Giving Main Street a Kickstart

 

Barrington, Ill.—What can California learn from a sleepy exurb on the edge of nowhere? Not much, I don’t think. California has scarcely ever pretended to care much for small town America. But something that is at once very modern and very old-fashioned is afoot here on Main Street. 

I mean Main Street literally. Barrington has a primary commercial street, and it’s called Main. And in the middle of that street, watching over it calmly and without imposition, stands the Catlow Theater, its neon casting a red glow over the prairie. 

Living near Westwood, in Los Angeles, makes me one of the last Americans to think of a movie theater as a single-screen affair, with a marquee and architectural flourishes. Everyone else probably thinks of multiplexes and uses the retronym “single-screen,” if they think about such things at all, when they refer to such oddities like the Village Theater or, indeed, the Catlow.

If the Catlow had been dutifully following the trends of the past two decades, it would have turned into a Walgreen’s years ago. While so many of its brethren have gone dark—such as my local Aero, in 2005—the Catlow hung on just long enough for a hero to arrive. 

That hero was neither Batman, who does not exist, nor was it even the movie Batman, which I saw at the Catlow Tuesday night in the form of Dark Knight Rises. Instead, something much more modest rescued the old Catlow Theater: civic pride. 

An orthodox (i.e. unrealistic) interpretation of capitalism says that an institution like the Catlow should live and die by selling all the tickets and popcorn that it can sell. If its sales fall short, then in marches creative destruction. One show per weeknight and hundreds of empty seats aren’t going to cut it. 

That’s why the Catlow resorted to a Kickstarter campaign. Its operators asked for $100,000 to upgrade the theater and, presumably, to keep it afloat. How much could a for-profit operation expect to raise from the population of one small town? And why should anyone “donate” to a business in the first place? We’ll get to the second question. As to the first, the answer is… $175,000. 

Make it $175,005, with my five bucks thrown in. 

The Catlow was built some 90 years before the invention of Kickstarter, but what’s a generation gap when the heart of a town is on the line? 

If the private sector worked perfectly, the Catlow wouldn’t need Kickstarter, and if the public sector worked perfectly, developers wouldn’t need lobbyists. Patrons would see a movie a week, and elected officials would know exactly what the public does and does not want built in their backyard or town square. But it doesn’t work that way. People don’t always have the time or inclination to spend the money that they actually want to spend. 

The Catlow’s Kickstarter campaign puts in perfect relief the point where the power of the public sector ends and where the private sector – be it businesses, stakeholders, or nonprofits – must take over. Planners can do their damndest to promote appealing, vibrant places, but they cannot control who is going to move into those places, and they cannot guarantee their success. If stakeholders are going to invest in nice places – via the tax money that goes into planning and infrastructure – then they should also be willing to invest in the institutions that activate those places, even if those institutions are presumably for-profit ventures. That’s because, as strict free-market conservatives are loath to admit, there is such thing as an externality. 

When externalities are negative, we deserve compensation. When they are positive, we deserve a chance to show our appreciation. Many people would pay not just to see movies in an enchanting space but would in fact pay merely to have the opportunity to see movies in an enchanting space.

Unfortunately, until the advent of Kickstarter, institutions like the Catlow had no way of gracefully asking for help. Witness every independent bookstore and music store that has perished since the advent of Amazon and Napster. The Catlow’s salvation suggests, at least, that we are finally taking notice of what we’ve lost and are willing to preserve those few great gathering places that still remain. It’s tempting to think of great places as charity cases, but I reject that notion. When we’re talking about a communal institution, of which the proprietor is as much a steward as an investor, the charity is us. 

California’s economic situation is going to get worse before it gets better. And semi-historic institutions like movie theaters are facing increasing peril with the demise of redevelopment. We can expect no further success stories like Oakland’s Paramount Theater. So Californians should get ready to pony up.  

If that still sounds like an odd notion, consider this: If they pass the plate around on Sunday morning so that you can sit in a lovely building and hear provocative ideas in the company of your neighbors for two hours, then why not do the very same on Saturday night?