Main Street: A Critical Success

SOTW_Georgetown Streetscape

From National Trust President Stephanie Meeks to former First Lady Laura Bush to New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, Main Street was a recurring theme and a major highlight at the Opening Plenary session of the 2010 National Preservation Conference.

Discussing the need to take the message of preservation to a much broader audience, National Trust President Stephanie Meeks highlighted Main Street as one of the key elements in making the case for preservation. “Main Street programs,” said Meeks, “produce real, measurable economic benefits.”

People need to get that message, said Meeks, noting that “too often, preservationists are thought of as the people who tell you ‘no you can’t do that’ rather than the people who are providing creative solutions to rehabbing buildings and making them productive engines of our economy. ”

And that is what Main Street programs do every day and have done for 30 years. Since 1980, more than 200,000 buildings have been rehabbed, 400,000 jobs have been created, and nearly $49 billion has been reinvested in the downtowns of Main Street communities, surely a message the nation needs to hear!

But Main Street brings another message about preservation, one that transcends jobs and dollars and economic statistics – a message that speaks to who we are and where and how we want to live our lives.

In a speech full of accolades for the work of the National Trust, keynote speaker Paul Goldberger reserved his highest praise for Main Street and its impact on our quality of life. “The Main Street program of the Trust, which helps to strengthen the cores of small towns, which have been so decimated by the massive engine of sprawl, is a key example of the Trust’s wide-ranging influence here and of its ongoing commitment,” said Goldberger. “I think the Main Street program has probably done as much [as] most National Trust historic sites to improve the quality of life in this country. After all, a visit to Drayton Hall, great experience, extraordinary experience though it is, is for most people a special occasion, a one-time event. But if you live in a community in which a Main Street has been brought back to health, preservation has made your life better every day.”

Goldberger spoke eloquently about the virtues of the city and the value of the urban experience. “The public realm is about the idea of common space and shared public space and the way in which it constitutes symbolically and also quite literally common ground. I don’t believe that the old model of the city, the old model of a dense web of buildings arranged on streets is obsolete. We’ve already learned how much more satisfying it is than the kind of community produced by the automobile, how much better a village street is than a mall and how frustrating are places in which it is impossible to walk.”

Our Main Streets are real villages, real towns, real cities. They provide, in Goldberger’s words, “a real connection to real people in real time and real space.” Historic preservation is as much “the preservation of community – of the physical reality of town and village and common ground … as it is the preservation of special and unique artifacts of our architectural history.”

“We save buildings because we have a duty to history to conserve important pieces of our culture,” said Goldberger. But that’s not the only reason. We don't save buildings just to preserve the past or protect them for the future. “We preserve what we love and admire,” he said, “because it makes our lives and the communities in which we live our lives better today…. Preservation … reminds us that these places were here before us and gives us confidence that they will remain after us. It allows our cities to contain what [architectural historian] Vincent Scully memorably called ‘the conversation between generations’ across time.

This “conversation between generations” unfolds every day on America’s Main Streets as you work to save the best of the past not just to make a better future, but to make a “a richer, more diverse, better present.”

Your work is essential and it is reaching wider audiences and growing in vitality and visibility every day.

To view a video of the entire Opening Plenary session, click here.