“Down on Main Street” – an interview with Kirin J. Makker

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This interview was published in the Summer 2014 issue of the Pulteney Street Survey, the official magazine of Hobart and William Smith Colleges.  The Summer ’14 issue was devoted to the community, including pieces on the town of Geneva where the college resides.

 

“Down on Main Street:  An Interview with Kirin J. Makker”

by Andrew Wickenden HWS’09

During a yearlong fellowship at the Winterthur Museum and Library in Delaware, made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Assistant Professor of Art and Architecture Kirin J. Makker is conducting research for her book project, The Myths of Main Street, which “analyzes how the current trope of Main Street USA (local, self-sufficient, close-knit, middle-class, homogenous) is challenged by a historical reality of networked, nationally-connected, diverse place.” The book is planned for publication in 2018.

An expert in the planning, history and evolution of small towns and rural areas, Makker is examining the developmental history of small town America during its building boom (1870-1930). The archives at Winterthur are providing much of the material she needs for several chapters of the book. She documents the progress of her research on a blog, mythsofmainstreet.wordpress.com, where she writes: “‘Main Street,’ whether in a town or city, symbolizes small business and everyday hard-working citizens. In a small town context, Main Street gains mythic ideals: it is non-corporate; it is imagined to be completely separate from urban society and its ills; it is believed to be solely guided by local people and ideas. Politicians and urban planners have attempted to recreate the small town American Main Street in revitalization building and suburbia. But professional planners are distracted by the myths of Main Street, dangerously basing policy and design decisions on nostalgia and artifice.”

Makker’s other book project, Village Improvement in America 1800-1930, is under contract with the Library of American Landscape History and is due out in early 2016. Makker also writes for the popular press, her most recent piece appeared in Dwell. Published in March 2014, the article profiles Amy and Brandon Phillips, owners of Miles & May Furniture Works headquartered at the Cracker Factory in Geneva, N.Y.

Q: Where did this idea of a nostalgic “Main Street” come from?

A: There are many answers to that question, so numerous that it’s impossible to identify just one source of nostalgic Main Street. In American and British planning, small towns have been a subject of study since the profession began in the late nineteenth century. People were fearful of dense industrial cities and larger villages, with their apparent self-sufficiency and easy access to the countryside fostered many theories about ideal places to live modeled on cities around 20-30,000 people. Ebenezer Howard’s 1902 concept of “garden cities” is probably the most well known example.

In popular culture, small towns have been narrative currency since their boom period in the 1880s; it’s often the case that ‘ideal’ versions of American concepts run parallel to the development of their inspiration. But to get back to your question, one way of looking at the source of nostalgic Main Street is to look at our recent history of small town preservation and the transformation of rural village economies from manufacturing and necessities-of-life small business to a set of shops purely about leisure and lifestyle. The source of this in the last quarter of a century is in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s launch of their Main Street Program, started in 1977. The program was started specifically to educate and help direct local rejuvenation campaigns in communities of 5,000 to 38,000 people. The program’s pilot towns were remarkably successful – Galesburg, Ill., for example, saw a 95% increase in downtown occupancy.

By the early 1980s, the National Main Street Center had grown into a robust economic revival model for small town America based in coordinated public-private partnerships, adaptive re-use, incremental growth, and clever promotional programs. The whole program was about developing a “tourist” economy using historic building stock, renovating it into a coordinated set of leisure-based businesses. Since 1980, there have been hundreds of towns across the U.S. that have successfully worked with the National Main Street Center and the program is responsible for fostering more than $55 billion in reinvestment. In addition, their approach and economic model has been used by thousands of other towns, even if these places don’t join the Center. It’s become THE approach to reviving small town America.

This is all wonderful, but there are things we should be wary of. Their formula- looking backward to an ideal Main Street- also traffics in nostalgia. There’s a little too much “remember when…” going on in the marketing materials of many small towns eager for a tourist market. This can backfire in terms of using this type of marketing to draw new residents. The whole look of the nostalgic Main Street is generally about giving visitors a way to step back in time and out of reality. I’m not certain that this strategy is the best for giving a town a vibrant future, where a diverse cross-section of people might want to make their lives. If you want to draw young people to a town, is “antiquing” it the only strategy worth pursuing? Is a Main Street of ‘leisure’ and ‘lifestyle’ ultimately going to foster a rich community life? Sure, it works and it’s better than a dead downtown, but can’t we do better and evolve this model? That’s my concern.

There is also a romance we associate with the architecture of Main Street that’s not accurate to its history of development. We tend to view it as a relic of simpler past, when people made things by hand, there wasn’t fierce competition or a need to get the cheapest good, and everything in one’s midst was made locally. The truth is that the beauty and quick growth of Main Street, its frenzy of economic and physical development, occurred because people were clever and took advantage of the latest technologies and markets. There was nothing quaint and simple about life on Main Street in 1900. One might even have called it “cutting edge”-they didn’t want to stay small, they wanted to be big and prosperous, however and in whatever method they could.

Q: What happened to small towns in the bust (the Great Depression) that followed the small town boom?

A: As cities struggled, so did small towns. But the truth is, small towns had always been struggling as a type of urban economy because they were not large, and thus their economy was typically less diverse than that in a dense city. When a market shifts, there are always remains of the previous boom, relics of a former time. Small towns are, and have always been, in a process of overcoming the position of being remains, just as cities have, but at a much slower rate of redevelopment. In a way, one of the reasons that the small town is a site of nostalgia is because it has been affected by busts and then has been very slow to recuperate, if it does at all in one person’s lifetime.

Q: What about today-what’s the outlook for small towns? What causes today’s Main Streets to thrive?

A: Twenty years ago, if a resident wanted to gather some neighbors together to sponsor a public art project, they had to go to the public library and do hours of research in periodicals or newspapers to find information on how to run a competition, select an artist, develop a PR campaign, fund-raise, work with the city to implement, etc. Now, you just do an hour of searching on the Internet and you’re suddenly connected with all the resources you need to mount the project successfully. Five years ago, you would not have seen a small downtown shop raise more than $8,000 in a six-week fundraising campaign in order to set up space on their second floor for drinking coffee and browsing through retail. But this year, that’s exactly what occurred in Geneva [at Stomping Grounds].

Whereas suburbia used to be the ideal among the young workforce, it’s clearly not the one and only American dream out there these days. Many young workers are choosing to live in urban settings. Small towns are not densely urban, of course, but they are sometimes preferred to surburbia by these folks.

Geneva has been on the upswing because it has an enlarging and active group of residents, a critical mass of people really invested in making the downtown into a livable neighborhood. But it’s not just that social networking has gathered interested parties in small towns together around the issue of livability and civic engagement (which it of course has), but it’s also that the small town resident can become so much more informed about possibilities and all the know-how needed to make the changes they want to see. Honestly, the future is very bright for small town America.

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Knowing your Place on Norman Rockwell’s Main Street

The Runaway, by Norman RockwellWho occupies the paintings of Norman Rockwell? What characteristics are imbued in the visual stories he tells?

Girl at the Mirror, by Norman RockwellBefore the ShotHoning in on a few of his most iconic works, we see the Rockwellian American. The Runaway, Girl at the Mirror, Before the Shot, Saying Grace, Breaking Home Ties, The Marriage License, and the blockbuster quad Four Freedoms, reveal a particular narrative about American life. Rockwell’s subjects are good citizens. Doctors take time with their patients. Policemen are just and kind. Tweens are not mean girls and their vanity is harmless. Little boys are not punks who throw rocks at windows. Adults smile and help each other out. Rockwell’s Americans are also pious. They go to church. They pray before a meal. They have family dinners. They hug each other. They enjoy a joke. They have modest aspirations. They know their place. They take care of each other. They are humble. They are honest. They are innocent. They’re not too big for their britches. They don’t abuse whatever power they have. They are moral. Their world is safe. They are honorable. They can take care of themselves. They get by happily. They don’t know suffering or poverty or the violence of crime. They don’t know the fear of racism or the humiliation of exclusion. The world is fair. The U.S. government is trustworthy. It was America in the 1940s, and 50s.   He didn’t paint war-wounded GIs fresh from the war, children born out of wedlock, mad men cheating on their wives, stock brokers cheating Americans. He painted the little guy prospering on Main Street.Saying Grace, by Norman Rockwell

Rockwellian Americans are not in big cities, on country estates, or in Levittown. They live in small cities and towns. They live amidst a simple democratic society on Main Street where, as President Obama recently put it, “everyone gets a fair share and a fair shot” at the American Dream. Commericial places are small and double as social spaces. Public places are intimate and communally-shared. Civic space is everywhere. Barbershops are where a men’s choral group practices. It’s perfectly okay to pray in a crowded café. The train station is where you say goodbye. The Breaking Home Ties, by Norman Rockwellsoda counter is where you are taken care of and looked after. The doctor’s office offers a glimpse of the tokens of higher education. A bedroom mirror shows you who you want to be rather than who you really are. The town office is where a marriage begins (rather than where one pays taxes).

The Marriage License

The Marriage License

The Four Freedoms

The Four Freedoms

These images and values may be considered outdated by many in post-9/11 world, in a time of global warming, the digital visualization revolution, and the entertainment imagery of such dark humor classics as Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black. Yet, the visual rhetoric of Rockwell’s Main Street did not disappear with the end of the twentieth century. When the towers fell, the New York Times ran full-page advertisements for the newspaper using a series of five Norman Rockwell paintings. As scholar Francis Faschina put it, these adverts were “signifiers of revisionist cultural values, selective sentiment, familiar security, and particular visions of the nation-state.”[i] After the 2008 economic crash, President Obama reassured the country that he would work to improve life for the middle class American, for those on “Main Street, not Wall Street.”

Norman Rockwell’s version of American life thus remains resonant. It is a visual rhetoric that locates the ideal locale for American prosperity in the small town on Main Street. Prosperity, too, is strictly defined by Rockwell. Success is: kindness, honesty, piety, shared community, family, humility, freedom of speech, freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of spiritual expression. It is not greed. It is not abuse of power. It is the very opposite of monumental. Rockwell may have employed a “realist” painting-style, but he did not convey it in the scenes he carefully staged and depicted in delicate detail. Rockwell’s America was during its own time, and will always be, mythical.

It is widely understood that Rockwellian America is integral to the Main Street rhetoric. He was and remains Main Street’s predominant propagandist. Scholars have explored the phenomenon of re-use and deployment of Rockwellian America during times of national crisis. It is widely understood that “Main Street” is powerful rhetoric, used by those marketing products and ideas to a broad cross-section of the American public, whether business leaders, politicians, activists or urban planners.  Yet, Main Street’s “place-based visual rhetoric” as a device in popular culture—from advertising to political rhetoric—is largely understudied. How does a value system become one with a specific cultural landscape, the small town? How does an idealized vision of Main Street become a delivery vessel for hoped-for behavior in Americans? The power of Rockwellian American goes far beyond the boundaries of paint and canvas. The place of Rockwell’s vision of American life—Main Street and the small town—have become part of a material culture and design rhetoric, meant to conjure behavior, values, community life. It may be nostalgic, but it is employed as if it is timeless.

I’ve been working steadily on an essay about Rockwellian America by focusing in on the one painting he did of a town (rather than a painting in a town). This unique painting is Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas. It was the widescreen version of Rockwellian America. It’s panoramic-style revealed what lay beyond the edges of his more intimate narrative works. It was the whole street, not just one porch or street corner. It was the whole community, not just a couple of people. As mentioned, this in the only cohesive image of Main Street he published (over 4000+ illustrations!). In contrast to the bulk of his oevre, Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas features buildings, elm trees, and street lights as his characters, rather than people with animated facial expressions. This painting was the widescreen version of Rockwellian America. It’s panoramic-style revealed what lay beyond the edges of his other and more intimate narrative works. It was the whole street, not just one porch or street corner. As a rendition of the town where all his 300+ Saturday Evening Post covers took place, this painting pointed to one town as the setting of Rockwellian America. Suddenly, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where the painter lived for the last twenty-five years of his life, was revealed to America as Rockwell’s inspirational source.

Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas

Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas

But the painting is unusual for Rockwell, the storyteller of American life in small towns. Rockwell typically staged his paintings with the people front and center. He produced rich and emotive narrative illustrations with a combination of sensitively rendered, sharpened, and finely detailed people accompanied by a selection of carefully staged props. “He was obsessed with faces and the human figure, and it would never have occurred to him, even as he sat in his studio surrounded by the majestic Berkshires, to paint a scene of mountains,” writes art historian Deborah Solomon.[ii]Rockwell was extraordinarily skilled at arranging a mise en scene with popular appeal (something not lost on one of his biggest fans, Steven Spielberg).[iii] Yet, people are not the subject of his painting of Stockbridge. Instead, buildings receive the most attentive detail.

Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas depicts a lively congenial and clean pedestrian marketplace of friendly strangers on a tiny commercial row. The architecture is highly crafted but modest. There is a decided absence of society’s social ills. The buildings, bright snow, and figure of a woman dragging a Christmas tree suggest New England. Picturesque elms, grandly lining the sidewalk patiently waiting for spring, suggest overall streetscape tidiness. The mid-century vehicles, already ten years old when the painting was finally published in 1967, lend an air of nostalgia, as does the warm glowing light from the shop windows. Beyond the buildings is an untarnished natural setting of hills with established and healthy forests. With this painting, Rockwell assured his audience that small town life was thriving where he lived.

However, Rockwell did more than paint buildings. He painted his town. The buildings are personally significant and, in a way, offer viewers a type of self-portrait. His first Stockbridge studio appears in the scene, precisely in the center of the painting. Instead of his figure in the window, however, we see a Christmas tree overlooking Main Street. His spot above Main Street assumed the position of the season’s “main” attraction. To the far left is the Old Corner House, the site of the first Norman Rockwell Museum. And at the far right, the viewer can just make out Rockwell’s home and second studio. Main Street is Rockwell. Christmas is Rockwell. Rockwell and the American small town are timelessly linked. [KJM]

Many thanks to Rosemary Krill at Winterthur Museum and Gardens for attentive editing on earlier drafts and helping me think through this work on Rockwell.

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[i] Francis Frascina, “The New York Times, Norman Rockwell and the New Patriotism,” Journa of Visual Culture 2:99 (2003). DOI 10.1177/147041290300200108

[ii] Deborah Solomon, “America, Illustrated,” New York Tims, July 1, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/04/arts/design/04rockwell.html?_r=0 (accessed January 15, 2013).

[iii] For an excellent discussion of Rockwell’s skill at scene arrangement with people and objects, see David Kamp, “Norman Rockwell’s American Dream,” Vanity Fair (November 2009).

Karal Ann Marling has written a book about Christmas imagery.  Part of her study includes a look at Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas.

When Good Morning America kicked off their whistle-stop tour during the 2008 presidential campaign, they chose Stockbridge as the departure locale. This woman was in the crowd. She is likely an employee of the Norman Rockwell Museum, just outside of town.

When Good Morning America kicked off their whistle-stop tour during the 2008 presidential campaign, they chose Stockbridge as the departure locale. This woman was in the crowd. She is likely an employee of the Norman Rockwell Museum, just outside of town.

Norman Rockwell in his studio with the Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas painting

Norman Rockwell in his studio with the Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas painting.  From the Norman Rockwell Museum archives.