As I travel through different American cities and towns, I often get the feeling that our urban centers have forgotten what people are for. I see so many box stories, so few people on the streets. Everyone is in their own space, usually disconnected from one another.
Cities, like the rest of America, have been corporarized, People are either afraid to go downtown, or can't afford downtown, or there is no downtown. Real people have all been driven off, replaced by box stores or the rich. Somehow, Brattleboro has escaped that awful fate.
People still rule there. It is not uncommon for someone to walk up to us on the street and smile, and say how nice it is to see a couple in love.
Maria and I have been going to Brattleboro, Vt. for some years now, it has become one of our favorite places to go to get a way, or have a short vacation. The city is compact, diverse, full of people, all kinds of people. They often seem very connected to one another, they smile, nod chat about life and the weather. People with berets, kids in tattered jeans, people with bears to their waists, artists, writers, poets, people with beads that rattle when they shake their heads.
When we first came to Brattleboro, the downtown was devastated by a fire that gutted the massive Brooks Hotel, right in the middle of town. The hotel has been renovated, and a bunch of good new restaurants and idiosyncratic businesses have opened – a Gold and Platinum specialist right next to a fine Turkish restaurant.
There is even a big old pharmacy in a former church or school where people come out to meet you and talk about the best medicine for your cold. They even go find it for you.
There are all kinds of funky businesses and cafes and even one of the last mystery book stores in America, always open but mysteriously free of people. The town is overrun with people, street people, hippies, bearded prophets, people walking pigs, many dogs, free spirits, runaways begging for money.
Our favorite restaurant, I think, is the Korean restaurant called Shin-La, the zucchini pancakes and chicken rice soup are incomparable. The side streets are filled up with giant used bookstores and specialty stores – great baby clothes and toys, falafel palaces, music shops, an organic bagel emporium, junk and antique stores, psychics and gemstone sellers, one of the best food co-ops in America, art galleries, a vast hospice thrift store where Maria often pulls some strange fabric out of dusty corner, consignment shops with amazing socks and hats.
We love to stay in the Latchis Hotel, an amazing Art Deco restoration project that is a crown jewel of the town.
You park in the lot next door, if the lot is full you get a lesson in working the parking meters on the street.
The rooms have huge ceilings, the walls are solid, each room has its own name and identity. The old hotel is a work in progress, every time we come something new has been added or fixed, the rooms are always clean and fun. It is a work in progress. The Latchis has its own hotel dog and is closed between the hours of noon and l p.m. while the staff has lunch.
Diane, who cleans our floor, remembers us from the last visit, and she is happy for me to take her portrait sometimes.
Our hotel bill for Saturday night was $124.
The Latchis has an exotic history – it fell into disrepair and has been reborn – it is thick with atmosphere, friendly people, great prices, rooms where the old bathroom fixtures have been deliberately preserved, it is not for snooty four-star people (I give it five stars on Trip Adviser) but a treasure for everyone else. I can't recommend it highly enough. At night, I imagine running into ghosts from the grand old ballroom, now four cinemas.
The Latchis movie complex and theater is in the ground floor, you can just walk down the stairs and go see a first run movie or some cultural event (last week a testament to Hieronymous Bosch) and ogle the beautiful painted ceilings at the same town.
Brattleboro fairly bristles with character, and writing this, I realize just how much Maria and I love it. So many upstate New York and Vermont cities are in awful shape, casualties of the loss of manufacturing jobs and mills that we keep hearing so much about. Brattleboro has been saved, and is giving rebirth to itself. You feel good just walking down Main Street. It is an inspiring place for us.
I imagine the politics are insane there, it is one of the few small towns with a foreign policy. I don't want to know any more than that. The newspaper has been taken over by the reporters after the owners fled long ago. It is hanging on. Sitting on the New Hampshire and Massachusetts border, the town has a drug problem, like all Vermont cities. But is is unquestionably vibrant and ascending.
The downtown is very much and fascinating to walk around in, it is lined with gorgeous old brick and art deco and mill factories and apartment buildings, yet it has not lost a shred of it's greatest draw, it's humanity. Everything is within walking distance. I always stop to take photos at The People's Apartment house, just off the center of town. There is always somebody highly photogenic sitting on the corner, usually with a dog, happy to pose for one or two dollars, or for nothing, if it comes to that.
And there is someone sitting with a beret or magazine or book at almost every window. People reading books are ubiquitous in Brattleboro, and are almost as welcome as dogs. Some people are strange, they talk to themselves and speak in tongues. They are almost always friendly.
Almost everyone who walks by smiles, says hello, or nods. That matters. You end up smiling back.
Mostly, I love that Brattleboro has remembered what people are for. Somehow, they have kept the box stores out, it doesn't look like every other place, it doesn't look like any other place. I do all of my clothing shopping – jeans, socks, underwear, shirts at Sam's, the block long clothing and outfitter's store where you can always get a small bag of fresh popcorn, and the floor manager remembers my name and jeans size.
Maria I both love the different people in the town, the architecture, all of that brick, the gorgeous murals, the very wonderful Latchis, and the general feeling of the place.
If you wish to remember what people are for, you might want to go visit.