Historic Downtown Banners

The general public finds comfort in words such as charming, quaint, and old-fashioned, in the same way they find comfort in the “historic” brick-lined streets, visually appealing storefronts, cute store signs, and general stores.  Do they see history as it is really was or is it more like history as a play?  This discussion of how to accurately display history to the modern public, as well as how combine history and the present while not playing the part of a revisionist historian is a lengthy, complex discussion.  Many books have been written on the subject including Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory by Mike Wallace, which is an interesting, thought provoking read.
I’m not attempting to contemplate the entire discussion and its tangents: I would just like to visit a particular facet, one that occurred recently in my town.  Beginning in February 2008, the Appearance Commission of Southern Pines opened a contest for a downtown banner.  Yes, those banners.  The banners that hang on “old-fashioned” street lamps and proclaim to visitors that the area within the boundaries of the banners is the “historic downtown.”  According to this newspaper article, the banners are intended to, “communicate the unique and charming character of the town of Southern Pines.”  Here is  a photograph of the actual banner.  Debate on its appearance is open, for this site.
Downtown banners in Southern Pines, NC

Downtown banner in Southern Pines, NC

Granted, travelers generally like directions and signs to tell them where they are standing or going.  But has anyone ever considered that the banners are like fences? Will tourists go beyond the banners into the unknown? What happens to the businesses past the banners? Take, for example, my favorite coffee shop.  It is two blocks beyond where the banners hang.  It’s just two blocks extra of a walk (a short two blocks, not New York City length).  Many people have trouble finding it, even though it’s visible on a corner, because they don’t think to walk that way.  And now, with the added implication of a boundary created by the downtown banners, people will probably have even less of an inclination to walk an extra few blocks.

Clearly, I am not a fan of banners indicating where people should walk, especially in a town as small as Southern Pines.  Banners are adding a “Mickey-Mouse” effect of a cleaned up historic downtown.  Southern Pines also has brick sidewalks, if you’re wondering.  Banners would not have been on the lampposts historically, so why do they have to be there now?

It is all for the “charm” of this pretty southern town.  Southern Pines is a family town, but it is also a tourist town and tourists like the cleaned up, quaint version of history, as do people who live here. Tourists like the melding of history and present, with only the best, prettiest aspects combined. Right?  That means brick sidewalks, cute store signs, matching open and closed signs for all the stores and boutiques, and historic downtown banners.

To play devil’s advocate to myself, I do like Southern Pines. I enjoy walking around downtown and strolling on those brick sidewalks.  If people enjoy where they live, then I am glad that a town can create a pleasant atmosphere for its residents.  People can choose how their town looks, and if they are doing so with some form of respect for its historic resources, then I am thankful for their efforts.  But, historic downtown banners that actually say the word charm on them? Really? Is that necessary? Why not let people walk where they want and discover historic downtown on their own?  What about my favorite coffee shop? Do we really need banners? When do they serve an actual, beneficial purpose?

You see? This past and present combination is a never ending discussion of never ending tangents.