New York City performance artist Penny Arcade visited Juneau the first time last month for her birthday. Those who went were lucky she agreed to do two shows while in town. The one I saw at Perseverance Theater was excellent. While talking to the audience, Ms. Arcade brought up the puzzling number of jewelry stores downtown, then mentioned seeing a lot of signs proclaiming local shop ownership. She asked in 20 or so jewelry shops where the Russian Orthodox church is; none of their workers knew. After that, those signs made sense to her. The persons working in these shops are not locals, and the shops themselves have no real connection to this place. (The Jewel Box store on Front Street is locally owned; apparently she didn’t ask there.) It would surprise no one if most non-locally owned jewelry shops were cruise ship owned or affiliated.
I was reminded of Ms. Arcade’s remarks as my wife and I walked through downtown. The sheer number of seemingly cruise ship corporation owned or affiliated jewelry stores is overwhelming. They dominate the downtown retail scene, and not in a good way. I can’t imagine anyone thought: let’s enhance the experience of visitors and locals by opening a jewelry store in downtown Juneau. Why it even makes business sense is not intuitive, but I understand how one expensive piece can pay for the entire tourist season’s worth of rent and salaries.
Ironically, there are signs posted by the City and Borough of Juneau throughout downtown indicating a “historical district.” Unfortunately, there is little downtown that evokes history or even place, certainly not on South Franklin Street (except maybe for the bars). Most jewelry stores there are identical to ones in cruise destinations throughout Southeast Alaska and in the Caribbean. These stores manifest only an eternal present, one that knows or respects no local history or unique identity. Theirs is a world of the eternal “sale,” of gleaming store fronts full of generic displays, of hucksterism running roughshod over a community.
This situation is a done deal and not going to change anytime soon. We can chalk this up in part to the collateral damage of industrial tourism. But also to a lack of vision by our city leaders. What has happened to downtown Juneau is an affront to our town. As a community we let this happen. Shame on us.