My turn: Vying for a Juneau aesthetic

Posted: Friday, July 27, 2007

overheard some people talking in the Anchorage airport recently about the baffling preponderance of jewelry stores in downtown Juneau. They couldn't figure out how these stores relate to this place. Neither can I.

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Don't get me wrong. It is the cruise ships' corporate-owned stores that offend my sensibilities, not the few local ones, including my favorite, Fire & Ice.

Saturation of downtown Juneau with cruise-ship-owned or affiliated jewelry stores has slowly and steadily occurred, bringing to mind the metaphor of the frog in the pot of hot water: If the water is too hot at first, it will immediately jump out. But if the water is heated slowly to the boiling point, the frog will stay in the pot and get cooked. Juneau seems to be about cooked.

There are two problems with this: The first concerns aesthetics and how Juneau looks. The second has to do with identity.

The issue of jewelry stores arose a couple of months ago in an article in the Juneau Empire ("Citizens group wants to limit jewelry stores in Ketchikan," May 18). The article described how a Ketchikan citizen group was dealing with a similar situation. If we lack the independent vision to determine what kind of aesthetic experience this city offers to visitors and locals alike, then I say let's follow that group's lead. This has gotten out of hand; I took a walk downtown recently and counted more than 20 stores selling jewelry as their sole or primary merchandise. That is completely disproportionate to the other stores here.

A news analyst on Juneau's KTOO radio station said that cruise ship passengers are exposed to the same jewelry stores all over Southeast Alaska, but they are not only here. I spoke with several cruise ship passengers last summer, and even they complained that jewelry stores here are precisely the same as the ones in the Caribbean. They could be in St. John or Juneau, exposed to the same gleaming and antiseptic looking stores, featuring large signs saying "Sale Today" all season long.

Obviously cruise ship corporations would not build them if their passengers did not shop there, and ultimately persons doing so have to answer to themselves. But to entice them to do so, the cruise ship corporations offer all kinds of incentives. And on the flip side are the disincentives to shop at local jewelry stores. The owner of Fire & Ice has told me how prospective customers have turned around and walked out the door upon hearing that his store is not on the approved list of cruise ship-sanctioned businesses.

But I am speaking to the aesthetics of Juneau, not its businesses, and to who gets to decide how our town looks. A friend of mine has visited Juneau several times since 1990. A businessman, he is ordinarily for free-market forces determining things. But he has a sense of proportion and argues for limiting cruise ship-run jewelry stores downtown because of their effect on the appearance of our downtown and the quality of the experience of people here.

What kind of experience do we want people to have when they arrive at our hometown. Should they experience a unique location, singular in appearance, with a sense of place and identity, featuring local shops, or should they have a derivative, pre-packaged experience? My friend would still come here for the natural beauty, but he bemoans the loss of the town he once knew Juneau to be, before industrial tourism. Environmentalists once welcomed the idea of tourism, but that was before cruise ship corporations remade us in their own image. Human environments need protection too.

On a dollars-and-cents level, local landlords are implicated in this problem by raising rents so high that locals cannot afford to open shops downtown. But the lion's share of responsibility lies in the lack of vision by and for our community. Juneau needs to define itself with some attention to aesthetics to move beyond faux frontier-style shop fronts.

If we don't define ourselves, others will do the defining for us. It's already happening. Is this really how we want our downtown to look?

• Paul McCarthy is a Juneau resident.

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