Broad Street and environs still have a long way to go in this regard but the signs are positive, and not only because they no longer “roll up the sidewalks at night.” Well, not every night anyway.
The First Friday concerts/block parties, the popping up of “Cotton Block Sundays” at Bridgepoint Plaza for a month-long test run (Y’all got an urge to pick and sing in public? Come on down!), even the approaching arrival of a new venue, Brewhouse Music and Grill, with a steady flow of “name acts,” all add to the mix and help fill in the many empty spots between Rome Little Theatre and Rome Symphony Orchestra concerts, once-a-week or month local entertainment, karaoke, poetry readings or whatever.
The day may come when, without looking at this newspaper’s community or entertainment calendars, one can just wander downtown and something interesting will always be going on. (Boy, would having a movie theater on Broad Street again ever help with that!)
In what was clearly a test run, the First Friday Block Party was a take-it-to-the-next-level variation of the very successful free monthly First Friday concert series and it, too, seemed to work — not just the music performances but also in shutting down a whole block to traffic and turning it, for a few hours, into the sort of pedestrian mall that many major European downtowns have become all the time amid similar surroundings of historic, in-a-time-warp buildings.
THOSE SETTINGS, mainly common only in faraway places with strange sounding names, are designed to deal with extreme urban center residential density and/or constant tourist flows, of course. Neither is the case in Rome’s downtown nor apt to be in the near future ... though not entirely unimaginable in the long run. Yet in this community/family version it clearly served the purpose of giving downtown an added shot of vitality — and even more exposure to those area residents who don’t make a habit of dropping by as does the government-worker crowd that calls it their place of employment.
Shh! It’s a secret but one of the reasons for the “recovery” of Rome’s downtown is due to the many entrepreneurs and officials with fond memories of all the fun things they did in the Broad Street area while growing up. Getting current families to come downtown for fun is a way to hand this feeling and enthusiasm on to the next generation.
Still, most of the time if just popping downtown nowadays there’s only a guarantee of some filling food fare, a bit of fun shopping for those with other than mass-produced tastes and, depending on time of day and the weather, some interesting people watching.
Downtown needs more diversions, particularly of the unplanned, unscripted sort. In one of those thoughts that will lead the city parental units to question our sanity — again — the thought arises: Why not a touch of what is routinely encountered in European downtowns? How’s about encouraging street performers?
THERE’S ACTUALLY a name for this: busking. Not only does it involve musicians (never, ever amplified) performing for gratuities on public sidewalks and park spaces but other sorts of “acts” as well — jugglers, organ grinders (with or without monkey sidekicks), mimes on so forth. Mariachi street bands qualify; so do Christmas carolers for that matter. Sidewalk sketch artists doing quick cartoon renderings of people would qualify. So would have, in the olden days when photography was a novelty, the strolling camera-wielders on Broad Street who snapped pictures of couples or families and sent you a print for a small consideration. A lot of local family photo albums from the 1930s/40s have scenes like that.
In Europe’s big cities it is common to see unbudging statues that are actually live people, often attired as historical figures. Given the reluctance of Rome’s leaders to restore true statuary to Broad Street, having such “acts’’ appear might be fitting.
Such performances in public spaces are constitutionally protected as artistic free speech, as is the street-corner preaching that once gave city parental units much grief. Panhandling is something else entirely and certainly not entertaining. Buskers are too busy to have their hands out and beg, though they clearly hope for coins dropped in their open guitar case, “tip jar” or pail. There’s also such a thing as “café buskers” indoors, which may well describe some existing local performers depending on one’s definition of what a “living wage” is.
TO BE SURE, such sights coming unexpectedly into view on a downtown stroll are heavily dependent on large crowds always being present. All entertainment income depends upon an audience, not empty seats or sidewalks. Where such are routinely encountered in this country tends to be in places where walking can be as bumper-to-bumper as an Atlanta expressway, such as a Broadway sidewalk in Manhattan.
Broad Street is nothing like that, except during large staged events as seen by that also being the time when many sidewalk vendors make an appearance. However, there are times of day — the Monday/Friday lunch hour, most particularly — where such street acts might add a lot of color to the downtown scene.
Clearly, a certain self-policed code of conduct is necessary and usually appears, along with a civility that assures no sidewalks are blocked and what is termed “performing blue” is limited to indoor locations where such as children and easily-shocked generations are not present. There’s been a revival of this art form in recent years and sociological studies have been done showing it both reduces crime rates and lessens the stress of hurry-worry daily routines.
This is an element that, like closing down blocks for street parties, might well be worth encouraging and testing.
Not everything that occurs in a real city center can or should be staged, planned, predictable. For a downtown to be truly alive there must also be spontaneous elements and “surprises’’ for those who happen by whether for business or lunch or tourism or shopping or curiosity.
KNOW WHY the “old-timers” who remain so fond of the Broad Street vicinity feel that way about it? Because when they were children/teens it surprised them and gave then new and unexpected experiences.