I’ve been watching Fort Bragg’s downtown sinker deeper and deeper into decline over recent years, something that is in part, obviously, the fault of the economy. And also of changing habits and patterns in the way we live. And also, in part, because of the way the City handles planning and related decisions, because downtown has become something very specific and that something is clearly not meeting the needs of residents, despite what city planners may have thought when they set it along this track.
What I’m really struck by is a determined refusal to allow Fort Bragg to be Fort Bragg. In and of itself, Fort Bragg is a place with many things to like about it, and its own cultural and social history. It’s a place that could be really interesting if it wasn’t trying to be someplace else, and if it wasn’t being consistently marketed as something it’s not, setting up specific expectations that can never be satisfied because of the mirage created in advertising material. People here aren’t happy because they feel like aliens in their own town, and visitors aren’t happy because they don’t get what’s on the box.
I’m struck by the insistence on forcing ‘quaintness’ upon Fort Bragg. There are, for example, the abominable fake wooden sidewalks, which some may recall were such a hazard in winter that they have to be sanded down at great expense to create more traction; pretty much no one could walk on them on wet days before, and they were particularly dangerous for people using wheelchairs, canes, walkers, and strollers. You’d go sliding on your butt and into the roadway before you had a chance to blink, windmilling your arms desperately for purchase.
It’s not just that the wood was hazardous—though thankfully that’s been fixed now—but also that it’s hideously ugly, and it covers patches of the sidewalk sort of like creeping mold on the wall. First you’re walking on plain concrete, then expensively applied and already cracking and pitting fake wood. It’s a textural nightmare that fools nobody, and doesn’t look quaint to anyone, especially with skidmarks, gum, and other deposits left by visitors and residents alike. It just looks old, and tired, and sad, a cheap imitation of something.
Something that can be found right to the south, in Mendocino, where wooden sidewalks are still in place in a couple sections of the town. Wooden sidewalks aren’t allowed in new construction with good reason; there are a number of accessibility and safety concerns. As if that wasn’t enough, they’re more expensive to build and maintain, and they require regular servicing. But Fort Bragg wanted to imitate Mendocino, and thus, fake wooden sidewalks were installed. Believe me, no one is tricked into thinking they are walking on wood; it feels wrong, it sounds wrong, it looks wrong. It doesn’t make downtown more ‘atmospheric.’ Concrete is fine, really. It’s a perfectly serviceable surface.
You can drop the fake brick crosswalks while you’re at it, Fort Bragg, along with the expensive upkeep; I see crews out working on them all the time because they wear down so quickly under traffic. Yes, actual brick and cobblestone are lovely, I absolutely agree, but they, too, are expensive and can be problematic road surfaces. It’s okay. You don’t need to imitate something to be a grown up, planning commission. In fact, your poor attempts are really just tragic, not quaint. They’re the sort of thing that make you want to put your head in a paper bag while murmuring ‘oh, dear.’
And those other twee elements; the fake cast iron cages for the trees, the wannabe quaint wooden stands with local business information that contain faded, peeling, tacky, horribly designed maps. Thankfully they’re so faded now that you can barely read them, so they’re a bit less of an assault on the eyes, but you are left wondering why there’s a tacky wooden stand with a dingy piece of paper in it taking up much of the space on the corner and posing an obstacle to navigation.
Fort Bragg doesn’t need to be made ‘quaint’ through superficial elements introduced after the fact in an attempt to evoke quaintness. It’s a town with a lot of beautiful historic buildings in urgent need of restoration; you could start there if you want to create the feeling of a historic town with pride in what it’s accomplished and where it’s been. It’s a town with people who are interested in making and doing things, in going beyond the weekly farmers’ market; you could start by adding more events to get people out on the streets and wandering around downtown. It’s a town where people might care enough to clean up trash and dog shit if they felt like the town cared about them, but the overall impression seems to be that downtown Fort Bragg is for the tourists, not us, and thus there’s no reason to have pride of place in it.
It doesn’t feel like a real place anymore; it resembles a ghost town with its rows of empty storefronts and filthy streets, and the pathetic injections of cutesy pastiche just make it look even more tragic. They say you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I don’t think Fort Bragg is a sow’s ear, but it’s not a silk purse either. So why not let it be itself, instead of trying to cram it into a box it doesn’t fit into? And why not encourage the actual residents to take a role?