“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.

“Occupying” Main Street in the Jim Crow South

One of the broadly held myths of Main Street has to do with it being a place that serves everyone.  Need a hammer?  Get yours at the hardware store at the corner of Main and 2nd Street!  Want to get a haircut?  Go to the barbershop just down from the corer of Main and the Methodist Church. You might want to stop by their church bazaar at the same time and pick up a few tasty home baked goods.  Need a small business loan?  Go to the national bank on South Main Street.  You can get everything you need right here:  consumer goods, beauty services, church service, a beer or a meal, entertainment, bank loans, education, health care, funeral services, telegraph service, a telephone booth, and the U.S. Mail.  In addition, there are other things less easily defined that people get on Main Street; they get conversation, society, and communal membership.

But have you ever wondered how Main Street worked for African Americans during the Jim Crow era?  This is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.  What a puzzle!  Not intrigued?  Consider:

1)  Small town American Main Streets boomed between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression.
2)  Laws restricting African American use of public and private facilities—from restaurants to water fountains to barber shops—were on the books of states and local municipalities between roughly 1880-1965.

There’s an overlap in these time periods—which means that our “idea” of the thriving Main Street as the place where all Americans can get whatever they need cannot possibly be accurate.  How did African Americas in the Jim Crow south get loans from Main Street banks to buy farms and houses, or start businesses?  How did they gain access to schools or other educational civic institutions such as libraries or reading rooms?  How did they get insurance to care for the sick and bury their dead?  How did they tap into the social life and community of Main Street?

To get a sense of the cross section of Jim Crow laws and how they complicated access to Main Street amenities, I’m pasting below a sampling of state statutes, taken from the National Park Service’s website:

Libraries: Any white person of such county may use the county free library under the rules and regulations prescribed by the commissioners court and may be entitled to all the privileges thereof. Said court shall make proper provision for the negroes of said county to be served through a separate branch or branches of the county free library, which shall be administered by [a] custodian of the negro race under the supervision of the county librarian. Texas
Wine and Beer: All persons licensed to conduct the business of selling beer or wine…shall serve either white people exclusively or colored people exclusively and shall not sell to the two races within the same room at any time. Georgia
Barbers: No colored barber shall serve as a barber [to] white women or girls. Georgia
Burial: The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons. Georgia
Restaurants: All persons licensed to conduct a restaurant, shall serve either white people exclusively or colored people exclusively and shall not sell to the two races within the same room or serve the two races anywhere under the same license. Georgia
Restaurants: It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment. Alabama
Pool and Billiard Rooms: It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other at any game of pool or billiards. Alabama
Theaters: Every person…operating…any public hall, theatre, opera house, motion picture show or any place of public entertainment or public assemblage which is attended by both white and colored persons, shall separate the white race and the colored race and shall set apart and designate…certain seats therein to be occupied by white persons and a portion thereof , or certain seats therein, to be occupied by colored persons. Virginia
Telephone Booths: The Corporation Commission is hereby vested with power and authority to require telephone companies…to maintain separate booths for white and colored patrons when there is a demand for such separate booths. That the Corporation Commission shall determine the necessity for said separate booths only upon complaint of the people in the town and vicinity to be served after due hearing as now provided by law in other complaints filed with the Corporation Commission. Oklahoma

And these are only the laws on the books; what’s above is not what was casually practiced by white landlords, business owners, folks on the street.  This period was a terrible time for black people in America.  Thus while small town building boomed between 1870-1930, African American life was at its “nadir,” as historian Rayford Logan has termed the post-reconstruction period.  On all fronts—political, social, educational and economic, black people suffered.  Main Street had written and unwritten codes reinforcing segregation and exclusion, all in support of white supremacy.  Funny thing was, these codes were about reinforcing separation and preventing interracial activity that might have implied equality.  But while pro-Jim Crow whites worried about integration, this was not the primary concern for blacks.  What they wanted was access to the facilities and services Jim Crow separated them from.  As Ruby Cobb Smith, a black Texan put it in a 1927 speech to her community, “If I cannot go to the white man’s church, I must create a church.   If I cannot read books out of his library I must in some way get one of my own.  If I cannot clerk in his stores it is my job to get one of my own.”  As consumers, producers, and sellers, blacks wanted what Main Street offered.

My research into the question of how African Americans accessed the amenities of small town America during Jim Crow has yielded complex answers.  There were alternative constructed spaces, such as negro business districts and organizations that helped to support them such as the Negro Business League, started by Booker T. Washington in 1900 (smack the middle of Main Street’s development period and roughly 20 years into Jim Crow).  There were all-black towns, such as Mound Bayou, Mississippi, founded in 1887.  And finally, there were general “uplift” member-based organizations that offered a variety of financial, health, and educational services and community life to the rural and scattered black farmer in the south.  I’m going to finish this blog post by giving a little history of the Farmers Improvement Society (FIS), founded by R.L. Smith in 1885.

FIS ConstByLaws.RLSmithPhoto

R.L. Smith argued that even though black citizens were emancipated after the Civil War, they were still in a state of “economic slavery,” largely because they lived in debt and almost purely on credit. In fact, #1 in the group’s Declaration of Purposes is “To abolish the credit system completely, or as much as lies in our power.”

graphic from RITUAL.1925small

Graphic from inside the FIS booklet RITUAL (1925)

But as you can see from the graphic on the left, the FIS was aiming for a comprehensive approach to providing the resources and services of self-help.  Thinking back to what mythic Main Street symbolizes in terms of its amenities and open-access, it is, in a kind of collective imaginary way, a place of personal opportunity and self-help or uplift.  Main Street offers everything you need to better your situation, from that hammer to a hair trim to banking.

#2 in the FIS Declaration of Purposes is education about agriculture and good farming practice.  #3 is buying bulk supplies cooperatively, even if folks have to travel to a city to make the purchases (a sort of Cosco or Ikea run, 1895-style), so as not to live on credit at the local general store.

#4 is aiding each other in sickness and death (disability and death benefits were a major benefit of FIS membership, providing relief to the families who lost heads of household).

FIS insurance certificate

FIS Insurance Policy Certificate, 1904

And finally, #5, is encouraging members to buy homes and if they own homes, to beautify them and their surroundings: “repair our highways and keep them in order; to plant suitable shade trees and shrubbery; and in general to bring up our home life to the highest American standard compatible with our incomes.”

Yes, folks, Robert Lloyd Smith required members to promise to invest in the aesthetics of their homes and landscapes.  To Smith, cash-based living, economy, agricultural science, death benefits, and home beautification were all part of a magical formula for lifting folks up out of a rough, if not economically desperate, situation.  To an architect like me, this is a fantastic sentiment.  Let’s approach these problems from several vantage points:  economic thrift and resourcefulness, education, and pride of place.

Smith established the first Farmers Improvement Society chapter in a tiny segregated town in East Texas named Oakland in December 1890.  There were roughly 200 black citizens at that time and nearly all of them became involved with the organization.  Within ten years, the black section of Oakland was considered the most progressive negro community in Texas.

Smith went on to start 1000 branches of the Farmers Improvement Society across Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.  The group’s overall membership was over 20,000 by 1910.  Over the next decade, the FIS established a bank in Waco as well as an agricultural college for black youth in Ladonia, Texas.  There are many other details that I don’t have the space here to get into, but suffice to say that this organization was innovative, resourceful, and highly progressive.

What’s interesting to me is that the FIS operated primarily “off” Main Street.  They didn’t start their work by building a bank or their own Oakland general store (granted, these projects would have been tremendously difficult to manage, but bear with me while I make my point).  “You said a hammer’s whatcha need?  Don’t go to the hardware store on Main Street! They’ll put you in a mound of debt, plus, you’ll have to wait until all the white folks have been waited on. They might not even have what you want by the time you’re waited on! We’re making a run to the big city in a few weeks and we’ll get one for you cheap.”  The FIS relied on the basic structure of a social group, and worked primarily through thoughtful discussion and coordinated activities such as planting trees or whitewashing their homes, pooling cash to buy supplies in bulk, and assembling enough dues to offer life-insurance.  The bricks and mortar FIS bank came decades later.

2Bridge Street.FISbank.Waco.TX.circa1910.fromSmithCobbArchive.TexasCollection

Farmers Improvement Society Bank (central building) on Bridge Street, Waco, Texas, c. 1915. Incidentally, Bridge Street was the original “Main Street” of Waco until this period when all the white businesses moved southwest, to the other side of the courthouse square on Austin Ave. Waco effectively had two Main Streets in the early twentieth century: Austin Ave (white) and Bridge St. (black). Today, the FIS bank building and other black-owned businesses of Bridge St. are underneath the Waco Convention Center and Hilton, products (?) of urban renewal.

In my other blog entries I have talked about how Main Street was not divorced from modernity and national economic development when it boomed.  Small town America, contrary to a popular myth, was a place of cutting edge ideas, innovation, and reform.  The story of the FIS, although a narrative about a scattered society, amounted to an alternative form of Main Street, a “decentered” and “fragmented” space of community that was skillfully and ingeniously accessed by disenfranchised rural African Americans in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas during Jim Crow. It was Main Street life but without Main Street!  It existed virtually and operated as an organized network of people exchanging ideas through membership documents (such as their monthly newspaper The Helping Hand), chapter events, and regional encampments where several chapters met together over a long weekend.  In a sense, the FIS operated like a virtual civic group.  Thus, the FIS’s version of Main Street was as dissipated and as scattered as their membership, challenging anyone interested in the typology of Main Street and small town America to look further than our widely-held belief that bricks and mortar equals livable communities.  Community and amenities can be scattered and, in certain situations, must be in order to get people what they need, because, quite frankly, not everyone can “occupy” Main Street.  [KJM]

Helping Hand

All images courtesy of Texas Collection, Baylor University.

Post Script:  Last March while all my students were on the beach in Florida for Spring Break, I travelled to Waco, Texas to use the Texas Collection archives at Baylor University to do research on the Farmers Improvement Society.  I was funded by a research grant at the Texas Collection, the Wardlaw Fellowship Fund, and I am grateful to that family and the Collection for their generous support.

Convocation Poster

Encampment Poster

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]