A few weeks ago, my friends and I drove up to Frederick for the day. I’d never been there, but discovered much greater Washington could learn from. Forget “Fredneck.” No matter what color their necks may be, this place is far from backwards.
You can imagine my surprise when, after we parked in the very center of downtown, I stepped out of the car to see a bustling, if small, business district. “Wow!” I exclaimed. “Frederick is just like a city, but smaller!”
As if on cue, a guy in a baseball cap walked by and yelled, “Don’t get excited. It sucks.”
Running through Downtown Frederick is Carroll Creek Park, a recently renovated promenade along a tributary of the Monocacy River. Completed in 2006, the park began as a flood-control project after rainstorms in the 1970’s decimated the business district. Today, it’s a gorgeous urban space, lined with new apartments, offices, and some shops and restaurants. On a Saturday afternoon, the creek was hopping as people strolled the banks and gathered on outdoor patios.
New development usually means higher rents, so much of the retail along Carroll Creek is occupied by chain stores like Five Guys and Ben & Jerry’s. That’s almost all the chains you’ll find in downtown Frederick, where mom-and-pops dominate.
Market and Patrick streets form the spine of downtown Frederick. Some of the 2,500 buildings in the surrounding historic district date to the 19th century. They were preserved after the city paid off Confederate General Jubal Early not to burn it down during the Civil War. Unscarred by 20th century attempts at urban renewal, the downtown feels as vibrant as cities several times its size.
Jane Jacobs argued that older buildings keep rents down — many are paid off, and the costs of renovating one are often lower than building new. In downtown Frederick, that means small businesses can afford to set up shop here, meaning a greater variety of shops and a stronger sense of place. Among the offerings are a store that sells puzzles and knives (in the same space), a store that sells kitschy toys in the front (and modern furniture in the back), and this surprisingly large skate shop.
A business district filled with local businesspeople engenders a strong sense of community. You’re more likely to know, and trust, the people running the puzzle and knife store. Many shopkeepers along Market Street put out water dishes for dogs, and if you’re walking one, no one thinks twice about approaching you.
As we saw at Carroll Creek, the quality of new development in Frederick is excellent. Having so many older buildings around means the bar’s raised high for new stuff. The same goes for residential buildings, like these new rowhouses just off Market Street.
Not everything is as nice. This vacant strip mall at Market and 4th uses brick and double-hung windows to look historic, but setting it back behind a big parking lot kills the sidewalk life. This is just four blocks north from downtown, and it’s not surprising that shops further north of this strip aren’t doing so well.
But overall, Frederick’s an awesome example of how to make a city work. You’ve got strong (though not always historic) architecture, streets that favor pedestrians over cars, a really strong mix of uses and activities, and a commitment to quality open space. It’s definitely an example for how communities across Maryland and the D.C. area can improve themselves in the future.
It’s hard to deny that all of these things contribute to a strong sense of community and local pride, as witnessed in this hilarious video spoofing Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind”.
Also, check out this photoset of downtown Frederick.