Main Street: by the People, for the People
By Todd Barman, National Main Street Center | From Main Street Story of the Week | February 18, 2013 |
Attempts to define Main Street too often begin and end with what we can easily see—the tangible. We track changes in the buildings along the street, comparing today with yesterday and yesteryear. We track changes in the value of and investment in those buildings and the street. We track changes in the number of businesses and jobs located in the buildings. We multiply all the dollars spent (sales, salaries, rents, taxes, etc.) throughout the local economy. The National Main Street Center has been tracking reinvestment in Main Street districts nationally for more than 30 years and the numbers are impressive. The problem is that defining Main Street only by what we can quantify is like judging a book by its cover. Main Street, as a place or as a movement, is more about the quality of the people behind all these numbers.
Main Street: The Place
Main Street as a place is often defined through pictures—whether of beautifully restored and occupied commercial buildings or of vacant, deteriorating structures. Either end of the spectrum becomes more dramatic when those same buildings are also shown before restoration or in their former glory through historic photographs. Pictures of buildings, whether past-present-future or before-after, tell an incomplete story if those pictures lack people. I must admit that I often find myself waiting for cars and people to move past so I can get a “more artistic” picture of the architecture. I have to remind myself that Main Street is not about “sanitized” buildings. The historic structures we all love were built to be used, to house commercial and residential activity. It is that historic activity as much as the buildings that Main Street as a movement is striving to save. It is interesting to note that historic photographs of Main Street buildings almost always include the proud owners and employees standing out front. The pictures we take today need to keep today’s people, today’s entrepreneurs, at the forefront. The same holds true for businesses as for buildings. We need to celebrate the entrepreneurs, not the types of businesses they've opened.
Don’t get me wrong, built history is important. It is one of four assets behind Main Street’s asset-based development strategy. Historic buildings are a physical record of human endeavor. They also have environmental value, as the National Trust's Preservation Green Lab has shown. However, in the absence of historic buildings, if you have cultural history, entrepreneurs, and an engaged public, all assets that put human action first, you can still have a vibrant Main Street. On the flip side, you can’t create a vibrant Main Street simply by saving or replicating historic buildings; function may trump form. The best-case scenario is, of course, to have and to hold those buildings and to marry all four assets.
Main Streets as places are worth saving, not as models, not in glass cases, but as organically evolving settings for human exchange ... exchanges between neighbors meeting by chance, or by plan… exchanges between entrepreneurs and their customers who have a good chance of being neighbors too. Main Streets continue to serve, if not in exactly the same way they did for our parents and grandparents. Main Streets need to be experienced to be understood. It is at that point that they become part of our personal history.
Main Street: The Movement
How do we define Main Street as a movement? We could start with a chronology of our first 25 years. We could report our collective and cumulative accomplishments (as we do through the reinvestment statistics discussed above). We could list the many organization, design, promotion, and economic restructuring projects completed under the Main Street Four Point Approach®. Again doing only this would paint an incomplete picture. Main Street is more about the who than the what.
How do you do justice to the people past, present, and future who are Main Street? Logically listing the roles and responsibilities of the many players within the Main Street Network—from local individuals with emotional and financial buy-in, to dedicated local Main Street program and project volunteers, board members, and staff, to supportive Main Street coordinating program staff, to knowledgable National Main Street Center staff—just doesn’t convey the importance and value of all these people to Main Street as a place and to each other. Neither does documenting and reporting the number of volunteer hours donated, although this conveys an important message too. I will say this much. Looking back on my 16-plus years within Main Street, I forget the numbers, I forget the projects, but I don’t forget the people.
Main Street: The People
The intangible power of Main Street as a movement was an important focus of the 2010 National Main Street Trends Survey. The results of that survey offer qualitative evidence of the importance of people. Main Street develops leaders and empowers everyday citizens. Main Street builds individual and community pride, confidence, and hope. Main Street strengthens ties to community and unites. Main Street raises spirits, uplifts, and inspires. Main Street changes lives. The words shared by respondents tell the story best:
“Once upon a time, there was a volunteer who came up with a stellar idea that turned into our signature event—a giant pumpkin regatta. The volunteer became a board member, then chair, and is now on our organization team. Away from Main Street, he has become … the face of giant pumpkin growers in our state and beyond. He has emceed international pumpkin-growing events. We think his experience with us gave him the courage to step out into the greater community.”
“Being part of the Main Street program in my community has given me the opportunity to be with people from literally all walks of life—to be able to see their struggles, their strengths, and their aspirations. Being aware of the diversity of all people and their situations is nothing until one interacts with them. I have had that opportunity since I began working in our program. We have so much in common and really care about each other and our community family. Seeing the pride people have as things improve in our town is so inspiring.”
And this is just the tip of the iceberg as you can read here. Some might argue that success for Main Street as a place depends on special economic circumstances. I would argue that success depends on people—people with a passion for Main Street, as a place and as a movement, united behind a shared mission and vision and willing to step up and lead. I would further argue that every city and town has the potential to find or create its own special economic circumstances by engaging these people.
Main Street: The Promise
Life and investment are shifting back to Main Street, and that shift shows every sign of continuing, if not accelerating. Main Street investment is often set against the backdrop of Wall Street investment and vice versa. Holding up Main Street as an alternative to Wall Street often reflects a choice between the sizes of the businesses each represents. Beyond scale, it reflects an extremely important choice between local and nonlocal financial exchange (see Locavesting by Amy Cortese and Local Dollars, Local Sense by Michael Shuman). Germane to this story, Main Street as an alternative to Wall Street is also a choice for human exchange. Wall Street trading has taken on an inhuman quality. There is a growing desire to make financial exchange not only more local, but more personal again, more human. The new localism and Main Street’s role in more local and more human investing will be the subject of an upcoming Main Street NOW feature.
This story was almost titled the “Ghost of Main Street Past, Present, and Future”—not to imply (or toll) the death of Main Street, in fact, just the opposite. Main Street is most definitely alive, but it is arguably at an important crossroads. Main Streets that are healthy today don’t just evoke the past, they celebrate the past, embrace the present, and look toward the future. The past is leveraged as an asset upon which to build the future. The ghost in Dickens classic, "A Christmas Carol," is not the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge. Rather, the ghost is a means for Scrooge, facing his own moment of truth, to see his past and present from a different perspective and to glimpse a possible future. Main Street is similarly in need of a fresh perspective: not just Main Street as a place, but Main Street as a movement and Main Street as an alternative to Wall Street. The difference in perspective that is needed for all these facets of Main Street is the human perspective.
Todd Barman is a senior program officer with the National Main Street Center
Todd Barman is a senior program officer with the National Main Street Center