Thinking Inside the Square
Written by Rachel West
I’ve never really liked the phrase “thinking outside the box,” as no creative thoughts ever appeared “inside a box.” However, in Oxford, over the history of our community, tons of creative people and many successful entrepreneurs have come up with innovative ideas in and around town. Today — more than yesterday — we find ourselves living in a world where we must be more inventive than ever before in order to survive and thrive.
As I watched the City of Oxford Board of Aldermen meeting on Tuesday, May 5, via YouTube, I saw the caution our city leaders are taking in these difficult times. They are making hard decisions about how to move ahead in ways that are responsible for health and safety. I began to think about when my family and I would visit a restaurant and what my concerns would be when we did.
As I was considering this, I reflected on my time in 1999 when I lived in Burlington, Vermont. Our world looked a lot different in 1999 than it does today, but one thing I experienced there might be a good fit here in 2020: outdoor spaces that include shopping, dining and small entertainment vignettes.
While Burlington doesn’t have a Square, the two cities have much in common. Burlington is home to the University of Vermont and about 40,000 residents. The demographic make-up of the communities and the vibe is very similar. Rather than a Square, Burlington has one long street — Maple Street — that runs eight blocks or so. There, you can find art galleries, retail stores, bars, restaurants, a culinary school, bookstores, dessert shops and more. Sound familiar?
Beyond the front doors of the restaurants, there are places to sit and eat your ice cream, have a cup of coffee, drink a glass of wine or dine outdoors. Between those places, about every block or so, local musicians play all different types of music. Some of the spaces adjoining restaurants offer large weatherproof tents for outdoor dining, some offer simple bistro tables and chairs in the open air. I spent many evenings on that street during the time I was in Burlington.
Lots and lots of people never sat; rather, they would mosey up and down the eight-block corridor with their family, spouse or a few friends buying a book, having coffee or a glass of wine. As they passed others they knew on their evening outing, they would wave, say hello and continue with their small group down the street. Oddly, inadvertently maintaining social distance (way before that was a thing), because, well, there’s simply more room outside than there is inside.
Recently, I learned Tampa, Florida, has lifted restrictions of some of its ordinances in order to make something like this occur for the next few weeks to allow businesses to offer more outdoor space for people, and, moreover, in order for people to have enough space to feel safer.
As we enter into the era of life-during-a-pandemic, we must retool. We have to be willing to make trade-offs. Maybe we sacrifice some parking spaces or walk a bit further than we would have normally. What if instead of waiting in our cars for a table, we walked around a parking lot with a glass of wine while our children tossed a football? Maybe we take an alleyway like Harrison Avenue, block it off to traffic, and turn it into a space and a place for commerce.
Oxford is a fantastic place, and we have well-maintained open spaces. We have creative people here, and we have to rethink how we will move forward together. Having hundreds of people in a business in one night might not happen for a long while. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t have people in larger spaces enjoying our community in a responsible way. We have the space to do this, and who knows what creative things might come out of this experiment.
The people who made Oxford the place we know and love long before you and I arrived were very much “outside-the-box” thinkers. It’s our turn. Let’s move forward, Oxford. Let’s do what we do best — be a creative community.