In 1964, Petula Clark recorded “Downtown,” a soul-inspired song written by Tony Hatch that revitalized her failing popularity in the French and English markets and introduced her to the American listening public. You know the tune: “So go downtown, things will be great when you’re/ Downtown- no finer place, for sure/ Downtown- everything’s waiting for you… Downtown.”
Wasn’t this good news for our little college ears when we packed up our homework on a weekday night and headed for the capital city’s downtown district for a little entertainment? The lights! The music of the city!
According to Clark, there would be people boogying to Bossa Nova all over the streets.
Everything was waiting for us.
“I can’t think of anything more boring than that. Good luck,” said Keith Pangburn of my mission to investigate downtown Topeka. Pangburn is a native of upstate New York who has little belief in the amusement value of our city’s historic thoroughfare.
Not to be deterred, we would like to present the facts supporting that there is actually a pulse in the heart of the city. According to it’s very own Web site, downtown Topeka boasts over 30 dining and entertainment venues and a handful of museums and other attractions.
True, most of the numbers contributing to the double-digit value are in the food chain genre, and many listed have been closed down (unfortunately including Tucker’s and the Fifth Street Cellar Bistro, which apparently went unnoticed by the Web site altogether, as it is still listed as it’s predecessor, Grazie’s). However, it has to be admitted that Downtown does host a murderously good Indian restaurant, The Globe. So take that, all you unbelievers.
“I say the hardest thing in the world to do/ Is to find somebody that believes in you” M. Ward- “Sad, Sad Song.”
Our first stop is The Celtic Fox, 118 S.W. Eighth Ave. Otherwise known as “The Fox” by its regulars, an open mic session is held on Wednesday and Sunday nights. A slight variety of people frequent this spot on these evenings, from experienced blues musicians to those preferring a sandal wearing, bongo-slapping manner.
On this particular night, Kerrice Mapes and Eric Dreyer, both of Topeka, share a pitcher of beer and discuss a project they are working on. They have chosen this location to check out the local talent. The dialogue of their conversation regarding downtown is a bittersweet mixture of disappointment and hope.
“Woo!” smiles Dreyer warily, “I don’t want to come across negative, this place has potential, it is just that I feel like I am lacking the experience here that I should be having. I want something unique that lacks in places like Wanamaker. It’s the spirit I want, something family owned, the historic downtown storefronts- to waste that in an urban sprawl sickens me.”
“You should see my fancy out fit/ You should see their eyes…/ I’m so debonair but I don’t care to stick around/ So I’m getting out of here/ … I’m a cool daddy-o”” R. Stevie Moore- “Cool Daddio.”
At a nearby table sits a group of girls drinking Guinness and folding origami animals. One girl, who calls herself Twila Beaverhousen, 23, comes to downtown sporadically, using a process of elimination.
“The night life is kind of pffft, but I guess you could talk to drifters under the bridge I suppose. I would like to see the old buildings not torn down, but restored, and more businesses here than on the West Side.”
She gave me a souvenir, a paper crane named Cranie McCrane, and I decided to find out what exactly is in the works for downtown Topeka.
“I was properly dressed/ Prepared for what you had to say…/ And why were you so cruel? I was just trying to be alive” The Robot Ate Me- “They Ate Themselves.”
The shape of a city’s downtown area reflects the shape of the city in a broader sense. All over the country, downtown projects are renovating these areas as entities in themselves, making the hottest places for living, shopping and entertainment. As the suburbs pulled many people from the centers of the cities during the rage of ranch houses, tract housing and whatnot, the historical areas began to fall into disrepair, as the pendulum swings, however, these historical areas with their charm and location became popular and inexpensive for a young and artsy crowd.
Many of these areas have certainly slipped out of the inexpensive era and are being utilized for their obvious advantages. Neal Peirce, syndicated columnist of the Washington Post Writers Group, wrote in a current article that “lively economies require lively cities.” He adds, “Rebuilding our center cities for the new century isn’t just nice, it’s critical for our economy and our soul.”
The National Governor’s Association (the NGA), has applauded cities such as Austin, Charleston and Newark, who’s creative and innovative revitalization efforts have “used the creation of arts districts as centerpieces in efforts to combat increasing crime and suburban flight by restoring vitality to downtown areas,”
Creating unique downtown environments aids by “contributing to a region’s ‘innovation habitat,’ thus improving quality of life- making it more attractive to the highly desireable knowledge-based employees and permitting new types of knowledge-intensive production to flourish,” concludes Peirce. “Cities that ignore these new signals will likely be stragglers in the economic race.”
Downtown has seen the disinvestment process continue over the past 20 years, however efforts have been made to salvage the declining community, and since 2001, over $800,000 in grants have been given to the efforts in stages for projects such as resurrecting the Jayhawk Theater, establishing new entertainment and dining venues and offering residential loft space.
Karren Friess, owner of The Dowtowner diner hopes to see this equate progress.
“Fifteen years ago, there was somebody in every single building, every storefront. Downtown ought to be viable. It is a shame that the capital of Kansas, Topeka, has a downtown that looks like it does. If I was on state government I would be appalled.”
The Downtowner, it should be noted, serves inexpensive food in a colorful environment, offering specials such as 99-cent french toast and a plethora of pies for $1.50.
“Things everybody would say/ Believing is Hard/ Believing is Art” Spoon- “Believing is Art.”
At The Toolshed, 921 S. Kansas, where the heavy-pour rule is in full effect, offering some of the best drinks in town, I found Jeffrey Schafersman, who had positive notes to contribute, though again often leaning heavily on the word “potential”.
“The bus system is excellent,” he shocked me by stating. To the raised eyebrows of those at the bar he explained, “Hey, I’m always the cutest guy on the bus.” Those of you who have not taken up the service of the Topeka Trolley, should, by the way.
“Why don’t you come on back to me/ Why don’t you come back, come back where you belong/ I need you here” The Zombies- “I Can’t Make Up My Mind.”
Listed as places to go in Downtown Topeka are a handful of regional sites: The Charles Curtis House – the home of the only Native American Vice President, The First Presbyterian Church – the only church west of the Mississippi to feature all Tiffany windows, The Heartland Orthodox Christian Museum, The Kansas State Capitol, TPAC, the in-progress Jayhawk Theater and the Monroe School which was the famous site of Brown v. Board of Education. This is hardly a glitzy lineup, but educational nonetheless.
“I’m building it brick by brick/ Brick by brick” Iggy Pop- “Brick by Brick.”
The answer to the question of whether there is still blood flowing through downtown seems to be buried in the future, resting in the rubble of possibility. If that is not your bag and are still looking for something to do, try tackling the 50 Margaritas list available at the new Rendezvous Restaurant and Bar. As many of you may know, Topeka seems to have a fierce devotion to the margarita, with almost every establishment in town offering margarita specials, eschewing frivolous cocktails such as the martini, the exotic microbrew and those other unnecessary concoctions. The good news is, that even if you, like me, are weary of the heading inducing sugary sweetness that is the monster of sweet and sour, there are creative renderings to be found here.
“So maybe I’ll see you there/ We can forget all our troubles/ Forget all our care/ and go Downtown/… Everything’s waiting for you.”
If you would like to help the effort, try volunteering for the Jayhawk Theatre restoration, details can be given by e-mailing me or visiting www.jayhawktheatre.org