If you are looking for a small town experience that matches the romantic notion of small town life, look no further than Greensboro, Alabama. So many small towns in America are dying or struggling to survive. Greensboro was almost dead 12 years ago and is now on the rise.
Some small town southern cliches were actually walking around on four legs. This is Fred the bloodhound and the locals said he goes where he wants. As dog people, we thought he was a great ambassador.
The Pie Lab was the first restaurant to open on Main Street, perhaps the first business too. Seven years ago it became an important gathering place for the Auburn University Rural Studio architecture students and the Project Horseshoe Farm fellows. Plus people in town who were driving to Marion and farther flung places for dining out.
We stayed in this five bedroom AirBnB. The girls were THRILLED with having a room of their own and LOVED the pool. It was good to remember what it was like to travel when you are 9 or 12 years old. They also were interested in local history.
We visited the Greensboro Safe House Black History Museum on Saturday by prearranged tour. Then on Sunday we walked around the grounds of Magnolia Grove. The latter stately home was a wealthy mansion (not a plantation home) in town and has volunteers staffing it Tuesday-Sunday (but not in the morning when everyone is in church).
There is a fabulous coffeehouse, The Stable, also on Main Street. They have a bookshelf (take one, leave one) and the library is less than a block away. I could envision a relaxed week of reading, swimming, cycling and eating. I’m betting on Greensboro’s future.
Some people questioned why we were traveling to Alabama either because of their shameful track record with recent voter suppression or their abortion laws. We actually encourage coastal folks to visit en masse! We can learn and they can learn. And we can agree on pie and coffee!
Driving through Alabama, I came to a renewed appreciation of small towns. So many of the town squares and courthouses reminded me of some of my favorite Iowa small towns. People who live in small towns are often underestimated or overlooked. The history of the civil rights movement has deep roots in rural places.
The March from Selma to Montgomery has its roots in Marion, Alabama. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in Marion by a state trooper during a peaceful protest for voter rights on February 18, 1965. This prompted the first attempt at a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Reverend Hosea Williams and John Lewis stepped from the pulpit of Brown Chapel Church and led 600 marchers six blocks to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where the Sheriff and mounted deputies met them with nightsticks and tear gas. Known as “Bloody Sunday” it sparked the expanded civil rights movement in Alabama.
We drove to Marion, Alabama on beautiful country roads. Marion, the college city, is only 28 miles away and is the county seat for Perry County. As a Californian, it is odd to have so many small counties, each with their own courthouse on a square, although it is charming architecturally. We were visiting my friend Dr. John Dorsey in Greensboro, Alabama. We needed an accessible accommodation, so we reserved rooms at the Sleep Inn in Marion. Greensboro is so small the only sleep options are bed and breakfasts and AirBnB.
Marion is also the home of the Marion Military Institute and Judson College, so it is nicknamed, “College City.” The Marion Military Institute has been preparing young men for college and military service for over 165 years. Judson College was originally a “ladies college” or finishing school and has evolved into a liberal arts college. The town of Marion is a classic southern county seat with a courthouse in the middle of a gracious town square. Marion can also claim Coretta Scott King as one of their own.
It was a home game for Alabama so Greensboro had many people driving through from Mobile and stopping at the Pie Lab. My friend Dr. John Dorsey arrived in Greensboro 13 years ago and the downtown was almost empty. He came to serve as a psychiatrist in a rural community and try some ideas about affordable homes with supportive services in a lower cost area. Project Horseshoe Farm has grown and the 15 fellows that are living and working in the community, along with the Rural Studio students created an economic spark and now there is a gym, The Stable coffeehouse, Pie Lab, several retail shops, and more.
Hale County, just 10 miles down the road from Greensboro, is the home of Auburn University’s School of Architecture Rural Studio. The students are required to design, fundraise, and build their final project. Many of their projects are in Hale County or in Greensboro. It is world-renowned and a terrific resource in the Black Belt of Alabama.
I used to live in Pacific Grove in the mid-80s. A lot has changed since then, and at the same time it is still a delightfully “normal” place to visit. The neighborhoods and downtown on Lighthouse Avenue are charming. It is bounded by Ocean View Avenue with a rugged and beautiful coastline. I prefer to stay here over any other part of the Monterey Peninsula.
In the past I have stayed at motels and hotels. This visit I am with my daughter and her family so we rented a home. We looked on VRBO and Airbnb and we found the 2 bedroom 2 bath home we are renting on Airbnb. It has been more comfortable than 2 hotel rooms and about the same price.
We can cook meals.
There is a living room where Calvin can make play with his toys (and make a mess).
We can play dominoes at the dining table and laugh without worrying about waking up a sleeping toddler.
There is a debate raging about the phenomenon of vacation rentals and how it is changing the neighborhoods and city finances of Pacific Grove (PG). My daughter saw a sign for Measure M. I did some research and learned that Monterey and Carmel have tight restrictions on the vacation rental market and PG does not. Also residents have been complaining about over-concentrations of homes for short-term rent for over 3 years and the city council had not taken any action. I had noticed that many of the motels and hotels had vacancy signs, which is uncommon in my memory. There is usually some kind of conference going on at Asilomar or tourism that keeps them near full.
We were walking on Asilomar Beach with Calvin and a dog and then another 2 year old and her dad joined us. We did the usual back and forth about the kids and then he asked where we were staying. We admitted that we were staying in a home nearby. He shared his frustration with the vacation rental situation. “They aren’t paying the taxes they owe the city.” He also alluded to the partying and recently moving from Nashville, which was a party town, he was hoping to escape that scene. Sarah and I weren’t quite sure what his point was as we haven’t witnessed anything but deer roaming the streets and senior citizens power walking in the neighborhood. I mentioned that my neighbor has dedicated his investment property (across the street from me in Midtown Sacramento) for AirBnB rental. People are coming and going during the week and weekends. They typically empty a lot of “bottles” into the recycling, but to be fair, they have yet to disturb anyone.
As a consumer of temporary housing when I travel, I appreciate the range of choice available today. At the same time I am also sympathetic to the challenges it creates, especially in housing markets where rentals are already scarce and prices are rising. I also remember the signs posted in Venice, Italy protesting Airbnb and the perceived effect that it was pricing “real Venetians” out of Venice.
As we walked back to the car, Sarah and I discussed our conversation with the local who is going to vote to limit vacation rentals to the coastal zone (1 mile from coastline) and the business district. He wasn’t unfriendly, just frustrated. We wondered if we shouldn’t have rented the home we are staying in, and decided that we were unaware of the controversy, we are in the coastal zone, and it isn’t illegal. We’d like to come every year, so we’ll have to think through our options next year. Also, does Airbnb pay the local transient occupancy tax or expect hosts to do so?
When I lived here in the 80s, the prices were climbing well beyond the ability of people mostly working service jobs to afford to buy. Then the problem was that some of the supply was taken off the market by people who could afford to buy a second or third home on the Peninsula. They only spent a few weeks a year in Carmel or Pebble Beach and this had a ripple effect in the entire housing market. The Airbnb phenomenon makes it possible for upper middle class people to buy a vacation home and afford it thanks to additional rents.
It is complicated. When Airbnb started I thought it was restricted to host-occupied residences. It was both the attraction and the turn-off. I prefer a hotel to a Bed & Breakfast because I prefer to be left alone. Now it has become a platform for entrepreneurs with enough cash to invest in a dedicated vacation property. I use ride sharing services and appreciate the greater availability of cars where I am, the app’s easy way to pay, but it has not been so great for taxis. A lot of these apps disrupt the existing order of things and create new opportunities for consumers and the industrious. Hopefully Pacific Grove will find the right balance.
Been thinking about the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten in the USA at Empire in Portland, Maine. Is it too far to drive from Boston just for dinner? That block is almost perfect as it also has the Speckled Ax coffee cafe. Beware, this is what a visit to Maine can do. I just want to go back.
We stayed in a terrific AirBnB outside of Portland. Then we drove to Rockport and Camden for a relaxing day of looking a beautiful coastline, shopping and good food.
We spent time in Portland too. It was difficult to leave but the traffic on a weekend is a challenge. Next time I’ll go midweek and give myself enough time to see Arcadia National Park.
I came to Italy to view the Giro d’Italia bike race. I could not help but notice the many dogs. Italians love their pooches very much. They have more mutts than in France. I especially enjoyed the dogs of Venice. I saw all of these dogs in one long walk.
Venice is becoming a kind of National Trust like amusement park. Fewer people actually live here full time. I saw one sign that expressed one Venetian’s anger at tourists who stay at AirBnB because people are buying up homes to let out. There are still a lot of dogs!
The most popular dog in Italy appears to be the Jack Russell terrier. There were also a surprising number of Boston terriers throughout Tuscany.
Seeing all of these dogs makes me miss Lulu! I will be home soon.
Alameda is a charming historic community on two small islands. The naval station (now closed) played a vital role in World War II. Alameda is now a vibrant smallish community in the heart of the Bay Area.
It is an ideal place for rowing and sailing with at least one America’s Cup teams headquartered here.
There are great places to eat and many establishments take advantage of the tremendous view of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco.
You can reach Alameda by car or ferry. There is a terrific bike shop in downtown where you can rent bikes and ride out to the point and see the naval buildings and ships, or dine al fresco at Scolaris, wine taste at Rock Wall, or try Hangar Ten vodka and spirits.
Alameda would be a great place for a weekend getaway. There are not a lot of traditional lodging options in Alameda; however, there are numerous opportunities on Airbnb and several holiday accommodations on TripAdvisor.