In Prague, I stood outdoors in a picturesque square and sipped a hot drink on a chilly night beneath a glowing Christmas tree, hoping I could someday do the same back home in Ohio.
As a young reporter in Alliance, Ohio, I used to spend Thursday afternoons on the bottom floor of a newspaper office, sorting through microfilm to gather information for a daily feature. It reproduced snippets from the newspaper's archives: the news of the day – or simply something curious – from 100 years ago, 75 years ago, and so on.
What struck me most profoundly was the once-prominent role of the downtown area in the community's life. It was the center of activity, a busy hub of commerce and social events, and a major way station for trains crisscrossing the Midwest.
Amtrak still calls twice a day at Alliance, one of only a handful of remaining passenger-train stops in the Buckeye State. But the train no longer chugs to a stop at a bustling station. Instead, it pauses at a forlorn platform that's populated only by a handful of people waiting for the often-tardy trains.
That lonesome platform is symbolic of the dwindling role of downtown in the community's life. For more than a few people in the city, "downtown" evokes images of danger and decay, a place better not visited alone – a place best not visited at all.
A downtown cheesecake store still does a fair amount of business. A friend and I walked in one Christmas Eve, hoping for a cup of coffee, since the store used to be a cafe, as well.
But all the trappings of a coffee shop – tables, chairs, cups – sat about unused. Customers came in, paid for their cakes, and left. We inquired about coffee. They didn't serve coffee anymore, the workers said apologetically. Not enough people came to the cafe. But after they sold us the last of the coffee they'd brewed for themselves, we returned to Main Street, which was empty on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.
Commerce has been drawn out of downtown Alliance toward the strip malls and megastores on the city's outskirts. Downtown remains full of stately brick buildings from the turn of the 20th century, but some are empty, and many are underused. There is little reason for residents who head downtown to the government offices to linger.
Slowly, downtowns are making a comeback elsewhere in Ohio. In Cleveland, turn-of-the-century immigrant neighborhoods are being rediscovered and refurbished, cherished for their beautiful architecture and proximity to the modern business center.
I am saddened for Alliance whenever I visit a community that has successfully revitalized its downtown by forging it into an arts district or a home for specialty stores. Alliance, however, has not yet seen its day.
Last holiday season, the same friend and I decided to encourage people to return downtown. We wanted them to see that it could still be a destination for entertainment, fellowship, and commerce. We felt that the biggest hurdle was one of awareness: The potential of the downtown area had simply faded away from the community's consciousness.
We converted the then-abandoned G.C. Murphy Co. department store into a one-night Storytelling Spectacular. In the corner of a structure that had once seen so much holiday activity, we erected a little stage and arrayed chairs before it.
People jumped at the opportunity to help set up or to participate in the evening's entertainment. The bill boasted local musicians, storytellers, and poets.
During intermission, attendees mingled with performers. It seemed there was a yearning for this sort of event. Older attendees spoke wistfully of the days when they had frequented downtown – even that very building – during the holidays and the rest of the year. Younger participants seemed to be craving something different, a central place to gather and feel creative.
That event was frequently on my mind while I visited Prague. By day, the neighborhood square near where I was staying was a Christmas market, little booths peddling handicrafts and clothing to tourists and locals alike.
By night, most booths were closed, and neighbors would gather beneath the imposing stone church that dominated the square. Friends chatted and laughed, and children scrambled about the square. The holiday lights shimmered, and sausages sizzled on grills in the background.
After returning from Prague, I once again reviewed the photos from our event last year: the old department store decorated with pine boughs and glittering lights; the little stage flanked by lamps, looking like a cozy living room; artisans on the edges selling crafts; the handmade sandwich-board sign out front emblazoned with "One show only!"; cars streaming into the usually forgotten downtown; people strolling along its sidewalks.
At the evening's end, we distributed candles to the performers, and they joined the audience in a holiday singalong, the building reverberating with unified, hopeful voices. We were very heartened by the response.
One year later, I think about what is elsewhere in the world and what could be in the little corner of Ohio where I'm from.
I dream of the day when I can sip coffee with friends before a Christmas tree in downtown Alliance. I remember the palpable possibility of a single night last year, hoping I am not the only one who feels the potential.