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"Intersections of Traffic and Crossroads of History," Marc Van Riper (2012)


A roadway intersection can simply be a crossroads for people or it can serve as a patchwork of sights, shapes and memories that can help describe the history, needs and even serve as a reminder of the evolution of a community.  This history or story can present itself as if the intersection itself was afflicted by ADHD. A vital link that presents a picture or story of history, adaptation and change that appears to be distracted, fidgety and unorganized. But, if you look closely you can see that a single intersection can take on many different voices and even be a map or outline of the history and progression of the community it is a part of.

An intersection has an obvious utilitarian purpose, to act as a conduit for people, a sort of single thread in the fabric of people’s day. The distance of a roadway can be a distance that acts as delineation between what once was and what is now. This perspective is displayed in a busy intersection not far from my house. An intersection that isn’t in the town center, but one that has long served as a sort of informal gateway into the north end of town.  A space that is overshadowed by the busy six-lane freeway that now parallels one of the roads that makes up the crossroads. A set of crossroads that has a proud and historical past, but has seen better days.

This intersection has played a role in the history of Cotati, a small yet active rural town in Northern California.  This meeting of roads is not unlike any other intersection in that it is a point of convergence of people. People that are traveling through this intersection with a plan, a mission and a personal strategy in mind are side by side with people who are simply passing through and happened upon this area on their way to points yet unknown. The intersection is a mere cog in the wheel that is driving this process and yet it still provides opportunity. The intersection unknowingly provides travelers with an opportunity, an opportunity to stop and look at the history that is on display in this three-point hub of a once busy highway. The original highway long ago replaced by the busy interstate that seems to mock it as parallels the original road that quietly meandered through many small rural towns like Cotati. The intersection itself can be seen as a sort of road map of progression and history for this area.

Facing west, one can be introduced to the intersections historical voice. This comes through in the sad but true form if a vacant lot where Tubby’s, a small icon of a greasy spoon once sat.  The broken down dirt and asphalt lots edges are overgrown and are bordered by a temporary chain link fence. The fence is standing guard over what once was, protecting nothing more than memories that might exist as cars speed by. Not even a board remains from the original diner, and all that one can do is imagine the building as it once sat as a welcome resting spot for travelers and locals.  A diner that once was positioned proudly on the corner as a second kitchen for the farmers and ranchers of the area. Tubby’s was a typical roadside diner housed in a well-worn building with little attention to the fit and finish of the exterior. The outside was painted a dusty blue grey color, a color that was able to stand firm against fading or was simply the cheapest option at the time.  The inside of the diner was busy and well worn, filled tightly with upholstered booths and a counter that shadowed stools, some of which were informally reserved for the community “regulars” who stopped by for a visit and a bit to eat.  

The food was simple and the diner always seemed to smell of coffee and bacon, no matter the time of day. Tubby’s was a diner that seemed to be less about the food, and more about the relationships that were built and supported within its walls.  The diner is long gone and all that remains is the memories of what was and the parking lot it all started in. Cars still occupy the old Tubby’s parking lot, but now the only food people parking there will eat is what they are eating as they stop to pick up carpool riders for their daily trek South. The parking lot and the corner that remains stands firm as a historical marker for this intersection, a reminder of what once was in the shadow of what is now.

Across the intersection to the south, presents a more updated and far less historical voice of this crossroads. What is presented is what one might see as the voice of progression and compromise. Progression in that the lot is home to more modern buildings, more diversity in services and a real attempt to break from the historical rural roots of the rest of the community. This part of the intersection shows compromise in the fact that this portion of the intersection has had to weather the storms of the economy and significant compromises to big company competition. This area has now seemed to find some middle ground to work with as it finds the stores and services that the community both needs and supports. This corner now houses a long row of buildings best described as a fairly traditional strip mall. The row of buildings making up the dominant architectural feature is built far back on the corner lot. This positioning projects a bit of uncertainty or lack of confidence within the intersection. The building is one story in height with a tall top facade that acts as a billboard or sign for each store in the row. This added height provides for good marketing opportunity and yet seems to be calling out in desperation, "look at me...back here" to the cars as they drive through the intersection.

The stores calling this building home are varied in nature but share a commonality that they must work equally hard for their share of the community. A small donut shop with a simple storefront with 4 tables and a display counter opens before daylight each day. Their morning customers are faithful and happily fill the parking lot each morning.  A Korean restaurant has found their spot in the building and they gratefully take their share of the community business as they fill the parking lot later in the afternoon and into the evening with regulars and those who have decided to stop to give a new place a try. Farther down the row you find a tattoo shop. A storefront that appears to be active yet never seems to keep regular hours.

It too seems to be destined to become part of the rotation of stores that cycle in and out of this building. The front of the lot is comprised of a wide-open space, much of which is used for parking. The front most corner of this lot that faces traffic is vacant and overgrown with weeds. When the weeds are in bloom one might be misled to believe landscaping has been done. The corner was once occupied by a small gas station that has since been torn down and all that remains is the concrete pad that stands out in contrast against the dark blacktop surrounding it. The space is bleak and the positioning on the corner of the intersection draws attention to void that exists. An attempt was made to disguise this area by planting trees in a line across the vacant lot. The attempt was genuine, but can be compared to putting lipstick on a pig. In the end, you still are left with the pig, and in this case a vacant lot. You’re also left with a reminder of progression, of change and ultimately compromise made in an effort to remain viable.

Looking across the street to the east you will see more sign of progression and this time it takes the form of a large corporate gas station. It stands in stark contrast to the once standing hometown diner and community gas station. The existing gas station and this corner of the intersection has a definite utilitarian voice.

A corner that seems to be all about business, about getting things done and a voice that is strong and anything but timid. A far cry from the small town history that is on display only a few hundred yards away. Every piece of land on the corner of this intersection is covered in concrete. The grey bland surface acts as the canvas for all that sits on top of it. A huge white metal roof that seems to be standing guard over the entire corner of the block overshadows the outside of the gas station. Hanging from this roof are halogen lights, shiny beacons that cast a sterile white yellow light across the whole lot after the sun goes down. In the background, the gas station building and convenience store sits ready and willing at moments notice, on the ready for the next person in a hurry. The store façade itself has hard edges, a shiny complexion and glass walls that make it seem as if the contents of the store itself are on display outside. The store is always bustling with activity and could be compared to an anthill with ants running wildly in and out of the entrance to the colony. This is not a place for relationships, for history or even for a long conversation. It is merely a stopping point or a pit stop during the course of our day. It does however depict progression and adaptation of our community. It may not be the history we like to put on display but the corporate gas station, hard edges and concrete is part of who we are, part of the community we live in.

The last section of this intersection is in view when looking south from the gas station. This portion of the intersection is making a viable attempt to present itself as middle ground from a historical and social perspective. Not so middle in the fact that this part of the corner is dominated by a Peet’s coffee shop, a corporate chain not unlike the gas station across the street. But middle in the way this community space has been developed and is being used.

Peet’s coffee occupies a building with historical roots. A building that once housed Frank’s Freeze, the community ice cream shop with strong community roots. The building was once a summer meeting place for families and that place you rode your bike to when you were lucky enough to get a dollar or two in your pocket. Frank’s is long gone, but the feeling of community seemed to stay behind in the old building. Now, a shiny new Peet’s fills its walls but families are still heading there to meet friends and enjoy time together. The ice cream counter is replaced with bins of coffee and shiny stainless steel espresso machines. The sound of the cooling fans on the ice cream refrigerators has been replaced with piped in classical ambiance music that comes from speakers hidden in the white ceiling tiles of the coffee shop. The exterior of the building has been spruced up and is a far cry from the original cinder block building in the center of a blacktop parking lot. Now, the building is dressed with brown awnings, is trimmed with colorful flowers and a brick patio provides and inviting space to watch the world go by. Amazingly, one additional piece of history remains on site as a reminder of what once was. Chickens were a part of Frank’s Freeze years ago and they remain a fixture at the new Peet’s store Families that once fed the chickens pieces of ice cream cones and french fries and now feed them scones and bits of cookies. This side of the intersection has been able to hold onto parts of its roots, build upon them and adjust and adapt to the changes happening around it. Franks is gone, but the community bond remains wrapped in a new exterior.

Our world is constantly changing and our communities are a reflection of this change. The demand of society and individual wants and needs help shape the places we live.  They are shaped by our preferences, our patterns and our desires. An intersection on the edge of a community can be a reflection of this perspective if one looks closely. The intersection on the surface is seen as a pathway and a route that serves vital role in our day-to-day lives.

Paying closer attention to the details and asking questions about what you see can reveal the reflection of our past, a reminder of the path taken and ultimately a reminder of where we are today.