By Kathryn Papp, Alexandria
To the editor:
Despite the huge differences between Alexandria’s Old Town and Portland, Ore., there are those who seem to believe that all progressive urban ideas should be adopted wholesale from a town whose unofficial motto is “Keep Portland Weird.” It is home to food trucks that genially camp together around town, has an annual nude bike ride, leads the world in microbreweries and is a place where the city government is proud to collect no sales tax.
The above characteristics are critical parts of the Portland brand. They are why we like to go there. They are promoted and protected to make the city a playground for those who thrive on a hands-off and hipster lifestyle. It remains low-cost and geographically isolated; a sprawling city in a wooded river valley.
Old Town’s brand is rooted in a much longer history of political, civil and economic activism. The vital residential community, whose energy, knowledge and money support the old and historic district, embodies the highest level of concern and commitment to sustaining its unique brand. In business terms, these residents are its competitive advantage. They instill the neighborhood’s unofficial motto — keep Old Town authentic — with vibrancy.
Branding in a time of uncertainty and transition, as is occurring in the City of Alexandria today, requires that the unique features of the town be intensified, not diluted. Old Town’s goal must be to remain so very authentic that it is impossible for anyone to replicate or replace it.
Old Town will retain its revolutionary and historic progressivism by adapting ideas to fit the unique framework of its urban architecture and living history. Unlike the tourism-based economy of Williamsburg, Va., or the proud weirdness of Portland, Old Town will benefit from intensifying its ambience, so that when visitors ask if the houses and streets are real (as they do), we can say, “Yes.”
Today, driven by waterfront redevelopment and massive infill projects, Old Town risk slipping into a Disney-like version of a period town, defined by the architectural style, urban habits and shops found everywhere else in the USA. Change that is rendered as fake, phony, imitation or a sham will be a disaster for our small economic base.
Old Town has boasted ease of mobility, interesting eateries, eccentricity, neighborhood diversity and social activism for centuries. What is important now is for city officials to intensify, not dilute, its unique brand as a highly original, progressive, outspoken, historic and residential community.