Death of the Small Town Square or Welcome to the Big Empty

LargeWindows, originally uploaded by carolsLittleWorld.

This weekend I went up to Georgetown, a small affluent town north of Austin, which also serves as the county seat for Williamson County (the county in which I live.) I’m no stranger to Georgetown, having visited and photographed there before-if you recall, I did a previous “big summer” Utata project (“The Nocturnes”) there (or part of it) as well as made several more recent visits, including attending the annual Georgetown Art Hop (I’ve been lucky to be included in this show two years running now.)

In years past, “the square,” or immediate downtown area of Georgetown, was always bustling. Especially on a Saturday afternoon, you would find shoppers, families scurrying about, looking for bargains at the antique store or frequenting one of the many gift shops. There were restaurants, a coffee shop, even a traditional, local bookstore, with a comfy chair and the latest from both the national bestseller list and the local reads. There were shoe shops and small boutiques, where you could shop for some of the latest trendy labels, not to mention a few that even carried and displayed some funky local artwork. It was a happening place, especially since it was anchored by the local courthouse. Being the county seat had some advantages-all of those lawyers, all of those people serving on jury duty, the local newspaper was situated there too, in case, you know, something eventful were to go down in court that day. Georgetown was, like many southwestern “square” towns, the center of the local universe in a lot of ways and the square was, well, the center of Georgetown.

This weekend, on Saturday, while I was there, I noticed it was empty.

Not just “a little slow,” not just “quiet,” but empty. Many of the stores had gone out-closed on account of the economic climate. The small boutiques, the local antique shops, the shoe place, the family owned and operated restaurant that had been there since 1956? Yup. You guessed it. Gone. Out of business. Closed up shop and moved away. It was like visiting a ghost town.

While I was there, shocked as I was, I thought about all the little “square” towns, all over the country. I’ve been to the Berkshires before, heart of the recent special election in the Senate that everybody is talking about, and I’ve seen the little shops and squares there too. In fact, they look much the same as the one I was standing in, deep in the heart of Texas-almost the same little shops, the same “Mom and Pop” service, the same friendly neighbors who recognize one another and are always quick with a smile and a wave. And, I thought about all the places I’ve been, all the other places with squares too. Santa Fe, Taos, parts of California, New Hampshire, Maine, Tuscon? Yup, each has a square. Square, square, square, square square. The same kind of square as Georgetown, with local shops, eateries, boutiques, antiques, and even local art galleries. While I stood there, in Georgetown, I wondered about these places. Are the squares empty there too? Have all the squares gone away? Relegated to be remnants of the last great recession, now forever a mere blip in the memory banks of a younger generation who prefers “big box” shopping anyway? All dried up and blown out, gone the way of the do do bird and cars with fins? It felt a little like visiting the rust belt only, instead of big factories or ship building yards, it was “Mom and Pop” stores I had grown so used to frequenting. Gone. Vanished. *Poof* right into thin air.

While I was there, I started to poke my camera into some of the shops, the previously owned, occupied, busy little shops that I had known. I was curious to see what they looked like empty. I tried to remember which business were where, sometimes there would be a hint of paint or a remnant of a leftover sign to clue me in, other times, I had to just guess and I’m sure I was wrong. All that was left were a lot of empty rooms and a lot of shattered dreams.

They say the worst of the recession is behind us. The country is starting to build anew. People are slowly starting to go back to work. Well, I’m here to tell you, if it’s happening, it’s not happening in Georgetown. Small town America has been hit mighty hard and it’s going to be a long, rough road back from the latest mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. I can’t help but wonder if the squares all around the country ever will come back or if, like the Cadillac with the fins, the old diners, or the flapper clothing of yesteryear, places like this will be left a memory of times gone by.

Until next time…



  1. Kala
    January 27, 2010 / 1:00 am

    Very sad. IMO, the recession is not behind us – unemployment in my state is a staggering 11%

  2. mythopolis
    January 27, 2010 / 11:55 am

    In Tennessee, many small town squares have become deserted, but there is also a trend in some towns to bring them back to life. I am happy that the small town near me has a vital square with refurished old buiidings, a couple of the original cafes, and some new enterprises too. During the growing/planting seasons local farmers truck produce into the square on the weekends.
    Also a few small towns within easy commute of the larger city are experiencing some re-vitalization thanks to youthful entrepreneurs and artists.

  3. Carol
    January 27, 2010 / 8:36 pm

    Kala, I know what you mean. The "pundits" keep telling me on my TV how "it's going up/it's going down/this is happening" etc. but I don't see it in the community. Unemployment is still very high and things look bleak in a lot of ways.

    Mythopolis, it's great that they can do that-bring back the downtown, especially with fresh, young people. It seems very cyclical-these places build up and then sort of crash and then the sort of "bottom feeders" come in and bolster it up again, until it gets too expensive and then everybody gets squeezed out once again. It's a bad cycle, I guess, but good to hear it's working out in your area.

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