It’s time to bring back the friendly downtown neighborhood

Instead of making any resolutions for the coming year and creating more stress and disappointment than I need or want, I am going to make a wish, or, if you prefer, a suggestion.  This is for my city, San José, and how to really enhance it.

First we must concede that the new “Chinatown” street was a nice gesture but something of a dismal failure.  And it destroyed a street that had everything, including a picturesque name.

In the 1990s I lived on the east side of town, in Barrio California and later just above Barrio Lujan.  It was a pleasant and interesting walk to downtown; especially along Avenida 8.  I always headed for Paseo de los Estudiantes, which happens to have been the name of South Ninth Street that is now Chinatown.

The name of the street honoring students is not just because the Liceo de Costa Rica and the Colegio Superior de Señoritas are nearby. The designation reflects the bravery of students to overthrow the dictatorship of president Federico Alberto Tinoco Granados and his brother, Joaquín, who was minister of war, in 1918.

Students and others took to the streets to end the bloody dictatorship after an armed uprising was stifled by assassinations.

Once on the Paseo de los Estudiantes, I could check my mail at the post office branch, bank at the local branch of, if I recall, Banco de Costa Rica, shop at the supermarket, MasxMenos, find almost any kitchen item I was looking for at one of the Chinese Woolworths, and eat at one of the several restaurants. Two excellent Chinese restaurants were and are just around the corner on Avenida 11.  There also was a hardware store and one with the amusing sign. “Superb locks,” which I always thought was supposed to be “Super Blocks,” but never inquired within since I was not in the market for either.

At the north end of the street is the charming church La Senora de la Soledad, (Our Lady of Solitude), and the Plaza de los Artes.  There used to be the station for buses going to Nicaragua, and across the street, a pastry shop and on the corner, a roast chicken restaurant. What more can you ask of one street?  The only thing it lacked was a building that can house stores on the first floor, offices on the next two floors and a couple of floors of apartments, and maybe a small hotel – but all of these amenities are nearby.

There always seemed to be a sense of camaraderie among the shoppers and friendliness from the clerks in the stores, who were quick to offer help.  After all it was a neighborhood, and we were familiar.

In short, if we cannot re-establish the Paseo de los Estudiantes where it once was, perhaps there can be another street that has the variety of stores and services, instead of rows of shoe stores or upscale clothing stores more interested in getting customers than providing services.

Which brings me to this new evolving economy that some are deploring, others seeing as the future.  It is what is being called, “the sharing economy,” where what is being stressed is “access over ownership.”  I am not sure who first said that, but Lisa Gansky, author of “The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing,” is a pioneer of the idea of a world where items are shared – or rented – or temporarily traded, rather than owned and help is exchanged, or rented, also on a temporary basis.

It seems to make ultimate sense ecologically when the problem is not one of supply but of distribution and waste.  Our world is being contaminated by the stuff that is wasted.  Our life’s experiences are also being limited by ownership of things that we use only a fraction of our time but pay a lot for.

Steven Strauss has written an article entitled, ”Welcome to the Sharing  Economy –  Also Known as the Collapse of the American Dream.” His point is that people are resorting to sharing for the same reason that people shared and did piecework during the Great Depression, not because they want a “lightweight (asset-free) living.”

He is right, the American Dream has become a nightmare in many countries for both the middle and poor classes.  Preceding both collapses, the rich got greedy, and “mistakes and bad decisions” were made by the banks.  But I think he has misread the people of today – more are looking for experiences other than the joy of getting rich and richer.

I think it is best summed up by his statement about the Airbnb venture.  You get to “rent a room to complete strangers who in turn get to stay with complete strangers.  What a delightful, desirable use of one’s home!”

(I think he’s being sarcastic.)

My friend Darrylle, who was a member of Airbnb had the best response to this.  He said, “(Steven Strauss) doesn’t have a clue as to the incredible value that both hosts and guests receive from sharing times together in our homes and what that does for society in general. He is what is wrong with our current economic system – everything is based on money and economic growth. Living a good life is about positive and meaningful experiences. I’ve had 350 guests and now have 350 friends around the world who have nearly all welcomed me into their homes as a guest, not a client. What could that possibly be worth?”

And, in a way, that is what the Paseo de los Estudiantes was like.  It was not just a pedestrian boulevard with store after store selling the same thing and competing with one another for customers. It was inhabited by people who related to and helped other people.

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