Thursday, September 18, 2014  |   Madison, WI: 58.0° F  
CITIZEN DAVE: Thoughts and ideas about city building from Madison's former mayor
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Citizen Dave: Cities change, including Madison
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Though I hope whatever replaces Larry's shop is some form of local business, what if it isn't?
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

I went to get a haircut the other day. I went to the College Barber Shop on State Street, the same place I have gone to get my hair cut about once a month for the last 35 years.

The big news is that after something like 70 years in business under only three owners, the shop will be closing its doors at end of August, or as final owner Larry Cobb recently told me, maybe September.

It says pretty much all you need to know about Larry that his primary interest in keeping the shop open longer is that he wants to make sure the half-dozen or so barbers he employs have time to find new jobs. I was happy to hear that there is a slim chance he might reopen at another location, and that even if that doesn't happen, he's got offers from other shops in town to work for them. Finding another barber is like finding a new wife, so I will be grateful to have been spared that trauma.

But there's no question that the shop itself, with its original barber's chairs and all the accoutrements, will cease to exist this fall. I have been carefully storing up righteous indignation about all this -- corporate America is once again trammeling the small businessperson and the genuine local place! But then Larry explained that he was okay with losing his lease. It seems the building's owner has been very straightforward and decent about the whole thing. He explained that Larry's rent of $1,200 a month was about one-eighth of what he could get from another tenant. The owner plans to close the building in order to upgrade the old plumbing, wiring and ventilation systems to modern standards.

I don't know what will replace the College Barber Shop, but there's a Starbucks right next door, so it won't be that. Not even Starbucks would open a new store right next to one another, right? Across the street, maybe.

But that raises an interesting question. Though I hope whatever replaces Larry's shop is some form of local business, what if it isn't?

Recently, Wisconsin Public Radio loaned me a fancy recorder as I headed off to a conference in Toronto. They wanted me just to record the sounds of the city and my thoughts about them, and they weren't sure what they'd do with it once I got back. So when I arrived in the city, I went straight to Jane Jacobs' funky but gentrified neighborhood near the University of Toronto. (It was like Willy Street as imagined by Martha Stewart). Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 and turned the planning world on its head. When you hear talk of "mixed use" and "human scale," that's Jane Jacobs. She is my heroine.

Of the hour or so of recordings that I made, WPR selected a brief segment where I note that there's a Starbucks on the corner about two blocks from Jacobs' house. I wonder out loud how Jane would feel about that, and To the Best of Our Knowledge host Anne Strainchamps asked me just that question.

My conclusion, which could probably be refuted by Jacobs' scholars, is that in the end, while she’d prefer a local coffee shop, Jane would probably be okay with the Starbucks. That's because Jacobs was among the first American writers to recognize and call out what makes a city a city, which is a sort of creative messiness. Not that Starbucks is literally messy, but it is socially diverse. I find that, depending on the location, students, professors and urban hipsters will find their way into a Starbucks. But it's also the kind of safe place (a funky coffee shop as imagined by, well, Martha Stewart) that a business guy in chinos and golf shirt would feel comfortable in too.

And that, like the College Barber Shop, makes for a "third place," spots that are not home and not work. A location of this type could be a bar, a library, a park, a bistro, any place that you go to hang out. The point of third places is that they foster casual and unexpected meetings. And in a city where there is a larger population more tightly packed together, it becomes more likely that people with diverse interests will come together and mix it up at one of these places.

In fact, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus was created specifically with this in mind. The entire first floor is designed to pull researchers down from their laboratories in the floors above to mix it up casually in the coffee shop, restaurant and other pleasant spaces below. The hope is that new ideas and discoveries will come out of the relaxed interactions among these scientists.

So, while I'm still in my period of mourning for the College Barber Shop, I'm pretty confident that with State Street being what it is, whatever replaces it will be another interesting third place, only with better plumbing.

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