One of the things I noticed during my Interstate 84 East project, is how zoning impacts a small town. Sure, it seems boring and innocuous, particularly to people who live in a metro area.
But in small towns it can have a deep impact. Take, for example, The Dalles.
It’s a small town about a one hour drive east of Portland, OR. To the east and south, there is only tiny settlements and rural areas. To its immediate north is the Columbia River. Around 20 miles west is Hood River, a place that has the distinction of being the “Windsurfing Capital of the World” and has created a crafty, cool image for itself. Hood River is the small Gorge town that most Portlanders go to, if they want a day off by the river.
So, how does The Dalles distinguish itself among its relative isolation and competition with neighboring Hood River? Windsurfing and water sports… no, beach areas are not accessible and as convenient as Hood’s. Craft breweries? Again, Hood River. A charming Historic Old Town District? Well, it could be. In fact, everything they need for it is there. But, zoning.
There are strip malls and areas around The Dalles that are zoned for corporate chains or bland looking small business, leaving their authentic Historic Downtown area to only a daytime working population, however scant that is in places. The problem with that? Not much use and vibrancy at night. In fact, it’s dead. So why should visiting people stop there, unless they’re esoteric photogs like myself? Turns out, not many locals go there, either.
The result is a very quiet downtown area and a seemingly desperate longing for cultural identity. Economically it’s a tough ride.
So it’s with that I give props to the nice people at The Vault Bistro and Lounge. They have their own casual thing going on, but are friendly and welcoming. The crowd and staff there skewed young adult, and native. Nobody was quitting on the old town area, not yet. A few people happily reminisced about their youth and how old town used to be.
I suppose if a town like The Dalles is ever going to be known for something more, they need to create their own image, however they can. Maybe they can start their own underground style of folk or country music, in a place like The Vault? It wouldn’t be unheard of. After all, look at Bakersfield, CA and their contributions to country music. Seriously, look it up.
Most likely, however, they will have to be content with themselves and what they do have. But in a world where cynicism and giving up is becoming fashionable, wherever that may occur, at least there are some folks who do their own thing, and don’t give a shit if it’s popular.