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Are Main Streets a thing of the past? Is that OK?

Kaid Benfield

Posted February 4, 2013 in Living Sustainably

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  Broadway Street, Cottonwood Falls, KS 2011 (c) Sandy Sorlien, courtesy of the photographer

As someone whose job is to promote sustainability in our communities, I sometimes think the traditional American Main Street is a terrific model worth preserving and emulating.  It meets so many of the basic aspirations of smart growth:  it’s walkable, compact, centrally located, with many types of shops and services integrated together, usually with places to live on upper floors or in houses a short walk away.  It has a human scale, neither skyscrapers nor sprawl but something in between.  Does the past point the way to a more sustainable future?  Some smart observers strongly believe so.

But, when it comes to “Main Street,” the definition can get a little fuzzy.  The Cambridge Dictionary of Essential American English is as good a place as any to start:  Main Street is “the main road in the middle of a town where there are stores and other businesses.”  The Oxford English Dictionary cites usages going back as far as 1598.  When those of us in the field of placemaking use the phrase, we’re generally thinking of the kind of shopping districts that used to serve smaller towns and cities.  Frequently the shops and services were aligned adjacent or close to each other along the most prominent street in town, which many places literally called Main Street.

  Broad Street, Nevada City, CA (Early Morning) 2011 (c) Sandy Sorlien, courtesy of the photographer

But today, “Main Street” has also become a metonym, used to symbolize much more than a literal street or commercial district.  We hear politicians and political pundits proclaim that “we don’t want policies that help Wall Street but hurt Main Street,” opposing the two phrases to represent big business, and ordinary people, respectively.  The Collins English Dictionary agrees.  Its second definition for Main Street is “ordinary people in general.”  The association with small towns is also well established.  Sinclair Lewis begins his classic 1920s novel Main Street with this sentence:  “This is America – a town of a few thousand, in a region of wheat and corn and dairies and little groves.”

Architects and planners may use “Main Street” to represent a newer walkable commercial strip modeled after the classic Main Streets of towns past. 

  Hibbing, MN by and courtesy of Sandy Sorlien, Transect Collection

For sure, though, “Main Street” is an established icon of traditional America, along with the family farm and Thanksgiving turkey dinners.  It’s now something that used to be, much more than something that is, and it has become suggestive of values that many continue to hold dear – of community, of a work ethic, of individualism in business, of an environment where crime is rare, to name four. 

I just plugged the phrase into Amazon’s search engine and it delivered an astounding 47,279 results.  There’s overlap, of course – five of the first six results are different editions of the Sinclair Lewis novel – but you’ll also find several movies, the famous Rolling Stones album some think to be their best (Exile on Main Street) a book on climate change (High Tide on Main Street), an electric guitar, women’s shoes, and a book on how to eat (Main Street Vegan), among many, many other things.  Association with Main Street sells, apparently.

  Main Street, Chillicothe, OH 2011 (c) Sandy Sorlien, courtesy of the photographer

As you can see in these highly evocative photos by Sandy Sorlien, though, a lot of once-thriving, literal Main Streets are now dead or hanging by a thread.  In some cases you can say the same about the towns they inhabit, as I wrote in my post, “Are You Ready for the Country?” some time ago, focusing on Fulton, Indiana; Chesnee, South Carolina; and Yreka, California.  My collaborator Lee Epstein explored some of the causes and possible remedies last fall. 

Even the Main Streets that are relatively healthy today evoke the past, not the present.  It's not a coincidence that the best-known program on Main Streets sponsored by an advocacy organization is housed in the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

  George Washington Highway, Gormania, WV 2011 (c) Sandy Sorlien, courtesy of the photographer

Sandy Sorlien is a professional photographer, writer and educator who, because of an editorial assignment early in the last decade, became acquainted with the architecture and planning field of new urbanism and was strongly drawn to it because so much of her work had been spent photographing the old urbanism on which the new is based.  (The new-mimicking-old meme recurs often in this post.)  The key event was her participation in the Mississippi Renewal Forum organized by the Congress for the New Urbanism after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  (I think that may rank as the new urbanists’ finest moment to date.  I’m both a longtime CNU member and occasionally a CNU critic, but that particular effort to assist the rebuilding of a devastated region – all volunteered time – was supremely laudable.) 

Sandy – we know each other a little, though not really well yet, through mutual friends – “got the bug,” as we used to say when I was growing up.  Her own words:  “Suddenly I was a full-time code writer and planner, and teacher of coding workshops.  This work took me far beyond the Gulf Coast, to at least twenty American cities and five countries.”  She was working on a book of Main Street photos when the Katrina work interrupted the book and changed her life.  Sandy is still deeply involved in new urbanism, but also returning to the book-in-progress, with the working title The Heart of Town: Main Streets in America.  She graciously agreed to allow me to use her photos for this post. 

  Main Street & US 50, Hasty, CO (c) 2011 Sandy Sorlien, courtesy of the photographer

One of the causes of the decline of real Main Streets is that the scale of the retail economy in our country has changed so dramatically since their heyday, with expansionist and successful superstores and national chains leaving little room for small, local businesses to prosper.  It also must be said that even small local businesses, if successful, typically want to expand and proliferate – it seems an axiom of capitalism – and the results may be something beyond what the Main Street model can hold.  (It’s interesting to consider that perhaps our most iconic manifestation of sprawl, Walmart, once was a local, small business on a Main Street in a small town.)

  Main Street, Austin, NV 2011 (c) Sandy Sorlien, courtesy of the photographer

In a closely related point, Main Streets have also faded because of the proliferation of suburban sprawl, which sapped the life and investment out of traditional community centers, including small downtowns.  Ironically, the big indoor shopping malls that dominated American retail – and, to an extent, cultural – life in the 1970s through the 1990s were themselves modeled after authentic Main Streets, but with all the physical environment developed at the same time and all the shops placed in highly controlled indoor environments that one could reach only by driving.  Once indoors, though, the shopping and strolling atmosphere was car-free. 

In an era when (sadly) many white people were afraid of cities, highly controlled suburban environments became the antidote.  When I was in my early teens in a small southern city, you went downtown for shopping and chance encounters with friends; by the time I graduated from law school, people went to the malls.  The suburban teens in my extended family still do. 

  Main & North, Flora, IL 2011 (c) Sandy Sorlien, courtesy of the photographer

Oddly (from today’s perspective), in the 1970s and 1980s, some cities tried to compete with the suburbs by creating mall-like environments on what used to be their more authentic shopping streets downtown.  It didn’t work, and in some cases only accelerated the decline of traditional commercial strips.  Today, it is the suburban malls that are on the decline, and some of those disinvested urban districts are revitalizing and reclaiming their urban commercial streets, my favorite example being Crown Square in Old North Saint Louis

Meanwhile, in the suburbs, some developers have been building “lifestyle centers” outdoors, with actual streets, creating a commercial-district model somewhat closer to authentic Main Streets in design.  But, really, it’s just taking the concept of the indoor mall, whose design was partly based on attributes of traditional streets, and removing the enclosure.  This, too, is ironic, because the oldest suburban shopping centers (for example, Atlanta’s Lenox Square) were first built outdoors and only later converted into enclosed malls.  (Lifestyle centers seemed to be building momentum around the time that the great recession killed just about all suburban development, so I don’t know whether the model has a future or not.) 

  Rocheport, MO by and courtesy of Sandy Sorlien, Transect Collection

Some of these new places can be pleasant in their way, but they don’t feel anything like real Main Streets to me.  Neither do any others that are part of new developments.  They may be something else that’s OK (for instance, the very pleasant and successful Bethesda Row in suburban Maryland), but to me they aren’t Main Streets, no matter what the developers and their designers call them (and no matter whether their designers consider their work progressive or not).  I think that’s because true Main Streets grew organically, a shop at a time, each designed by a separate architect and built for a separate owner.  The shoe store wasn’t designed and built by the same people at the same time as the restaurant to its left or the hardware store to its right.  Each property was individually owned.  I’m not sure any one developer or planner can re-create that kind of environment in something totally new.

The places in America that still have successful Main Streets likely have special economic circumstances, such as a tourist economy, a truly remote location, or a surrounding or nearby wealthy suburb whose residents like the historic, walkable atmosphere for certain occasions but go to the mall or a big-box to buy clothing or electronics.

  Newport, RI, by and courtesy of Sandy Sorlien, Transect Collection

But should we care?  A by-the-numbers environmentalist may not have a reason to:  if land consumption is reasonably limited by new models, if places are walkable and reduce car trips and emissions by placing shops, services and people close together, if they are well located (and especially if also transit-served), why worry if someone’s sentimental bit of Americana isn’t what it used to be?  There’s no need for a horse-and-buggy or an icebox anymore; maybe we no longer need a barbershop next to a children’s clothing store next to an insurance office, either. 

That’s true to an extent but, personally, I care about more than the numbers.  We do need new places to have the right characteristics, but to me there remains something profoundly lonely in the decline of the old, as Sandy captures so well in her work.  There’s also loneliness in dead big boxes and empty malls.  But there’s not the same sense of loss.

  Elm & Main, Rocky Ford, CO 2011 (c) Sandy Sorlien, courtesy of the photographer

If you live in or near Philadelphia, you can attend a program later this month featuring Sandy and Temple University professor Miles Orvell, author of The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community.  The announcement suggests that they will be delving into some of these very questions:

“What is an American Main Street?  Is it a memory or image that has been perpetuated through American writing and art?  A real space within new urbanist town planning?  Or is it a place where some are welcome and others are shunned?  Perhaps it is all of the above.  Join us to examine these real and imagined notions of American main streets . . .”

For more of Sandy’s great Main Street images, go here.  For her blog Street Trip, go here

  Fishkill, New York by and courtesy of Sandy Sorlien, Transect Collection

(Please note:  Sandy Sorlien's photos have full copyright protection except for those from the Transect Collection - noted when you move your cursor over the image - which are licensed for educational use.)

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Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media. For more posts, see his blog's home page. Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channels.

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Comments (Add yours)

Sandy SorlienFeb 4 2013 11:55 AM

Kaid, thanks so much for a provocative post on my favorite topic, and for involving my pictures in the conversation. It made me think about the role of the interpreter, whether photographer or writer or planner, in something I'll call "truth of place" for lack of a better term. ("Authenticity" is so overused so I'm not sure what people mean by it anymore.) Some of my pictures tell a truth of place that may not be entirely fair to some of the individual Main Streets. For example, the Nevada City CA image, the gray-and-brown one with the double false front, seems forlorn, but during business hours the street is hopping. I hadn't quite realized it before, but when I find the lonely picture in the thriving place (usually at the Hopperesque time of Early Sunday Morning), I am projecting both a memory and a warning.

Just one more quick comment for now - I'd add college towns to your list of the places with thriving Main Streets. They seem authentic (oops) because they have useful shops like hardware and shoe stores, whereas those tourist attractors, the "Main Street museums" called out by the brown signs on the bypass, may only feature gifts and antiques amidst their preserved architecture. That means the locals still have to drive out to the sprawl zone for their hardware and shoes. That's a situation that must change if we are to support walkable communities. New or old, Main Streets need to be accessible from and supportive of the surrounding dwellings. So, yes, we should care about that part, at least.

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 4 2013 02:47 PM

Nice thoughts, Sandy. I agree about college towns. Franklin Street in Chapel Hill retains a "truth of place," for example.

I was aware that you had taken the Nevada City shot in the early morning when one might not expect much activity, and that it could fail to capture a liveliness that could occur at other times. So, that may be Nevada City's truth but it's not the truth of the photo, you know? To me, the photo depicts a place very much of another time. The window plantings, parking meters, and hanging plants suggest contemporary possibilities for someone who looks that close.

But your artistic choice was clear, or so it seems to me. Of the 12 photos in the post, only two show people, and both are from your Transect Collection, not your Main Streets collection. Perhaps I made some choices, too, wanting to convey the very real issue of many once-thriving Main Streets that no longer are. "I am projecting both a memory and a warning" rings true for both of us.

Sam JoslinFeb 4 2013 07:49 PM

When I move through many of the old Main Streets here in central Illinois, I think of European paintings of commoners amongst the ruins of Roman towns--people completely incapable of restoring the glory that was. Then I notice two things: the lack of both ruins and people. If the Internet has any value at all, perhaps we can use it to match the right people, operating or wanting to operate at the right scale, with the right amount of capital for these still-useful buildings.

dan reed!Feb 4 2013 10:31 PM

Kaid, I like your writing, but I'm disappointed by your comments about Bethesda Row. For starters, Bethesda (like Silver Spring, Arlington, Hyattsville, etc.) is one of many towns in Greater Washington that was first built around transit, whether streetcars or the railroad. Like those towns, Bethesda has an actual downtown, of which Bethesda Row is a small part. Given, you might argue that Bethesda Row has taken some emphasis away from Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda's historic Main Street, I wouldn't call it an "inauthentic" space.

Unlike some "lifestyle centers" that are just an outdoor mall surrounded by parking, Bethesda Row has housing and offices in addition to retail and is fully integrated into the urban fabric. It's served by one (eventually two) rail lines, several bus routes, and a regionally significant trail. Maybe it doesn't seem "authentic" now (which I would argue is a pretty subjective term), but it has the right bones and with time could evolve into a more "real" place, whatever that means.

As I like to say, the buildings may seem fake, but the people are real, and they cherish Bethesda Row as not only a place to spend money but a gathering place. The same happens in downtown Silver Spring (my hometown), Clarendon, or any number of "fake" Main Streets in the DC area. The alternative isn't some mythical "real" Main Street that, it's urban sprawl. And you and I can both agree that sprawl is not socially, economically or environmentally desirable.

Christine ShenotFeb 4 2013 11:26 PM

Thanks for another great blog post Kaid. A thought-provoking discussion of the unique attributes of a Main Street and the blurring of the lines in more recent efforts to create the same in a different mold.

Loved Sandy's pictures -- and your question of whether it's a thing of the past.... and is that OK? You nailed it!

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 5 2013 12:58 AM

Dan, please read the linked article on Bethesda Row. I called it "the country's best suburban retrofit." Earlier, I put it on the cover of one of my books. I wrote a letter supporting it in the face of NIMBY opposition, including someone who threatened to take my organization out of her will because of it. NO ONE is a bigger fan of Bethesda Row than I am!

SteveFeb 5 2013 09:11 AM

Kaid, there's one big difference between Main Streets and shopping malls that give reason for hope: because most of the buildings on Main Street were built with varying degrees of lovability, we tend to retain them even if they're only used for storage in times of decline. Shopping malls, which were most often built in highly unlovable fashion, are regularly bulldozed. Ever hear of someone bulldozing an entire Main Street?

BTW, thanks for populating this post with Sandy's excellent photos! And delighted to hear that you're working on the book again, Sandy! My editor arrives from New York today, and I'm hoping to wrap up my latest book, New Media for Designers + Builders, which has been in the works for a couple years, complete with many stops and starts. It's great that a book is something you can return to, even after years away, and it's still there, waiting for you to finish it!

Rod StevensFeb 5 2013 09:39 AM

One reason many of these places are still lifeless is that they have yet to find a new use. The standard strategy in most places is to bring back the retail by positioning it as a higher-service alternative to Wal-Mart and the big box stores. Unfortunately, in many places not enough people want this service to make a difference.

The alternative strategy is to think about employment uses and to build demand for the place from the inside out, i.e. the second floors of buildings and the back streets. This can work when the main street is part of a larger regional economy and there is demand for small offices. Palo Alto is an extreme example, but much of the vitality of the main streets on the San Francisco now comes from the fact that they are walkable places within reasonable commute distance of the CalTrain stops, and that the young people populating the tech start-ups do not want to work in isolated business parks. These places do need coffee to be walkable, and a modicum of stores, but not the depth of retail that would otherwise make up a specialty store complex that is sought in so many revitalization strategies.

Where might this strategy work? Wherever there is already a lot of business development and people are growing out of their home offices. Think, in particular, university towns like Davis and Fort Collins, as well as traditional farming towns that are now near tech centers, like Hillsboro, Oregon.

The other alternative, one sharply different from the traditional retail retail strategy, is to populate those back streets with flex space and the new craft manufacturers. West Berkeley is alive with these. The new/old industrial there is located just a few blocks south of Fourth Street, one of the Bay Area's premier shopping streets, although in truth it has its own restaurant where people go for coffee and business meetings.

The point is that retail isn't the only answer. In fact, in some places like downtown Tacoma, on Opera Alley, the streets are becoming more like neighborhood centers than the old commercial centers from the 1920's era. Increasingly, in bigger cities like Portland, sections of the old downtown are becoming more neighborhood-like, more local, less regional. Maybe it's time for the small towns of America to try this as well.

Cameron MuhicFeb 5 2013 09:44 AM

Kaid, great posting! It got me thinking--has anyone sat down and imagined how we might want to plan retail areas for communities in the future?

I mean..letting our imaginations go without trying to hitch ideas to the past. What would we plan if we were planning a new town in a whole new world without thinking about what worked in the past, but thinking about how people might want to live in the future. Would we want downtowns, or retail clusters in neighborhoods or would everything be delivered, and if so, how do we build homes and apartment buildings to allow for delivery when people aren't at home--that kind of brainstorming.

I'm not saying we should do away with the idea of downtowns (I love downtowns myself)-but are we allowing our comfort with past ideas blind us to planning for a sustainable future? I'd really like to see the results of such a brainstorming session. It could help give some guidance about ideas for the future.

Scott JonesFeb 5 2013 01:54 PM

The article points out all of the reasons we want Main Streets so I won't repeat them. However, Main Streets won't come back until governments get serious on cracking down on sprawl & big box development. Big Box discount retailers are the #1 reason why Main Streets are hurting. Retail square footage should be capped at what would be required for a mid-sized grocery store. You can still have businesses in a Main Street with a big box around but they will tend to be bars, restaurants, & junk shops (with vacancies in between). Discount retailers can still exist! They just need to be moderately sized and placed within a walkable downtown shopping district--as the author pointed out, this is how WalMart started.

However, until folks in these small towns and cities decide to crack down on their beloved big box retailers, their (also) beloved main streets will continue to suffer.

Daniel MoralesFeb 6 2013 09:00 PM

I think it's fair to talk about the history of our country's transportation policy when talking about the state of main streets across America. The highway system that either avoided many mainstreets or came through like a wild bull dozer did more than anything to seal the fate of many a main streets. By fundamentally switching our development pattern from trains to cars, we placed convenience over place making.

One clear sign of main street's continued economic viability as a model is all the life style centers, Bethesda Row's and new town centers that have sprouted up. If Obama get's his shoulders behind a transportation Marshall plan and tries to re-orient our future back to a rail model, we'll see main streets come back in full force, allthough maybe not many of these beautifully photographed here.

As to you point of the fine grained character of main street's being unable to handle larger or growing establishments, they've always been able to handle growth through the aggregation of several lots into a larger building. Some stores are here to stay, like the super stores, but even they can exist at the fringes of new mainstreets like the semi-industrial uses that existed where Bethesda Row currently sits.

Love your work.

Sandy SorlienFeb 7 2013 12:44 PM

I agree with Daniel's call for a transportation Marshall Plan. Today I was discussing with photographer Jeff Brouws the rails-to-trails movement and how it has taken over some railroad ROWs we may wish we had back. The Rails-WITH-Trails idea is much better. There are scads of one-sided Main Streets enfronting the rail line and centering on the closed or repurposed station. Some of those are quite derelict. Hard to say whether the rail left first or the town declined first, but no doubt those actions feed each other.
Here's Jeff's series on rail ROWs. http://www.jeffbrouws.com/series/main_rrl.html
Here's the website for Rails-With-Trails. http://railswithtrails.com/

Andrea DonoFeb 8 2013 11:15 AM

Main Streets can and do compete effectively against big box stores, ecommerce, and other "threats" to their economy. It is about market analysis and figuring out what can set your district apart from the competition and meet the needs of your target customer base. You do this by leveraging assets - that is the core principle behind historic preservation-based economic development and the nationally successful Main Street Four Point Approach. One of their assets is their history and historic buildings (in addition to traditional neighborhood design/pedestrian-orientation, independent businesses, and so many other characteristics that people find appealing and that have economic value). There are hundreds of places that are successful historic commercial districts that aren't college towns or travel destinations/Main Street museums. Most of the ones I work with figure out a realistic economic market position and build their success from there. And the ones that are heritage tourism spots or college towns - more power to them - they have it a little bit easier than the rest to reinvent themselves but still need to appeal to their customers, investors, and residents.
You seem to be lamenting Main Streets as a thing of the past and blaming nostalgia for their decline. But doing so disregards the effectiveness in leveraging our history and historic build environment as the powerful asset that it is. We only lock Main Street in time when we demand that they stay the same and expect that we can still buy our tvs there. We must be progressive and move forward and realize big box stores sell basic goods and Main Street needs to go beyond offering basic.
I know you were trying to make a point - but using these photos to back up your belief that Main Streets' time has passed is powerfully persuasive but tells an incomplete story. I guess much in the same way I could do if I posted photos of wild vibrancy of small downs during a peak shopping hour or event and declare all Main Streets are saved. There is an accurate middle ground here.
But the social sustainability piece of the value of Main Street and the environmental value alone of the embodied energy and investments in money and materials should be a no brainer for people to revitalize instead of building new.
I counter your position in my blog this week. Density is great, but density doesn't trump all elements of sustainable community development and nostalgia isn't fueling the economic development strategy that's bringing $53 billion in reinvestment to US downtowns.
Lastly, I appreciate the efforts of the volunteers for CNU who wanted to help post-Katrina cities. However, I would love to see a blog that follows up on the success of implementation. A lot of innovative and progressive recommendations were shared, but the folks down there who I know felt they weren't given the implementation support and also honestly felt the people and the context of those communities were ignored and often called those technical assistance visits and their recommendations "elitist." There was a disconnect on a few levels - at the very least with public perception.
Please see my blog reply to your post at citythrive.blogspot.com.

Michael TolleFeb 8 2013 06:31 PM

Congratulations on a great blog, and on stimulating discussion on my favorite topic. The comments, particularly those that address the "why it happened," or "how can be bring them back," by Scott Jones and Daniel Morales, inspire me to offer a contribution: my just-published book "What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls." It's a case study of the collapse of a long-established, classic downtown, centered on yes, Main Street. I examine the usual suspects--The King of Prussia Mall being the best known--but find causality at a more fundamental level, one that still speaks--or should--to those who would design a more livable city. It's available at www.whatkilleddowntown.com, or directly from Amazon.
I would very much appreciate online feedback from anyone who reads the book.

Daniel MoralesFeb 8 2013 08:53 PM

I think another aspect to main street's decline is the conversion of the architectural establishment after WWII to modernism. It's anti-historical and pro-automobile orientation was devastating to what traditional main streets offered, community. In the onslaught of newly strengthened corporate America that had to sell its vast manufacturing capabilities, what better way than to create your market, and that's where the archtiectural establishment was complicit. Deriding the very fabric of mainstreets, the grand majority of which where lined with loathsome historical revival buildings was anathema to the brave new world architects where taught to promote. Everything new was lauded while everything old-fashion was disposable. One thing was to abandone the buildings, but why did they tear so many of them down? There where misguided tax incentives, red-lining, and block busting to be sure, but the public who saw these mainstreets as the centers of thier community found no quarter from the very profession who was tasked to look out for them. To a large extent we are still stuck in this paradigm, but thanks to the grass roots of people like some posters here show the tide is slowly changing. People need real community for mental health, not just a hundred virtual friends.

Jim WellsFeb 10 2013 01:20 PM

IMHO, the decline of most "Main Streets" mirrors the decline of employed Americans. Similarly, the substitution of Wall Street for Main Street by the US banking industry led to an increasingly inhospitable environment for American of modest means. Reclaiming the prominence of "Main Streets" is the best hope for many financially-distressed communities to put people back to work and revive their local economies.

Bruce DonnellyFeb 10 2013 04:29 PM

Kaid,

You may find this essay from Strong Towns (Chuck Marohn) interesting. It's on the merchant class, and may help clarify some of your thinking.

Bruce DonnellyFeb 10 2013 04:33 PM

Hmm. The swirly thing went round and round--and only part got posted.

Anywho, here's the link:
http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2012/12/3/the-little-fellers.html#comments

I think that the building forms are all mixed up in the merchant-class experience.

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 11 2013 05:57 PM

Bruce, did it clarify some of your own thinking? If so, I'll tell Chuck at dinner tonight.

Matt LathamFeb 12 2013 04:56 PM

One crucial component of the diagnosis for main street decline has been left out... that is, lack of population! Even small towns have seen a drift to their "suburban" areas near the major highway, or people just leaving town in search of opportunities elsewhere. The families that stay behind are having fewer children. Therefore, there is not enough population left to support the specialty shops that are not in direct competition with the big box just outside of town. For main streets to thrive, they still need to have people living around them. It's a transportation policy issue to be sure, but also a demographic issue.

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 13 2013 06:00 PM

I couldn't agree more, Matt. The flight of people and investment to suburban sprawl hurt small towns and cities every bit as much as it hurt larger cities. Lee Epstein wrote about it in his essay, The fall - and rise - of small downtown America.

Daniel MoralesFeb 14 2013 03:23 PM

One needs to ask why these towns didn't keep growing into cities as had been the case for a thousand years and instead the population moved out to the suburbs. Government subsidized highway construction and dismantling of the railway system allowed the post war construction boom to move from traditional town development patterns to a suburban model based on cheap land in green fields. Thankfully this phenomena is grinding down becasue of it's natural limits, but I think it's fair to say that in some part, mainstreets failed by design.

Kirk WestphalFeb 14 2013 04:11 PM

As we all know, our country knowingly subsidized a way of life that stole the breath out of the hearts of our communities. And even now, unless you're in the 3 or 4 larger cities where it's downright inconvenient to own a car, our cities depend on that terribly accurate word "shoppertainment" to survive. It's what we can do now on a local level, and that's reality. Our cities can be made healthier through zoning reform, purposeful residential density increases, transit, historic preservation, retail control (no banks) and the like.

What's disappointing to me (and many others in the choir) is that we are so, so far away from stopping the suburban subsidies. Forget about any kind of policy to "un-do" the unsustainable country we've wrought; our federal and state representatives seemingly cannot even entertain assigning costs of sprawl to their rightful owners. As we watch our highways and bridges fall apart—and even folks like the president of the US Chamber of Commerce call for a significant gas tax—our politicians stand mute. Why?

Scott HansonFeb 22 2013 07:21 PM

As an architectural historian I am generally in agreement with you on the topic, however I would like to challenge one of your assumptions - that historic main streets all developed slowly and represent the work of many architects. In fact, a great many small cities in America suffered devastating fires in the 19th and early 20th centuries that caused their commercial downtowns to be rebuilt in a short time. In smaller cities, often only one or two architects were available and consequently designed most of the buildings. A few examples: Portland, ME burned in 1866, by 1868 the burned district was largely rebuilt and Francis H. Fassett had designed the majority of the new buildings. Eastport, ME lost its entire commercial center in 1886. Architect Henry N. Black designed 27 of the 29 buildings still standing. They share many design elements and clearly are related by more than style and period. Bangor, ME lost its downtown in 1911. Again, a single local architect designed most of the replacement buildings. Obviously this did not occur everywhere, but it occured enough to warrant a qualification on your description of historic main streets.

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