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Standin' on The Corner
In Winslow Arizona
The Spirit and the SongEvery city, and town has something by which it likes to be identified. St. Louis has it's arch, New York it's Broadway, and Chicago it's water tower, Loop, and Magnificent Mile. My home town of Milwaukee has the Lake, the breweries, and Harley Davidson. Winslow has The Corner. The Corner sits, as far as anyone can tell, at the intersection of East Kinsley, and North Second, on old Route 66 where it passes through town. If this was not the actual corner, it is now, or it will do. Perhaps there never was a "Corner" in the literal sense; but there is one now.
So what is, "The Corner"? It is as much a state of mind as anything else, and certainly meant nothing thirty five years ago, when the idea was first phrased. The whole thing centers around one line, from the Eagles song, Take It Easy:
"I'm standin' on a corner in Winslow Arizona, such a fine sight to see. It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin' down to take a look at me."
The song, Take It Easy, may have been inferred, to be about a number of things; but it was essentially about a young man hitchhiking from Texas to Los Angeles, sometime in the sixties, and his reasons and attitudes along the way. Upon it's release in 1972, it was a reasonably popular song, making number 12 on the charts; but it has retained it's popularity quite well, and is still often heard. It has become a bit of a period piece, and is a great open road traveling song. The ironic thing about this is that at the time of it's release, the song was already waxing a bit nostalgic about a time which, even then, was perceived as having begun to pass.
Take It Easy, along with Ventura Highway (another song set on Route 66, though not written by The Eagles), as well as a few others, are my favorite road songs. These all tend to be what is today called Country Rock, a genre that seems to be particularly appropriate for expressing these kinds of feelings. Having grown up in the sixties, and having hit my teens in the seventies, I remember these songs well. They were great fodder for young dreams of travel, adventure, and the unfolding of new vistas. For years, I pictured myself traveling down the main drag of Winslow, having never even seen a photo of the place. Surprisingly, the place was not far different than I had imagined, being a little place in the desert, stuck in time, and in the middle of nowhere. One thing about being in the middle of nowhere, is that it puts you roughly an equal distance from everywhere.
The City of WinslowThe perception is, that Winslow itself is a sleepy little place, which has fallen on hard times. There is an element of truth to this, but only an element. For decades, Winslow was THE town, in this part of Arizona. This was were the railroad came through, and where the first main highway (Route 66) was built. The primary town in the area, these days, is Flagstaff. Even so, Winslow remains a considerable town. Winslow presently has a population of approximately 10,000 people. It's apparent desolation, particularly in the downtown area, is due in part to the movement of the highway. It is still a busy place; but the center of activity has moved away from old Route 66, and the center of town, out to the edge of town, and the more recent Interstate 40.
Unlike a number of the other towns along old Route 66, Winslow was not completely cut off. Interstate 40, the road which replaced old 66, still runs by the outskirts of Winslow. Where the old highway had run right through the center of town, Winslow today is now merely a sign, and a couple of exit ramps off of I40. Still, it is pretty busy on the edge of town, with truck stops, gas stations, fast food, motels, and a couple of strip malls. Also, unlike some other towns which were decimated by the closing of old 66, Winslow has a railroad station, and regular train service.
This was not my first visit to Winslow. I had passed this way before, on a trip to the Grand Canyon, four years previously. I saw the name on the mileage sign, upon entering Arizona, and then wondered, "Is it THAT Winslow, the one from the song?" We decided to spend the night there, and in the evening I went out in search of a place that had been a part of road lore since my first dreams of far away places. I had hoped to find the road itself, and then try to imagine a day, thirty or more years in the past, when hitch hikers, muscle cars, and nomads in search of themselves, traveled the roads of an America which seemed far more free, interesting, and optimistic than that of today.
Route 66, going through Winslow, actually consists of a pair of one way streets, heading east and west. I cruised both streets, looking around, and taking in the atmosphere of Winslow. Overall, it is a nice little town, and I got a real good feeling about the place. I saw no signs of great wealth, but I saw no signs of extreme squalor, or dangerous areas either. I was approached by panhandlers, on both visits; but they were not particularly aggressive, and it was certainly no worse than the Downtown, or East Side of Milwaukee. There are panhandlers everywhere. It is difficult, as well as a bit hypocritical, to wax nostalgic about hitch hikers, and then feel offense at panhandlers. People do what they can, to get what they need.
The place seemed to be trapped in the fifties, or perhaps the sixties, with no obvious new construction, or large buildings erected, except for those by the freeway ramp on the edge of town. I felt a bit silly, searching for a place I had heard about in a song lyric from years ago. I had to hunt around a bit, looking for the streets where Route 66 went through town. Today, the exits to historic Route 66 are marked, as the road is experiencing a renaissance. At the time of my first visit, these markers were not in place. The new interest in Route 66 should be a real help to Winslow.
While driving down Route 66, on that first visit, I noticed that the side of a building was decorated with a wide red stripe, with the name of the town written within it's borders. A small park flanked the building, with an old fashioned street lamp, and a bronze statue. Curious, and on vacation, I parked, and walked over to look. A sign, shaped like a freeway sign, had the phrase "Standin' On The Corner" written in block letters across it's face. I then caught my breath and smiled, feeling a bit of night magic come upon me. This was my first view of Standin' on The Corner Park, which I had not even known to exist, before. Walking up to the bronze statue, I read some plaques on the wall of the building, looked at the mural, and perused some of the inscribed bricks which paved the way. I had neither known nor expected to find such a place; but it seemed to belong. It was, as I mentioned, like a bit of magic.
The Park, and The CornerThe intersection of Kinsley, and Second, is in the center of town, in what was the business district, and the main drag of town, during the heyday of Route 66. This makes it a classic, nostalgic, and historical place, as well as an icon of American culture. Sadly, this whole area was going to seed, after the closing of Route 66, and the redirection of traffic to Interstate 40. Many towns died, when this happened, and though Winslow survived, and even prospered to an extent, it was badly wounded. Old pictures of this street, from the glory days of Route 66, show it to be a very busy and dynamic place. The street was lined with shops, which were full of customers, and the street was crowded with cars.
There were enough resources, and enough interest, to try and do something about the decline. Winslow, unlike so many of the other forgotten towns along Route 66, had potential. Local residents, and businessmen, organized themselves, and set about the task of bringing their town back. The La Posada Hotel, a classic, and famous structure, was bought and restored, as a first step. The idea for the park, according to the Winslow website, took root in 1997. The park was dedicated in September of 1999. Sadly, a fire gutted the adjacent building, in October of 2004, and the park was fenced off for safety reasons. My heart goes out to the organizers, and builders of the park. They did a marvelous job, and I remember how I was captivated by the little park, when I first saw it, a few years ago. The magic is still there, if now touched somewhat, by misfortune. This is incredibly bad luck, particularly so soon after the park was finished.
The park itself seems to be in pretty good shape. Though the fire gutted the building, the wall seems secure enough, and the surrounding park, walkways, statue, and benches seem to be unaffected. The mural itself appears to be undamaged. It is painted on a series of metal panels, which were then fastened to the brick wall of the building that had stood here. It seems as if it would be possible, though perhaps not very desirable, to construct a new wall, and re fasten the panels. Still, the old brick has character, and I rather like it. A new wall would not be the same. I am no structural engineer, and am not one to be giving advice. I have also gotten the impression that there is some kind of conflict going on between the people who developed the park, and the owner of the burned out building. I can only say that I hope that their differences get worked out, and something is done. A burned out hulk, in the center of town, near the town's most celebrated park, can not be helping in the town's restoration.
The sculpture, mural, park, and town are all worth a visit, even in their present reduced circumstances. The whole story from the song is there, and the most remarked upon detail of the mural is the girl driving the flatbed Ford, which is shown reflected in the window. The burned out building had, at one time, been a J.C. Penny store, and the windows painted on the mural appear to display a number of furnishings, such as might appear in the window of a department store of 30 or more years ago. The sculpted figure of the guitarist, standing on the corner, appears to look towards the spot where the reflection in the glass indicates the girl in the truck would be. All, in all, it is a very nice display.
On my first visit, I saw people driving up to get their photo taken at "The Corner". In particular, I recall one man, driving a mini van, who got out, and smiled at me, as he looked at the sculpture. The van had California plates, so he was not a local. He had come here to see this, or at any rate had stopped off during his travels. It was probably ten at night, and after looking around for a bit, he asked his daughter, in her teens, to come out of the van, and take his photo at the spot. We then nodded to each other, and he left. I saw the same thing, on a much larger scale, during the 8th annual Standin' On The Corner festival. According to locals, people are always coming out here to stand on this spot. It has become a real icon of the boomer culture. Most look at the mural, and examine the sculpture; but many also peruse the paving bricks, which are inscribed with various message. The park will sell you a brick, to be inscribed with the message of your choice, for a fee. It is an opportunity to support the park, and to become a part of it. The park has a website at http://www.standinonthecorner.com , as well as a weblog, which is linked to the page. They, too, are worth a visit. The site also sells bricks, shirts, keepsakes, and all of the usual things.
In addition to the park, there are a couple of pretty nice shops at the intersection, filled with Winslow, and Route 66 keepsakes, maps, clothing, and just about anything else you can think of. There are also some nice places to eat, and a couple of spots worth visiting, just up the street. A few blocks east of "The Corner", stands La Posada Hotel. This is a classic old, elegant hotel, designed in the Spanish style of the southwest. It is still in the process of an extensive restoration. Right next to the hotel is the train station. This is one of the few classic old train stations still operating. Most have been torn down, converted, or abandoned. The station still has it's original, now dilapidated, sign, indicating that it was a station for the Santa Fe Railroad. You can still sit in the vintage waiting room, and catch a train (now Amtrak, rather than the Santa Fe) to Los Angeles, or as far east as Chicago. I suppose, if worse came to worse, I could have caught a train home.
On top of everything else, this is still old Route 66, one of the most dreamed about, sang about, and highly regarded roads in the world. Route 66 is no longer the road it once was, as Winslow is no longer the town it had once been. Still, both are recovering, and are regaining much of their former popularity. I have been here twice, once in the middle of the night, when nearly no one was around, and everything was closed up, and once again, when the place was choked with people celebrating the road, the survival of the town, and the special place that America was and might still be. If you pass this way, and happen to see a girl in a flat bed Ford, giver her a wave, and marvel at your good luck. There is magic in some of these old places.
Some photographs of the little park are included below. These were taken during both visits, and show the park the way it was, as well as the way it is after the fire. The last two celebrations, held in late September, have been enthusiastically attended, despite the intrusion of the burned out building. The park itself is largely intact. The mural looks as if one of the panels might need some repair; but this is only noticeable if you have a photograph for comparison. Other than that, photographs taken before and after the fire, appear almost identical. I have seen a number of blogs, and comments, criticizing the town for letting things go for two years; but I have a hard time understanding this. The park is fine, the town has a limited amount of money, and the main damage was done to a building which is not even owned by the park. It seems to me that everything that can be done. has been done. It also seems that what has been done is sufficient. It seems odd to me, that people want to come here to see something real, and then complain that it is too real. To me this simply makes it yet another relic o of the past, on old Route 66, which has been scarred through the passage of time.
The FestivalEvery year, on the last weekend in September, Winslow throws it's Standin' On The Corner Festival. I attended my first, this year, and had a very good time. I has so much fun that, for a moment, I forgot that I don't like country music. There are quite a few things to see and do here, during the festival. Several blocks of old Route 66 are closed off, and turned into what is essentially a large street party. In addition there is a huge custom car show held in town, centering on the nearby La Posada Hotel.
MusicThere were some country bands, and a gospel group, performing on a pair of stages on one of the side streets. The headliner was Hotel California, which essentially performed every song that The Eagles had ever done. The band was great, and everyone was very enthusiastic. They had a bit of their own sound; but essentially sounded every bit as good as the band to whom they paid tribute.
Classic Route 66Before there was a Corner, before any of The Eagles had been born, even before there was a such thing as Route 66, Winslow stood here, and stood here as the major town of the area. It held this position, mainly, because this was where the railroad came through. The old Sante Fe Railroad station still stands, and still boards passengers, though now it boards for Amtrak. Also still in use is the classic old La Posada Hotel. Both edifices have been restored, and both are worth a look. Both are also connected to each other, by a shaded arcade, with a garden and fountain, which must have seemed like a bit of paradise, to passengers exiting the trains in the summer heat. Besides being the premiere place to stay in Winslow, La Posada hosts many events, including a classic car show, which takes place during the festival.
NostalgiaSo what is the big deal about a street corner in some little town, in the desert, and some goofy song from over thirty years ago? I can only answer that, if you don't understand, then you really need to get out there and find out. For those who are too young, or too busy, to remember what it was like, let my try to explain.
My brother and I both hit our teens in the seventies, having grown up in the Midwest, and hitchhiking was a popular part of the life back then. The comparative freedom, open space, and quirkiness of the West beckoned. You actually could simply stick your thumb out, hit the road, see the country, and have some really interesting times. Often you wore a backpack, or carried a duffle bag; in some cases you simply left with whatever you could fit in your jacket pockets, and hoped for the best. If you were really “cool”, you might sling a guitar over your shoulder. This was a situation of which myself, and many friends took advantage. Sometimes you had more adventure than you wanted; but that was all part of things.
The song, Take It Easy, along with the songs Horse With No Name, and Ventura Highway, as well as some others, really seemed to express the siren call of the road, and of places far away. I recall many hours of fantasizing, during my early teens, over motorcycle, and car magazines, and over road maps, and travel books, thinking about all of the places that were out there. During these hours of happy dreaming, these songs played in the background.
There was so much optimism, energy, and activity, that it is sometimes hard to credit today. You actually could pass through a little town, get yourself a job, and maybe even make yourself a life. This also extended to the cities, where you could apply for a job one day, and be working the next. There was so much prosperity for regular people, that even if you were a poor transient, people would share. The cities, which today are dirty, noisy, crime ridden places, from which the remnants of the middle class seek escape, were dynamic diverse places, filled with neighborhoods in which you could buy a house, settle down and make yourself a life. Each was it's own little world. In today's cities, one ghetto looks pretty much like, another, one chain store or strip mall looks like any other, and all of the gated communities, and developments are laid out according to plan.
When I took my first long distance motorcycle trip, back in 1978, these songs ran through my head constantly, as they had in the earlier years when I had planned to someday take a cross-country trip. This was despite the fact that, in this first trip, I went nowhere near Winslow. It was more than I could have hoped for. Most of what happened was unplanned, and unanticipated. I met people, did things, got lost a couple of times, froze my hands, and burned my face. In between the challenge of travel was the reward of discovery, of seeing mountains, desert, cowboy towns, national parks, wild animals, and a variety of people. The challenges contrasted with the rewards to make each stand out more vividly.
That whole world seems to have disappeared, to be replaced by someplace much more stark, and less substantial; but we do still have the songs. There were a lot of stupid things going on back then, and quite a number of things with which I disagreed; but at least we had the strength, and freedom, as well as the initiative, to spread our wings a bit. Today, the cars and roads are dulled, as are the people. Traveling now requires seat belts, car seats, insurance, credit cards, and scheduled stops. Muscle cars, convertibles, and hitch hiking have pretty much all disappeared, ar at any rate are considerably stunted.
At one time, the whole world was out there, waiting to be discovered, and worth the effort of discovery. The cities and towns had varied characters, and the main drags were vital, colorful, had their own personalities, and were filled with people. It now seems that the whole world stays home every night, on the Internet, or watching cable. Today, we all shop at Wal-Mart, or go out to the mall. When we travel, we take the Interstate, where we are guaranteed never to get lost, and never to have to pass through any small towns, or be distracted by anything along the road. Try hitchhiking on an Interstate.
Just when it all starts to become a bit unreal, as if it had never been, you see some of the old places keeping themselves alive, and it is almost as if you can go back. Winslow has fallen on hard times, since it's glory days in decades past; but the spark that is still there is genuine, and it does seem to be making a start at a comeback. Work, government, taxes, regulation, and even the road itself, often seem to be closing in us, binding us, and making freedom an ever more rare and unobtainable thing. It seems that every year, more of what we are and of what we aspire to be is taken from us, threatening to make us as gray and lifeless as everything else is becoming. In revisiting places like “The Corner”, we get a little of it back. That is the idea that we can and will do great things, that nothing is beyond us, and that there are always places worth going, and things worth doing.
By a shocking coincidence, I was watching the movie Midnight Run, while I was working on this page. There is a scene in the movie, where Robert DeNiro steals an old 4x4, and drives off. As he heads off, I noticed that he was driving towards the railroad station in Winslow. I verified on a movie web site, that this scene actually was filmed in Winslow.