Embrace the past while looking to the future

Published 12:10 am Thursday, July 14, 2011

I just spent 11 days driving across New Mexico and Arizona, stopping along the way to camp and see the various wonders of the arid Southwest and the Rocky Mountains. True, if I had my way, there would have been a great deal less camping and many more stops at kitschy gift shops, but one thing I would not have done differently was tracing the route of the old Route 66.

This idea of Route 66 nostalgia tours is alive and well in America today. Each small, struggling town along the way proudly displayed the historic markers, and nearly every one of them had a dedicated gift shop I somehow didn’t visit. Towns like Gallup, N.M., and Winslow, Ariz., were still struggling to adjust to the changing economic landscape and trying to figure out how to get by on the income of the nostalgia tourist. Others, like Williams, Ariz., had traded on their historic location to introduce new tourism outlets, like railroad trips to the Grand Canyon. But one thing they all had in common, besides Route 66 of course: each downtown we passed through had its own historic theater nestled in the center of Main Street.

As we tooled down the Main Streets of America, we passed theaters, opened and closed, decorated with bears and marquees, or unassumingly tucked into two-story buildings between a bar and a hardware store. Regardless of the differences of appearance and utility, they were invariably trying to find a way to fit into our changing social and economic landscape.

In each of the thriving towns through which we traveled, the marquees were prominent, and the posters in the windows declared that the theaters were indeed open for business. In each of the towns that were still struggling to make ends meet, again, the theaters were in some state of repair; the theaters stood out as places for things to happen in an otherwise sleepy-looking stretch of downtown.

Conversely, some towns had clearly given up the struggle. Buildings in these towns were littered with graffiti, weeds grew up in the off-street parking spaces, check cashing storefronts appeared to be the only things open, and their historic theaters, some clearly grand at one time, were boarded up and dark.

I realized a lot of things on this trip. One, I still don’t like to camp. Two, whitewater rafting is actually dangerous, but also incredibly fun. Three, Washington’s downtown, though I often see it in isolation because I see it every day, is part of a much larger experience and tradition. Roads, whether or not we like to admit it, change more than just the physical landscape. Roads impact economies and change social landscapes, too. Towns that learn to adjust to the changing transportation patterns are towns that will, in the long run, succeed.

Oh, and four: the places that seem to be the most successful in adjusting to the changes around them all manage to embrace their past while still looking to the future. To me, and clearly to many others, an important symbol of that past is the historic theater located in the heart of downtowns across America. It is a comfort to know that Washington, too, is clearly on the right road to success.

Katherine Buchholz is the box office manager for the Turnage Theater.