The Three Fs
It takes zero creative energy to hate on Salisbury, Maryland. Excruciatingly selfish city planning and nearly-criminal short-sightedness has turned it into a patchwork of strip malls, box stores and tragic neighborhoods. Continual white flight has all but ensured economic diversity that would embarrass a Bangladeshi. Politically, Salisbury is a nightmare in the center of what is likely the most poorly run county in the state.
And that is just the low-hanging fruit.
By putting up shopping malls wherever friends of the local politicians owned land and refusing to maintain its infrastructure, the town killed the downtown in the least productive way. There is no place for revival. It is not a collection of disused buildings, but rather a collection of professional offices. Salisbury’s Downtown Plaza is, for the most part, lawyer’s offices stacked up against insurance agencies.
Because it is backwards, generally, the Eastern Shore has experienced the kind of brain drain usually associated with a third world country. For decades, the area’s best and brightest, who didn’t inherit the family business, took their degrees and their fancy post-19th century world views to proper metropolitan areas.
This left people who either did not wish to leave–the area’s proximity to the beach appeals to many–or who were unable to. By the beginning of the 21st century, though, the number of people who were talented but couldn’t find meaningful employment elsewhere increased significantly.
When an area is so depressed as to allow grownups to live on teenagers’ wages, something positive can happen. And it has happened to Salisbury. Now, not only is there nowhere to go, there aren’t many opportunities when you get there. For those of us in the lower middle-class, especially liberal arts degree holders, there is no incentive to look elsewhere for work.
Pensions are a thing of the past, as is employer-provided healthcare and employee loyalty, all of the aspects that attracted Baby Boomers to construct what was, until recently, the standards for “a good job.” Now, employees work for an employeer for an average of 5 years or fewer. In Salisbury, a person of reasonable intelligence and skill can remain employed at a crappy job indefinitely. Increasingly, people are making an effort to separate who they are from what they do. There is a real movement to create a kind of artist class. Full-time artists who happen to work 40 hours doing the intellectual equivalent of flipping burgers.
When Salisbury kicked off the 3rd Friday event, it was a consistent flop. Or, rather, an inconsistant flop. Over the years, however, as it rose and fell, the highs were higher and the lows less noticeable. Today, there is one day a month when the artists all gather, to have shows in the few open storefronts and to make a statement about the area’s potential. Several restaurans not only have opened but have remained open for extended periods of time. The carousel of tried and failed small businesses downtown is slowing.
Most importantly, the dominant number of artists are not housewives who have found their artistic bent now that the kids have grown and gone, but rather parents of younger families with children making a go at a kind of alt-lifestyle.
There was a time when someone making art part time was considered uncommitted or less-than-talented; “day job” was code for failure. As the 21st century begins to take shape, day jobs are taking the place patrons held the past several centuries. Instead of having to find a wealthy family to sponsor the art they produce, local artists increasingly rely on crappy day jobs chosen specifically for that purpose.
In Berlin, where those people found success, they were able eventually to transition into being gallery and artisan shop owners. Salisbury has that opportunity now. If Third Friday continues on strong, and the regular artists can count on participation to generate both rent and a meager income, the downtown may not yet be beyond salvation the other days of the month.