The Kinks: “Come Dancing” (State of Confusion, 1983)
In urban planning, we have a term, “place-making,” that refers to attempts to impart a distinctive character to a developed area, usually after all of the character it once had has been erased by bad development.
For one example, think of a small, old downtown, with two- and three-story buildings that abut the sidewalk and have retail on the ground floor, with offices, apartments and other things above. There are awnings and wide sidewalks with tree wells, maybe some al fresco dining or a theater marquee, with a narrow street running between, and maybe some parallel parking at meters. When you stand in the middle of the street (hopefully while no cars are coming), it feels little like being in a big outdoor room, with the buildings as walls. Maybe there’s even another wall at the end, where the square around city hall results in a t intersection that terminates Main Street (this feeds into a concept called “view shed”).
Then, one day, a developer acquires one of these blocks, rips down all the traditional Main Street buildings and throws up a cheap strip mall, with a parking lot in front, and all the storefronts have internally lighted signs (they have to, so you can see them from the street while driving). Stand in the middle of the street and suddenly, a big chunk of wall has been kicked out of your room. It’s getting drafty.
This has happened to downtown districts all over the US and Canada since World War II, and modern planners, realizing that their forebears made a terrible error by allowing it, are trying to slowly regain the places that were lost by writing better rules for development. It can take a long time for a place so violated to come back, especially if its economy is in rough shape.
"Come Dancing" is a song about place, filtered through a man’s memory of his older sister’s teenage social life. It’s also a song about loss of place, something Ray Davies was often concerned about in his writing—The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society was an entire album about it.
The tears of Davies’ sister in this song when they tear down the palais she once went dancing at with her dates are telling. You could argue in the abstract that the palais was just a building, so what, there’s a new one there now where you can go bowling, but this argument is entirely wrong. A building like that is part of a community’s identity, a meeting place that’s not wholly replaceable by something else. I actually think the narrator’s town does relatively well—at least the bowling alley that replaces the dancehall is still a social place and not a bank branch with a drive-up window and a too-big building footprint with more parking spaces than it’ll ever use.
This second thing is what most towns got when their old landmarks came under the wrecking ball. In my area, I see examples of it everywhere, and if you look at the zoning codes and master plans of the small cities around me that have been adopted in the last ten years, it’s clear that their leaders have looked at the disjointed, bland, unwelcoming results of modern auto-centric development and grasped for ways to turn back the clock.
I hope they all succeed. There’s nothing quite like a vital, busy downtown district, with different people there at different times of day for different purposes. You don’t rub elbows the same way with your fellow citizens in a Wal-Mart or Target hypermarket. Without more and better public transit, it’ll stay tough for cities in Southeast Michigan, but better transit is, with luck, on its way to the region, far, far after it should have arrived (“better late than never” could double as a motto for our current bus system). We live for now in an autopia of our own design, chained to our cars to get anywhere, most often driving through no place at all.