Alonzo Weston

The Downtown St. Joseph of my youth was a vibrant place. Department stores, toy stores, cafeterias, bakeries and dining and drinking establishments.

I don’t know if it was a unified effort to make it all work, but it did. On Saturdays, Downtown streets were as crowded as Arrowhead Stadium is today with people shopping, eating and mingling.

Kids, if they behaved themselves, weren’t run off, either. Many places had pinball machines. House of Wheels and Toys had miniature car races in the basement on Saturday mornings. The YWCA had free activities, like pool and foosball tables and cartoons on TV.

Streets were full on weeknight evenings with Midnight Madness sales and other Downtown promotions.

For a while that all seemed a dream as Downtown became a ghost town for several years. Many Downtown staples either moved out to the East Hills Shopping Center or closed. Lack of parking and an ill-planned, ill-conceived walking mall ran off many more people and businesses.

It was replaced by empty streets, empty buildings and homeless people. Shoppers all fled out to the east side of town to the Belt Highway, which before was mostly farmland.

Downtown died a painful, agonizing death.

Vibrant downtowns are a must-have for any thriving city, said Bob Trezise, president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership as quoted in the Greater Lansing Business Monthly.

“I believe the lack of a vibrant downtown signifies to residents, visitors and businesses and new investors alike that the region is not as prosperous as it should be and that the region has less of a hopeful future on its horizon,” Trezise said.

A downtown is considered vibrant when measured by several criteria, including walkability, popular nightlife and culture, like historic districts and farmers markets, to name a few.

Trezise said a lively downtown is diverse, with creative people and tall buildings all living and working together.

“Diverse people living in the downtown, in large numbers, is the first key,” he said.

Twenty-some years ago when the Coleman Hawkins Jazz Society held its first jazz festival, we were the only live act on Felix Street Square. Soon after, other outdoor music events followed and Downtown grew around that energy.

Today you can hardly find a weekend where there isn’t some entertainment in Coleman Hawkins Park at Felix Street Square.

The larger stores are still out east, but Downtown has its own flavor with eclectic restaurants and stores. It has more of an artsy, diverse, bohemian feel, similar to the Crossroads area in Kansas City and other large city downtowns. People are coming back Downtown again and have been for quite some time now.

It all came together without a seemingly unified vision. Moving forward, Downtown needs to be on the same page for us to move forward. There’s no definitive Downtown voice except dissension.

There’s disagreement over the Felix Street Square gates, for example. Some say they add an aesthetic, others say they’re horrendous. I think along with the new parking garage they add a sophisticated, big city feel to our humble hometown.

People who complain there’s nothing to do in St. Joseph and say that it’s dead need to get Downtown more. We have new restaurants, tons of music venues, an elegant movie house and other treasures, which makes our town not only unique but with the times.

This is our Downtown now. Enjoy what we have.

Alonzo Weston can be reached at alonzo.weston@newspressnow.com.

Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPWeston.