The concept of the invisible bike rider has been addressed in multiple venues over the past few months and it has opened my eyes to not just a larger reality but also to some of my own biases. Yesterday as I strolled past Court Square I saw a resplendent cyclist with the bright yellow garb of the commuter cyclist, aerodynamic helmet on top and thousand dollar bike beneath him, whooshing by just as an invisible bike rider, dressed in some cargo shorts and a tank top (no helmet to be seen) was placing his junk bike on the rack of a southbound PVTA bus. I saw a dozen or more people on bikes in the next hour, not one was wearing any combination of Lycra or a helmet.
In the same way our current conversation on cycling infrastructure isn’t really meant for most of the people in the city who ride bikes, I’ve noticed that most of the conversation around the retail implosion of recent years doesn’t mention stores of the kind which are most prevalent in my neighborhood: invisible retail if you will. These stores sell the wrong items, at the wrong price point, and, most importantly, cater to the wrong people: the people who actually live here!
The point has been pounded into me by the fact that part of the obsession with the razing of the Shean Block clearly has as an undercurrent the offense that its primary tenant, Crown Fried Chicken, commits every minute of every day of its existence: it reminds the besuited and yet benighted blue bloods of the business community that their city is made up partly of poor people of color. Leaving aside that on inclement Thursday afternoons, when dining with us downtown was inconvenient for my aging mother her most common food request for her youngest son’s delivery service was fried chicken, it is the case that Crown Fried Chicken is one of the few food establishments downtown that one can count on being open almost anytime one is hungry.
I have experienced, and I have on good authority from insiders, that the Shean Block is most often referred to as the chicken building or the fried chicken building by the developer and his minions. When I tried to discuss the topic with the head of economic development and the local MGM chief they both responded to my query about the Shean Block with the clarifying question: “The Fried Chicken Building?” It’s pretty clear that doing so makes contemplating its elimination more palatable and provides subconscious reinforcement for the rightness of any decision which will remove this eyesore from its position of prominence.
I don’t think the highest, best, or most likely use of that building will be a low end fried chicken place once it begins serving as the primary connecting point between a billion dollar resort casino and the downtown of one of New England’s largest cities, but I think the market ought to determine that, and not the misguided notion that removing the markers of poverty will eliminate the poor. We shouldn’t just allow the city to be the best city it can be for the people who actually live here, we should do our best to ensure that that is the case. Seeing dollar stores, bodegas, check cashing places, and downscale pizza shops as blight because one would rather see coffee shops, bistros, banks, and bookstores doesn’t change the fact that those places are where they are because they serve a purpose for the people who walk and bike past them… though not so much for the people who drive past…with their doors locked and their windows up.
In the specific case of fried chicken it turns out that it is becoming retro chic! I can’t imagine that people overall ever really stopped liking fried chicken; one of local hockey’s most popular promotions involved fried chicken: “When the Indians get brave, you get chicken!” (“And a roll!”)
I’ve been told by people in the know that demand for retail just outside the casino is enormous. Filling the space currently occupied by Crown Fried Chicken, a pawn shop, a convenience store, the nail place, and the second hand clothing boutique will not be hard, but I hope every single one reopens nearby. Their continued presence implies solid demand for the goods and services they provide for the people who already live, work, and ride their crappy bikes helmet-less right here in The City of Homes.