Hope against the spread of generica

Visiting a new city becomes far more meaningful when you can find unique places where local people live and interact — when you can find an actual community.   Usually this requires finding locally owned and operated restaurants, cafes, shops, etc. that often anchor neighborhoods.
In so many cities, whether in North America or around the world, global brands have taken over certain commercial areas, including (or particularly) around where visitors might congregate such as off ramps from freeways, around tourist hotels, and near tourist attractions.   Not knowing whether any alternative exists just a few minutes drive or walk down a side street means that people often patronize the familiar generic chains at the expense of local independent business.

Brendan at the Where Blog offers hope against the spread of generica.  He proposes that RSS feeds on small devices like the Blackberry might offer a way for visitors to explore a new neighborhood.

Now imagine that you’re a tourist on a first-time trip to New York. Subscribe in advance to a feed like this and have bite-sized neighborhood tours sent to you every three hours. These tours could even be sequentially linked to start you off in each neighborhood, allowing for a few hours of independent exploration between tours. Heck, with the ubiquity of GPS technology, you could download a series of geo-coded tours in advance that would be triggered when you passed from one neighborhood to the next. As you walk north across Houston Street from SoHo to the Village, your phone rings. You answer, and a voice suggests that you walk three blocks east to Houston and Thompson to begin the Greenwich Village tour.

With this sort of technology, unfamiliar territory becomes a bit less intimidating. Recent transplants get out and meet more of their neighbors. Tourists get a boost in confidence that would likely encourage them to cover more ground and venture farther off the beaten path

What intrigues me about a technology like this is that it would allow many visitors to venture beyond Burger King for lunch and thereby support more independent businesses.

The same technology could provide links to restaurant menus, customer reviews and other information such as prices and speed or type of service (ie is this a restaurant for quick take out meals, or more of a sit-and-linger place).   Perhaps photographs could be available — or even live web cams.  The latter might allow locals could check to see who is there and would allow anyone to see if the place is busy or would have room for them.

With this information more people might try someplace new, whether close to home on when further away.

Neighborhood guiding technology, written by locals, could be a great way to preserve independent businesses and the character of communities within cities.

3 comments

  1. Donnell says:

    Isnt it interesting that the most popular places in cities are often neighborhoods of historic significance? Whether it’s SoHo in NYC, Old City in Philly, Federal Hill in Baltimore or Georgetown in DC, people like the uniqueness and human scale of these neighborhoods.

  2. Wendy Waters says:

    I agree. What’s sad is that current urban development patterns preclude such communities ever developing again. Contemporary economic reality means that new “greenfield” developments tend to be done by a few large developers who sell the retail pads off at high prices to chains.

    (I blogged about what makes these “authentic” areas work a few months ago, here)

  3. Andrew E says:

    This is a job for all those GPS navigation devices that people are buying for cars. In addition to downloading maps and direction to these devices, it should be possible to download a kind of “driving tour” that will guide you through neighborhoods and describe their cultural or historical significance.

    I haven’t seen this yet, but I would imagine that this is coming soon.

    That being said, merely having a “driving tour” implies that people don’t get out of their car. The tours would have to be devised in such a way that encourages people to get out and walk around.

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