Together we can make downtown great

09/30/2010 12:00 AM |

Sometimes you don’t know what you had till it’s gone. That’s what people everywhere are discovering about their downtowns and trying to bring them back. Here in Riverhead, when our downtown was disappearing, we felt some regret as the natural forces of decay and ruin set in. Then we felt shame and despair and fear at the very sight of downtown, an admission that Riverhead is a town to be hated.

Even now, as so many are working so hard to restore downtown Riverhead to its former glory, we doubt ourselves. There’s something wrong with Riverhead, some say, but no one can quite put a finger on it. It’s all been tried, it just can’t be done, others cry. Capital doesn’t seem to bring dividends. Under pressure, we lay blame and point fingers. Many of us steer clear of the whole thing. Maybe it would be better if downtown weren’t there anymore, then we could put it behind us and move on, some wonder privately. Have we no choice but to resign ourselves to defeat?

Meanwhile, you love downtown Riverhead. Come on, you know you do! You still believe in its potential. You want it to be amazing. You want to go down there all the time and find it hopping, meet up with people you know, find something good to eat, experience something new. You want to find work downtown. You want your kids to find lots to do downtown. You want to be proud of downtown. Admit it, you want downtown Riverhead back in your life.

When you came this summer and lined its riverfront as an admiring spectator; when you drove through downtown and nodded approvingly at the liveliness; when you made a point to visit a shop and make a purchase; when you were strolling downtown; you made downtown’s spirit soar.

After a glorious summer, but with fall setting in, it’s clear that downtown still needs our focused attention. The same entities that led in their own way this summer are keeping the ball rolling, including the Town of Riverhead, Business Improvement District, East End Arts Council, Chamber of Commerce, Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, Riverhead Free Library, Atlantis Marine World, Long Island Science Center, Suffolk County Historical Society, Art Sites Gallery, Polish Town, Townscape, the Riverhead Rotary Club, the SCCC Culinary Arts Institute, the restaurants, and so many others.

You will have places to go, things to do, and people to see! Progress is a slow thing. You will have to be patient, courageous, generous, steadfast, forgiving and kind to see it through. You will have to show restraint, humility and endurance. In short, we will be sorely tested. Many of us will fail, and often. That makes for good humor. Yet so many fail to see the humor.

The public is very discerning when it comes to matters of character and initiative. And we appreciate a good joke as well as the next person. That is why we must have more public participation downtown. So, if you live or work in the greater Riverhead area, please select among the following efforts under way to take action on soon:

* Occupancy of vacant buildings, mentioned first by anyone you ask: the large vacant buildings in the center of town remain a major detraction. We’d like to turn them into major attractions, but in the meantime it does bear repeating how ghastly those buildings are. Don’t you think?

* Traffic and pedestrian safety improvement: preventing the public from enjoying downtown are zany traffic patterns, death-defying street crossings, jutting sidewalks, and a irrationally high perception of crime. As thrilling as all that is for some of us, we should speak up on behalf of those who prefer a safer experience.

* More shops, restaurants, theaters, farmers market: we all want more, more, more! Any puritan worth his salt will ask, “How can you want more when you’re not using what you’ve got?” Give downtown businesses a shot at your business. Foot traffic gives businesses confidence to locate or expand downtown. Find something you really like downtown? Tell your friends!

* Turn and face the river: our downtown waterfront is a precious thing with great powers of attraction, and it’s been cleaned up in recent years, thanks to the work of those pesky environmentalists! Let’s enjoy the river.

Downtown needs us. Folks have a rightful claim and stake in downtown — at least a small parcel here and there. A playground, a community garden, a park, a community center or other amenity for community activity would draw town people downtown year round.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here all of your life or if you just got here, and you don’t need anything but common sense. You have an open invitation to insert yourself wherever you like. I have.

Ms. Swett is a Jamesport resident and founder of the iloveriverhead group, whose focus is on revitalizing downtown.