Sunday, October 18, 2009

Shopping Sketches 1: Trails Village Center

The only shopping destination I can walk to from home happens to have just about everything I ever need: post office, dry cleaner, grocery store, pharmacy, coffee place, bagel shop, killer soft serve, homey family-run healthy pet food store, a couple of nail salons, the bank, an all-in-one gas station/car wash/oil change, the gym. If it weren't for my incredible ability to invent errands all over town on quiet weekend afternoons alone, it would probably be just about the only place I spend money in Vegas other than restaurants and bars.

Summerlin, the master planned community where I live, imposes strict design criteria on its retail centers - landscaping requirements, color palettes, sign materials, etc. At the Trails Center it all works decently well to create a walkable, pleasant space despite the acres of asphalt and the sketchy parking lot driving that goes on. My condo is very quiet, lonely sometimes, and I often find myself stretching out trips to the Trails Center just to be somewhere.

I'll start with the coffeeshop. I go there a lot. To be more specific it is a Starbucks and yes, I do think most locally owned cafes serve better coffee and have a cooler vibe than Starbucks, but I actually don't hate their coffee, and I don't think there are any small locally owned cafes within 10 miles of where I live anyway. When Andrea's in town he walks there every single day with his laptop and a stash of reusable grocery bags to bring home fresh ingredients for dinner that night, French market style. He christened it the coffeeshop to make his walk in summer (two miles round trip in often 110 degree weather) just a little more bearable. But other than the customary decor and predictable menu it really does function in the community as just what we would hope for in an honest to god coffeeshop. According to him, if you spend long weekday morning hours there you'll come to recognize the regulars: self-employed or unemployed laptop tappers, senior citizen social clubs, dog owners meeting up, trophy wives on the go, and the liberal kid baristas who sneak punk rock onto the sound system. There are also the stilted encounters of strangers: blind dates, job interviews, weird meetings to discuss business opportunities that appear to have begun with an email about making $60k/week in your spare time or a Nigerian bank account. You'll learn that except for those baristas and some of the dog owners, most of our neighbors think the New York Times is a rag (“they have that Krugman guy … he’s awful. Did you know he used to be a theater critic?”) and many don’t mind pointing it out to a stranger who might be perusing a copy. You'll get to know the schedule of the yoga classes next door based on which times of day the dress code temporarily switches to roll top pants and sparkly flip flops. You'll notice when school is back in session, when the swimming lessons at the public pool next door get going, or when the community dance theater nearby is gearing up for a new show.

If you pay attention, you can pick up on the patterns of everyday life in the community in the rest of the center too, way more than you'd think glancing at the artifice of fast food drive thrus and chain stores. We used to get the weirdest looks at the market when we brought our own bags, but over my four years here I've observed subtle shifts in my neighbors' behavior that makes it if not the norm, a little less hippy crazy. I know which of the night shift checkers will most quickly tackle my grocery pile and remember the SKU for rainbow chard without checking the book. I've observed just enough about the Orthodox family that owns the soft serve place and the Boston Italians who run Upper Crust Pizza to have a concocted some speculative theories about their family dynamics. I early-voted for Obama in a trailer in the parking lot in the middle of the local art fair. When I first got engaged, I got schooled in ring care by the husband and wife team who have long run the local jewelry store. We walked in on a whim, suddenly not intimidated to just browse because of the piece of actual jewelry I was now wearing, and the wife chastised me for touching my diamond too much and gave me some great tips on how to keep it clean. On Friday nights teenagers idle the hours away perched on each others bumpers in the parking lot, blasting music, maybe skateboarding, mostly just hanging out.

I’m not as good as Andrea but I do walk to Trails Center a fair amount instead of driving and I notice that others in the neighborhood do too, though not nearly as many people as you'd like to see, especially given the amount of time and money that's been put into the masterplan’s sidewalks, bike lanes, shade trees, and the eponymous Trails following the flood washes that cut through pleasingly named housing complexes and for the most part all lead here. When I first moved in I chuckled that my closest retail center was on Village Center Circle right off of Town Center Drive. Jane Jacobs it is not, but I now find myself feeling the same affection for the goings on in that strip mall as I do about my (and Jane’s) old stretch of Hudson Street. Well, almost. Don't get me wrong - there are a lot of things about my neighborhood that clearly don't work well and thwart the vague sense of community you do get at the Center and I'll tell you about those too. But I'm writing at Starbucks right now, and perfectly content.