In Winslow, Arizona
"Whether you are looking for history or natural beauty, Winslow humbly delivers both."
Winslow has a few problems. Resting on the banks of the Little Colorado River, in the transition between the Painted Desert and the Mogollon Rim, Winslow looks like a town struggling to decide whether to celebrate its past or erase it completely.
Exit the interstate, and push past the "anywhere USA" rash of new development that includes McDonald's and a Super Wal-Mart, and you will eventually find historic Route 66. After circling the block three or four times, you might even locate the famous "Standing on the Corner" park behind a chain-link fence and ominous signs warning of asbestos and lead. You might feel a touch of sadness for this town and its disappearing heritage.
But, Winslow does not need your pity. Open your eyes, blow off some of the dust, scratch a little below the surface and spend a few minutes taking it easy with the locals, and the story of a town on the brink of a renaissance comes to life.
This is the story of a group of citizens playing the rough hand dealt them, determined to not let their town return to the earth like the ancient ruins around them. This is the story of a place with roots deep enough, resources plenty enough, and resolve firm enough to return to its former glory.
Winslow is one of the few remaining places where a person can take a break from the world dominated by interstates, fast foods, chain hotels and forced anonymity, and reconnect with community. In fact, with so much potential, one major problem with Winslow, is it is all too easy to pass it by.
Once (and still, some argue) the hub of Northern Arizona, Winslow provides a jumping off point for explorations to the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Mogollon Rim, Navajo Country, and more. So much was going on here that in the 1930s that Fred Harvey chose to build La Posada, a multi-million dollar luxury hotel. Charles Lindbergh designed the airport south of town as part of the first coast-to-coast passenger airline. And Route 66 brought a steady flow of visitors, musicians, actors and politicians stopping here on their way from one end of the country to the other.
In the 70s, the energy of the town allegedly inspired Jackson Browne to pen the lyric popularized by the Eagles song "Take it Easy":
Well, I'm a standing on a corner
In Winslow, Arizona
And such a fine sight to see
It's a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford
Slowin' down to take a look at me
Shortly thereafter, Winslow's golden years came to an abrupt halt with the completion of Interstate 40. Literally overnight, residents watched the life-blood of this booming Route 66 town be re-routed to the north.
"Winslow was the next to last town to be bypassed," recalls Diane Patterson who was born and raised here. "We would watch hundreds of trucks roll by day and night. Then one morning, they opened (the overpass north of town) and everything stopped. For about 20 years, nobody knew what to do."
A woman of short stature, with shoulder-length black hair, Patterson delayed closing her shop for a few minutes to share with me tales of Winslow in its heyday. As we talk, sitting on a bench on the corner, she pauses from her recollections only to take a drag on her cigarette, or wave at a passing car - a common occurrence, both.
Patterson owns Roadworks Gifts and Souvenirs on the southwest corner of Historic Route 66 and Kinsley. She started selling Route 66 memorabilia, much of which she designs, out of an upstairs shop across the street. To lure people into her out-of-the-way store, she would play a constant stream of Eagles' records out her window, a tradition she still keeps today. I ask if she ever gets sick of the music. She laughs, "You know, a lot of people ask me that . . ."
Patterson now occupies an old bank building, the basement of which used to be a gambling room connected by a network of tunnels to the "club" across the street and the liquor still across the corner.
"There are tunnels all over this town," she confides. "Fred Harvey had his dry cleaners down the street run by Chinese men, and didn't want them seen running around . . . so he had a tunnel made to La Posada for the laundry."
I suggest she start operating an "underground" tour of Winslow that explores the seedy underbelly of the town. Patterson laughs again, "We need to fix above-ground first!"
And to that end, she has been a pivotal force. Patterson and a small group of citizens determined to keep Winslow alive, have been active in saving its historic past and rebuilding downtown, fighting the apathy that has permeated the citizenry.
When the vacant La Posada hotel came up for demolition once again, the locals worked to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places, hoping someone would take interest. Someone did, and the fully restored hotel is again open for business - and business is booming.
When downtown emptied, Patterson remained, believing that the combination of "Route 66, a gazillion Eagles fans and La Posada" would be enough to keep the people coming. And indeed, as we talked, several carloads of tourists pulled over to snap a photo of "the corner" and poke into her shop.
While some believe that Winslow's future lies in nostalgia, a growing group of young blood believes that the past is only part of the equation.
I met Jim Steagall taking it easy in front of his bustling coffee shop, The Seattle Grind. The goateed, pony-tailed, 40-something entrepreneur was relaxing with an issue of The Skeptic, looking up occasionally to wave at the cars that honked hello as they passed by. In fact, he was so in to taking it easy that he told me to come back tomorrow to talk. He just finished hosting a graduation party for the local high school and needed to unwind.
Steagall arrived in Winslow to develop nearby Jack's Canyon into what he calls, "one of the top-10 climbing crags in the nation." Arriving from Phoenix, Ariz., he immediately took to the relaxed atmosphere and genuine way of life found in Winslow. At the time, downtown was all but dead, but using the same keen eye for potential that led him to Jack's, Steagall saw something in Winslow as well.
When I returned the next day, Steagall was finishing wrangling the morning rush of regulars. Happy to get out from behind the counter, he joined me at the chairs out front.
"I bought in at the ground floor," Steagall said, recounting how he paid dollars a foot for the building that now houses his coffee shop and home. "When I rolled into this place, it was . . . desolate. This building had been standing vacant for years - right here on the main street. It just didn't make sense to me."
Five years later, The Seattle Grind serves as something of a hub for historic Winslow. Besides offering the regular run of coffee drinks and pastries, it hosts an open mic night on Wednesdays, and contains a sharp, museum-quality art space in the back that rotates the work of locals. All this helps to keep the doors constantly swinging.
As we chat, Bill, a railroader who was born and raised in Winslow, joins us for a few moments, unhurried and happy to add his thoughts on what Winslow needs to overcome its inertia.
"A lot of people are negative about change," Bill explains, describing the apathy to which many long-term Winslow residents have succumbed. "All people can do is knock what others are doing . . . People want it to stay the same."
"Even if staying the same means drying up and blowing away?" I ask. They both nod.
"But the detractors are being outnumbered!" Steagall adds, his eyes sparkling, "And people are starting to come back."
The railroad still employs close to 1,000 people in Winslow, many of whom commute from Flagstaff, Ariz. "In the '80s, a lot of railroaders moved [to Flagstaff] because it was ?happening,'" Bill says. "Now they realize that they can sell their house there, get one twice as big here, still have some money left over, and they don't have to commute."
And, indeed, new construction around town is booming, with another development of 518 new homes planned for the area near the airport.
But being a great place to live does not make a town a great place to visit. I ask what they think will return Winslow to a stop-over tourist destination.
"Outdoor activities," Steagall states authoritatively. "Read all the studies: What is the number one reason people come to a town? For the outdoor activities. What is the number one reason people stay more than one day? Outdoor activities . . . We need to build the outdoor community here. People come from all over the country - the world - to climb, but the locals don't even know Jack's exists. There is so much potential around here."
He goes on to talk about his vision of a climbing club for kids in town, the development of other crags, and the discovery of miles of mountain bike trails nearby that promise year-round riding. "All this place needs is a few more people interested in building an outdoor community, and we are there," he concludes.
Regardless of whether you are looking for history or natural beauty, Winslow humbly delivers both. And behind that vacant lot, or across from that boarded up building, signs of life are glowing like diamonds in the rough. As art galleries open, restaurants return, and boards come off windows, the revival of Winslow's downtown accelerates.
Indeed, Winslow's most pressing problem is determining how to best manage the impending boom: How to welcome the growth, while keeping in touch with their roots . . . How to maintain a community where people wave and say hello, and are welcome to stand on the corner, taking it easy - without being hassled for loitering.
Loren Bell lives next door to Winslow in Flagstaff, Ariz., where traffic and housing costs have him eyeing the real estate to the east.