We recently passed though the town of Brunswick, Georgia – a historic city that was settled by British colonists in 1738, and incorporated in 1856. Over the years, Brunswick grew into an important port city: in World War II, it served as a strategic military location with a shipbuilding facility for the U.S. Maritime Commission, and it currently competes with Los Angeles and Newark as the top port for automobile transport in the country.
Add in its magnificent location, separated from the “Golden Isles” of Jekyll Island, St. Simons Island, Little St. Simons Island, and Sea Island by the Intracoastal Waterway, and you might expect to find a beautifully preserved downtown, full of prospering businesses, interesting boutiques, and unique eateries. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Brunswick has the perfect bones to be a wonderfully pet friendly destination. When the city was originally designed, the plan was filled with green space – 14 large and small squares were spread evenly among residential and commercial land lots. Many of these park-like areas were later sold or developed, but those that remain have been rejuvenated into peaceful hideaways where you can relax in the shade of enormous trees and listen to a gurgling fountain.
Several of these squares are located along New Castle Street – the city’s main drag – and it’s easy to imagine downtown Brunswick energized by visiting tourists and dedicated locals like Carmel, California, or Newport, Rhode Island. But that’s where the fantasy falls apart. Instead of a bustling scene, downtown Brunswick feels forgotten – left behind in the course of progress, hoping to be rediscovered. And there are too many towns like this across the country.
It’s not that efforts haven’t been made to attract people back to Brunswick’s downtown. Along with the squares being revitalized, the old city hall has been restored and now doubles as a part-time courthouse and a venue for weddings, class reunions or other events. Several of the brick buildings along New Castle have also received attention, and their sporty awnings bring a cheer to the street.
But many other buildings along the five-block stretch are neglected or vacant, and several of the businesses appear to be struggling. Why? Why is this lovely downtown with enormous potential, and a leg up on being a topnotch pet friendly destination barely squeaking by? It’s because we prefer convenience to preserving history, and our desire to save a few minutes or a few cents is killing beautiful old places like Brunswick.
On the outskirts of most towns – including Brunswick – you’ll find a collection of strip malls. Depending on the part of the country you’re visiting, the exteriors may be brick or stucco, but the storefronts are all the same. In fact, as we travel we notice that towns are taking on a cookie-cutter quality.
My question is, where will we go when it all looks the same? When you look out the car window and can’t tell if you’re in Boston or Dallas, why bother going at all? The opportunity to experience and learn from the tapestry of cultures, customs, ideas, and characteristics across our country is what makes traveling fun – and we need to do what we can to preserve the places that make it possible. Our old downtowns not only provide us with a view into the history of a place, they can be a center for business owners to honor and elevate the local traditions in their own creative ways.
So, the next time you’re tempted to run to the big box store to do your errands, think of what the country will be like when all we have left are mega chains. When you support the small businesses in your area, you’re not only helping your local economy, you’re also helping to preserve the uniqueness of our country.