Shiralkar: Good weather calls for downtown exploring


Columnist Parth Shiralkar describes the different atmospheres of downtown areas in different cities.

Parth Shiralkar

Have you ever been to a new cafe that just opened downtown and clacked up your laptop to try and submit that long-overdue assignment for the first time ever? Getting more notifications from the Canvas app than from Snapchat has never felt better one week before spring break, in coffee shops that serve oat milk. It smells like a new car in there. Like a Lamborghini Venti. Every time I walk up and down Main Street (which I do a lot) I get the exact same feeling.

Downtowns everywhere have this vaguely detached aura to them, like they’re their own person, with a personality cobbled together from graffiti and underground bars and unspoken rules about nodding to strangers and petting dogs that smell like Gucci and fluctuating crime rates depending on the farmers market sales and several deliberately misplaced fliers. The cultural and commercial cores of cities’ downtowns have been around since the 1770s, which is when Wikipedia claims the word was coined.

This distinct feeling of being elsewhere, I think, comes from a lot of pop culture and urban planning that goes into the conception of downtowns. You don’t see many mainstream music videos being shot around police stations, naturally. But there have been several music videos that just hit different with colored walls in the back and overflowing dumpsters right beside the city council.

I spent today walking around thrift shops and buying trinkets “on clearance” with a few friends. My last internship, in Idaho, I lived in Coeur D’Alene. The downtown there was full of divorcees in their sixties and fancy cars and amazing plant-based food; a slightly contrasting downtown can be found closer to home in Ames, where the divorcees are rare and in their forties and the cars are fancy but only on Facebook Marketplace. I love it.

Downtown Colorado was a mishmash of several smells and couples fighting over random paperwork issues. It still had that detached feeling of being somehow far from civilization as we know but being alive all the same. I cannot — with conviction — claim to have enjoyed my time in Bellevue, Washington, a few semesters ago, since the people partying downtown had no concept of a “student budget,” which I’m all too familiar with.

I cannot explain at this unearthly hour some of the feelings just chilling next to a sunset have invoked within me. I would recommend the experience to anyone who is willing to utilize westward-facing park benches around 5 or 6 p.m. I plan to visit the Ames museum soon and maybe explore some of the other knickknack places. Downtown Des Moines isn’t half bad, but I could do with a walk around a block without getting yelled at for nothing.

But downtowns are nice, especially in this kind of gorgeous weather. The throbbing heart of urban buildings, the quivering liver of locally owned breweries, the long arms of the social media-savvy law, the face of a few poorly masked vigilantes in the night. An enriching place, both spiritually and the opposite of spiritually, whatever that is. Plus, the best part: public libraries.