusses this in great detail in his book Love Where You Live. He talks about cities that provide a bit of whimsey, places that enhance and offer a little surprise or unexpected delight. He points out that these are the places that someone has bothered to love and that those places become incredibly lovable in return. 

DeLand could have treated all these spaces like most every other city does. With total neglect bordering on disdain. But you could see impact Main Street DeLand had over the course of its 27 years in operation. You could tell city officials were paying attention and that store owners and property owners had figured out something profound. 

They understood the importance of place and how a little bit of love goes a long long way to shaping how people feel. That in shaping these places, that were shaping all the people that traversed them. In creating a little bit of charm and beauty, they were giving residents and visitors alike a chance to feel something more. No one remembers an average alley, certainly most will never take a picture of it, but here I am writing a thousand words about one, because this alley was loved. 

Creating great places is not complicated and it is worth every ounce of effort. A little bit of affection goes a long way. DeLand delighted us. It surprised us. It made us happy. We three advocates for place won’t soon forget that this little Florida town cared enough to dress up for us and that makes it memorable. That makes it sweet, fun and romantic. In a sea of mediocre places, DeLand did something special. People took the time to make it stand out. To provide a little charm for those lucky enough to find themselves on those streets. 

These hidden gems are what makes a place lovable. Streets don’t have to be perfect, alleys don’t have to be a work of art. They are all utilitarian by nature, but that doesn’t mean they cant be special. They should be, they must be. A few baskets, a little bit of paint and some lighting can transform ANY place into SOME place and every single one of us deserves to live SOMEwhere better than ANYwhere. 


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