I read something in a travel book recently that prompted me to ask this question: Is there a place in San Luis Obispo where you can stand and say: “Ah, this is San Luis Obispo”?
There is an area that has a lot of foot traffic, a lot of places to sit outdoors, and a range of services at hand. This would be the complex that includes Jamba Juice, Chino’s, Starbucks, Downtown Cinema, Barnes & Nobles, and Mondeo, et al. What this space has going for it is a lot of merchants circled around each other, rather than placed side by side in a traditional linear street block, which translates into a relatively large amount of people eating and reading and lounging in that central area.
There’s not much question that this area is the nexus of commercial activity in downtown SLO, but we’re looking for the nexus of community activity, because a city is more than a shopping mall.
So where is there a large enough area to make it worthwhile to sit and observe your surroundings for a bit, and maybe interact with fellow SLO citizens? Mission Plaza. It was built in 1772 and seemingly neglected ever since, but why? It’s the most expansive pedestrian area in all of downtown, it has the creek flowing close by, it has the art museum, an amphitheater, and that statue with the bear. And yet there’s rarely many people there except the sort of characters you’d think twice about inviting over for dinner. This is what happens when a good place is neglected by its city.
The Mission Plaza has no cafes around it, no food carts, no lectures or performances at the amphitheater, no tables, no movable chairs, really no reason at all for someone to be there unless they’re going to church. Why would it be important that a lot of people be congregating in the plaza throughout the day, you ask? Because people enjoy being around people, interacting with people, meeting people, and watching people. It’s what makes a city a true community, where people can develop common interests and achieve things together, and can help each other because they actually know each other.