pop quiz!

That’s right, a pop-quiz.

In lectures on my book research, I have occasionally started my talks with a blank slide that says “pop quiz” (I stole this brilliant idea from a colleague of mine when I was teaching at Smith College, in Northampton, MA and I have shamelessly employed it on many an occasion.  I don’t care who you are or if you’re 75 or 18, if someone standing at the front of the room says “pop quiz!” you find yourself uncontrollably attentive).

So here we go.

Question #1:  Where are we?

(by the way, you can relax, there is only one question on this pop quiz)

Slide1Typically everyone is quiet at first and I have to egg them on.  “Are we in one town or two or four? Are we in real towns or at Disney World? Are we in the South or Northeast?  Are we looking at towns that were built in the 19th century or 20th century?”

After a fair amount of guessing from folks, I throw up the next slide.

Slide2And (hopefully) my point is made:  Main Street has a “visual vocabulary” that spans every region of the United States.  This is just what small town America looks like!  It’s got highly ornamented two- and three-story buildings.  There are clean sidewalks with awnings to walk under.  The road is nicely graded.  There are streetlamps, the occasional park bench, trash receptacles, and maybe a finial here and there.  There are leafy street trees.

Then I tell them that all these pictures were taken in the 1990s or thereabouts.  If we look at pictures of small towns from the late 1800s, we might see something different:

dustytowns

Whoaa.  Where’s all the quaint prettiness?  Maybe we don’t know that much about Main Street.

My research looks at how Main Street happened — how it was physically built, assembled, styled, re-organized, and cleaned-up.  Digging around in archives has convinced me that we don’t know very much about the developmental history of Main Street, that we tend to accept some givens:  it was locally made, (“no corporate Wall Streeters on Main Street!”), conservative (“Why change?  It’s always worked!  We don’t need crazy new ideas from those city folk fussing with our way of life!”), and autonomous (“We look after our own! No outside influence here!”).   Along the way, Main Street, the physical place, became an archetype of American values.  Main Street is a physical place, but it’s also a community ethos.

So what?  What’s the big deal you ask?  (and more to the point, why am I digging around in archives about the developmental history of small town America?)

Well, in my profession (that’s architecture and urban planning), this Main Street imagery reigns a bit unquestioned in design proposals and policies.  And well, I have a problem with what feels too much like blind faith in a nostalgic idea about small town life.  I think we planners need to get more informed about what we’re referencing in our proposals — we have tended to recreate small town America in suburbia, as if the community ethos we associate with Main Street will magically grow from the ornamented buildings and streetscaping.

Hold on a minute! (you say)  You think planners are vacuous automatons, employing small town imagery without realizing that they are recreating a place from the past?

No. Of course not.  I’m a planner too, you know.  And I personally LOVE ye olde small town Main Streets.  I just think that the small town has more to offer contemporary planning and design than superficial imagery.

I believe that if we know a fuller story about what made the place we so admire and idolize, we will actually see that we can’t accept it at face value — that we will observe Main Street, the archetype, with a keener understanding of how complex a place it is and in our understanding of its complexity, see it as a place to learn from but not mimic.  We will see that Main Street was made because it was open to unconventional and innovative approaches to social governance, municipal planning, the importing and exporting of ideas.  It developed with the cities during America’s great period of urbanization, not independently of it.  Main Street occurred in concert with Wall Street. [KJM]

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