I live smack in the middle of what you can easily call “suburbia”. I’ve got a nice house, page nice lawn, nice garage, and so do my neighbors. We are one neighborhood among many, all sprouting from central arteries like branches from the trunk of a tree. These trunks are planted haphazardly, and somewhere in the rough center of this copse is our meager garden of goods and services. We have two grocery stores, less than ten sit-down restaurants, a handful of “fast food” places, and a shit-ton of auto-care specialists.
Which makes sense, because when you live in the suburbs, you need your car. Nothing is within walking distance. To get to the nearest grocery store, I have to drive maybe ten minutes (with all of the traffic lights, or twists and turns if I opt to take the “back roads”). If I want to go to the better grocery store, I’m looking at a fifteen to twenty minute drive — one way.
The suburbs is where America went to get away from it all, and by all I mean the city. The city is where shit happens, literally and figuratively. As Rush (the band, not the asshole) put it, “the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dream of youth”, or of anyone who wants to have a life outside of mowing the lawn and relaxing in a hammock every weekend. If you want to visit museums, or dine at the trendy restaurants, or shop at the hottest stores, or go to the most popular bars, you need to be in the city. OK, so the suburbs might have the occasional privately owned restaurant, and I guess the basement of the American Legion Hall counts as a “bar”, but…
The idea behind the suburbs, though, was that affluence meant never having to rent an apartment, deal with crime, or walk anywhere. With cars, people could still travel into the city, get their fill of culture, and then high-tail it back to their safe neighborhoods before dark. Suburbs aren’t supposed to have their own cultural centers because it’s not what people wanted: nice houses, nice lawns, nice garages.
I grew up in a city called Nashua, which is not far from where I live now. Nashua is a “city” like Pluto is a “planet”. Nashua has a downtown — complete with a Main Street — which has shops and restaurants and on the south side you have a fully realized retail arcology jam-packed with chain stores and restaurants, and capped at the Massachusetts border by what used to be the largest mall in the area. Outside of those zones is pure residential, interspersed with the occasional corner store, office building, or home-based business.
This past weekend, I went down to Boston for the day. I detest cities…actually, I detest driving in cities. Once I’m there I’m more or less OK. Thankfully Boston has public transport, which means never having to drive anywhere except to the outskirts where we can pick up the subway. We spent our time along Bolyston and Newbury streets, which are two major thoroughfares through the city. Newbury street in particular was packed, since it’s a long street which is hemmed in by shops occupying multi-decker brownstones. For every narrow building, you get three shops, and there are hundreds of buildings along this road. If you want it, you can probably find it on Newbury street (and we were there because my daughter wanted to go to an anime shop that we had been to before. An anime shop, for crissakes!)
We can’t get this kind of thing at home, and that kinda sucks. I’ve been seeing people on social media posting about different locations near them that I think I would like to visit if there were similar establishments near me. One was a boutique doughnut bakery. The other was a combination bar/game store. Now, I’ve not been everywhere in New Hampshire, nor have I been everywhere here in Southern New Hampshire, but I’m pretty sure there’s no bar/game store within reasonable driving distance of where I live. We have FLGS — friendly local gaming stores — but I often find it hard to drive there when I can order something from Amazon and have it drive to me. Suburbs for the win, I guess?
I started thinking why this was. What is it about this town, this area, this region, or this state that no one has either thought of, or has been denied the opportunity to, open similar establishments? One logical answer is that no one has, in fact, thought of it. But, show of hands: who among the geeks reading this (if anyone) hasn’t thought about a public place where geeks and family can hang out, maybe get something to eat, and play or buy a game? How about a themed bar? We’re drowning in sports-themed bars up here, and some (oh gawd why) nautical themed establishments, but that’s about it. Everything else is either kid oriented, or is straining the limits of credibility in trying to pass themselves off as a culturally relevant establishment for discerning adults. I can’t believe that I’m the only person in a 100 mile radius who would love to have something like this.
A second possible answer is just apathy. Southern NH is an ultra bedroom community. We’re also in the center of New England. As much as I’d like to dispel the stereotype of NEer’s being rather…insular, I can’t. We just don’t care to talk to one another, and we’re all pretty much wrapped up in our own fiefdoms to give a shit about anyone else — unless someone else is encroaching on what we consider to be “ours”: our land, our views of the sky, our right to stuff 500 holiday-themed lawn ornaments onto our lawn from October to August. I’d be willing to bet that the few non-chain restaurants we have in our sphere were started by people not from this area. Everyone else is pretty much content with the basics, which would explain why we have chain-everything coming out our ears. We seem to be OK with “good enough”, but not culturally aware to the level where we demand better. We’ll take it if someone wants to offer it to us, but going out of our way to make something happen that exceeds that bare minimum? Nope.
A third possible answer — and one that I think kind of overshadows the others, but doesn’t preclude them — is that this is a state of cranky-ass old people. When I was growing up, I knew a lot of kids who were always itching to “get out”. Mind you, we’re not farm country; Nashua, Manchester, Concord, and Portsmouth combined can offer people a lot of things to do, if you have a car and the time to travel. But as teenagers a lot of those places are still out of reach. People always hated being in NH and thought that being elsewhere — anywhere — was a better deal. Now that I’m older I can see how the sausage is made, and the people making decisions here in NH aren’t at all interested in focusing on the needs or wants of the very people they worry about losing. NH is aging, which means that those who stay here are increasingly worried about themselves and their own amenities, even to the exclusion of consideration of amenities that could reverse the aging population trend. I used to live in a town called Hillsboro, which was at the foot of our mountain country, and their downtown was decrepit. Buildings with peeling paint, abandoned buildings, you name it. There were two restaurants, one Burger King, two pissant little grocery stores, and a gas station. But there were several buildings that…I can’t even remember if they were occupied. It had a lot of potential though. It was the perfect town to have attracted a class of people who wanted to be in between the outdoor activities of the North Country, and the “civilization” of the southern tier of the state, if only they could dress up the town to make it somewhat attractive to that young, affluent, active kind of people. But nope, the town council wanted nothing to do with those kinds of ideas. Their downtown was “historic”, and they’d rather see it rot with history than do anything that they felt might bury the past for a shot at the future.
So I suppose the end result is “why not do it yourself?” Thanks, peanut-gallery. I’ve thought about it. Hell, my wife has thought about it, but there’s a few things in the way. The first is that I’m not a risk taker, especially when it comes to my livelihood. If our circumstances allowed us to continue living in the manner to which we have become accustomed on only one income (although my wife does make more than I do), then OK, maybe. But we’ve got a mortgage, a car payment, and a kid going to college in — CHRIST! — four years. Second of all, I’ve got zero experience in running a business. I’d like to make this establishment a cool bar, maybe? What do I know about that? I’ve worked hard to avoid going to bars, and I’ve gotten good at it, which means I’d be horrible at running one. Maybe I could make it something lower key, like a coffee-shop-slash-game-room, but what kind of clients would I attract at that point? Third of all, I’m still stuck on the reasons why it hasn’t been done yet: apathy, and cranky-ass gatekeepers. We’d need to find a location that was accessible to the most people, and somewhere between Nashua and Manchester could work, if we were off the highway. There’s not too many places like that around here. Then we’d have to convince the Powers That Be that we’re not a bunch of hooligans who would be breaking windows and blasting loud music when they were trying to sleep at two in the afternoon (the default stance on anything they don’t understand). They might ask for “good of the community” stats, which means I’d have to put that apathy element to the test: see if I could poll the entire southern part of the state in order to see if anyone would even show up if a geek-themed establishment were to open. I mean, I think we could get enough people, but enough people to stay open for a few years? More than a few years? Not if young people are fleeing a state that’s under the tyrannical fist of the elderly*, and I don’t think I’d want to open something like this just to see if filled up with loitering teens who are…holy crap I’m turning into one of those cranky-ass gatekeepers.
Finally, I worry that it has been tried, but has failed so spectacularly that it was wiped from the memories of everyone who’s lived, past, present, and future.
In the end, I’m not sure a supporting culture does or even can exist in this area. I’ve been to some of the FLGS and I’ve seen some of the people there; I’d like to attract those kinds of people, because they are like me in so many ways. I don’t want it to be neutered by caveats applied by know-nothings who require conformation to the “spirit” of the town, nor do I want it to be a place where parents dump their kids during Summer vacation. I’ve got no experience, and am rather risk-averse, which leaves me with one option: wonder why no one else has done it, and wonder if anyone ever will.
* I’m 41, and since I’m considering this situation means that it’s not just Millennials and younger that would be attracted to an establishment like this, but there’s always that shadow of the career small-town politicians who kowtow to people who’d rather waste away in silence than to allow someone to change The Way Things Have Been Done.