Saturday, November 21, 2015

Published 8:59 AM by with 2 comments

Erie Street - Americana in Bisbee, Arizona

I was born in Dublin in the sixties and spent the first twenty two years of my life there. It was a relatively simple world when I was a kid and we only had a couple of TV channels where I lived. Every Saturday afternoon, on the BBC, there would be an American movie playing that kept me glued to the screen. I found myself particularly drawn to stories of the Bogart and Hitchcock era, set in small-town America. Everything about them fired my imagination.
Americana, that optimistic era of the forties and fifties, full of ingenuity, has cast a spell on me ever since. Through my eyes it was a time when cars and architecture were more like works of art than mere machines and structures of utility.
The reality, of course, is that it probably wasn't quite as glamorous as nostalgia and Hollywood would suggest. Nonetheless, it left a beautiful legacy that can occasionally be seen off the highway, in small tucked-away towns.
One of those places is Bisbee in Arizona. It has a rich and colorful mining history and resembles a European town entwined in steep hills and narrow, winding roads. As fascinating as it is, I was much more attracted to one of its lesser-known attractions in the nearby community of Lowell.
Just down the road from the massive open pit of Queen Mine sits a '55 Ford station wagon. Parked in a vintage Shell gas station, completely devoid of people, it feels like stepping into an episode of the Twilight Zone. This was my first introduction to what is known as the Lowell Americana Project.

The project is the brainchild of Jay Allen, one of a handful of people who live on the curious and otherworldly Erie Street. Its mission is to showcase and preserve a time in the forties and fifties when the area thrived. Long term plans include rebuilding and repainting all the existing storefronts. They will then be populated with authentic merchandise to create an immersive time travel experience for visitors. Don't bring your credit card, though, the interiors will be for display purposes only.

Restoration has already begun and the Shell gas station and police station/jail have gotten recent makeovers. Other buildings, like the garage, are actually functional, although the pumps are only for show.

Each year, Lowell hosts a music festival that includes a car show and work from local artists. The funds raised go towards advancing the goals of the Lowell Americana Project. For more information on the event, click here.

Down Memory Lane
An old taxicab waits for a passenger as the sun rises over Erie Street.

Preserving Authenticity
Vintage cars, coupled with restored facades, create the quintessential atmosphere of Americana.

The Automobile as Art
In our modern world of generic cars, the designs of the past, especially these magnificent fins, are thrilling to see.

Realizing a Dream
Jay Allen's vision slowly takes shape. The "new" Lowell police station and jail breathes life into the old street.

Great care has been taken to maintain the integrity of Lowell's past. Signs are hand-painted to replicate the styles of the time.

While peering through the window of the dilapidated Sprouse Reitz store, I noticed some old broken mannequins stacked up. There was something almost human about them, like they were sadly staring out at the real world. Even the expressions and gestures felt a little unsettling to me.

What's most striking about this street is the sheer detail of everything in it. Posters look and feel authentic and I had a great appreciation for the character of each door and window frame. Even the gas pumps looked like something out of a science fiction novel. During the few days I spent there, I couldn't help feeling that this kind of workmanship is just not that prevalent anymore.

I've been to many auto shows in my life and seen all sorts of vintage cars but walking down Erie Street is an entirely different experience. For me, it's all about context. If you listen hard enough, you can almost hear the voices and footsteps of those who once shopped for bargains, lined up for the matinee or treated themselves to a milkshake.

Erie Street transcends its relatively small footprint. Although it's just over seven hundred feet in length, it's easy to imagine the scope of what it once was. With the efforts of people like Jay Allen and countless other volunteers, perhaps it truly can be resurrected to remind us of a time in our culture when life was simpler and full of optimism.

My Adobe Spark (formerly Slate) presentation of this post is available here

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Dave Day said...

Wonderful post! And my favorite place to shoot pictures

Steven Dempsey said...

Thanks Dave, I appreciate it.