Lima, Ohio
Carrollton, Ohio
Lima, Ohio
Granville, Ohio
Wilmington, Ohio

Pandemics, Protests, and Public Space

From the air, these days, I travel the United States, studying Main Streets. My vantage point, lofty and analytical, is supplied by Google Earth and other digital tools. This is my means for traveling the country as the world swings back and forth between open and closed during the very uncertain times caused by COVID-19 and civil unrest.

I am quite safe as I scan from above, and there is much to be gained from solitary, aerial exploration. I learn a great deal about historic settlement patterns, about different arrangements for courthouses and open space within the urban grid, about density and scale. Yet I ponder whether it might be time for me to leave the exile of my desk, brave the ever-changing, risky frontier of America, on the road and sidewalk. I long to be wandering on foot with my camera, my sketchpad, and my notepad.

fig. 1 _ Bryan, Ohio

Looking at the country through the lens of a satellite offers merely frozen images, glimpses from the recent past, from cameras that whizzed through American streets years ago. Months back, as the world seemed suddenly immobilized like that haunting scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still, clocks appeared to stop. We surrendered to the surreal. The entire planet seemed to be in shock. And looking at old satellite images during the months that followed seemed almost like real-time snapshots from the air: stationary cars, pedestrians in mid-stride. But American streets have become progressively animated in the weeks that followed our collective deer-in-the-headlights moment in March and April.

As activity has unevenly ramped up across the country, it has become clear that we need more space, and plenty of it. But not just empty space in the countryside, though many are probably longing precisely for that alone. Safety and solace may surely be found in nature, but the wilderness rarely offers us a sense of community; and in uncertain times, it is often necessary to see others, avow our peace with them, place ourselves around the contagion of enthusiasm and joy. We urgently need more space in our cities and towns, areas shaped by buildings and steps and fountains and shade trees. Main Street has suddenly become more important than ever. It has a significant edge over roadsides, highways, shopping malls, and strip centers, despite the energy and sense of normalcy these everyday places impart.

The central commercial corridor of a town or a neighborhood, with its sidewalks and shops and civic buildings, is a powerful point of convergence. This is typically where commerce and culture and polity meet. Here we can shop and dine, or confer with a librarian, acquire a business loan, or attend a town council meeting. This array of uses super-charges Main Street. And whether or not it is currently vibrant and vital economically, Main Street can still be seen as the agora of modern America (or at least it has the potential to be so). The agora in ancient Greece was the place where citizens gathered for social, political, and mercantile purposes.

To this day, people meet along Main Street or the courthouse square to discuss business matters over a cup of coffee, review pending legislation, or simply buy a hammer. This is a far more effective place to stage a protest or a celebration than waving signs at drivers moving at fifty miles an hour in six lanes of traffic on the outskirts of town. A protest sign has more power and influence held high on Main Street than it does along the highway. This point alone attests to how urgently this public space is needed right now. Throughout American history, all eyes have been on Main Street; it has been the stage for much of our history, both good and bad. From slave-trading to face-painting, the tragedy and comedy of the American experience has been showcased here.

fig. 2 _ Lewisburg, West Virginia

Recent photographs across the United States have proven how effectively urban space like Main Street has been used to persuade the public of the virtue of a cause. Small town urban spaces are just as important as the Main Streets of the mega-metropolis. In many county seats across America, Main Street intersects the courthouse square, which is obviously even more hospitable to public gatherings. Here, linear space blends with a hub, a space created around a focal point (note, however, that business tends to favor the Main Street side of the square). It is worth realizing that marches of protest or celebration cause less traffic disruption in the heart of town than they do on the periphery. The traditional pre-WWII American grid of streets offers a multitude of alternative routes to drivers, a freedom not available when traffic is slowed or stopped along arterial roadways.

Spaces such as Main Street and the courthouse square are charged visually in ways that are completely missing along the commercial strip. They are marked with architectural symbols that convey the presence and importance of civic life. The courthouse, for instance, is often topped with a tower or possibly a dome. In architectural history such a grand form is known as the tholos, which by narrow definition refers to a circular space (usually topped by a drum form or dome). This is a powerful shape, suggesting community, or equality, but also indicating something beyond, a connection to the heavens, a link to a higher power. It reminds us of the importance of working together for great things. Clock towers also suggest a relationship with the heavens, but also the practical matters awaiting our attention on earth. The courthouse also communicates its importance by being elevated above the ground, accessible by broad steps. But wide doorways opening on two or more sides of the building convey accessibility, transparency, even welcome. Space itself is symbolic in the old town, and this is especially true of the space around or in front of the courthouse. This space reminds us of the link between the town and the vast rural landscape beyond. The courthouse square, with its trees and grass, is conceptually connected to the countryside. The courthouse marks the county seat, and its tholos or tower can be seen from great distance beyond the borders of town, a commanding visual landmark that symbolizes its authority over the territory.

Main Street is often the location of the town hall, which is rarely set apart from its neighboring commercial buildings. A prominant classical portico may indicate its special presence, and a clock may be located somewhere on the facade, reminding us of the importance of our time, of our work and other obligations, as well as the potential for the day. The teatro is another form/building typology from classical Greece that makes its way to Main Street, though in a highly modified form. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the theatre has been a place where moral lessons have been imparted through performance. Choices and consequences play out on the big screen today (or live stage, in some cases) and inform the citizen directly or indirectly. The old movie house has a powerful visual presence along Main Street, appearing as an aberration among generic commercial buildings. The facade aspires to be important, presenting an architectural flourish of some kind, distinguishing it from its neighbors. Older cinemas traditionally employed a grand arch, referring obliquely to the semicircular plan of the ancient teatro, but also more directly to the classical triumphal arch, employed throughout history to mark significant public events as well as entrances to great cities. But it is the canopy marquee, hovering over the sidewalk, boldly beckoning in neon, that tells us most powerfully that this is an important place, and we are encouraged to attend.

fig. 3 _ Beaufort, South Carolina

As the world opens its doors and tiptoes into places where the public will safely encounter strangers, the forbidden “other” of our hibernation months, Main Street offers the best common ground for re-encountering fellow citizens. Many states have begun the reopening process by advancing outdoor activities first. Restaurants, cafes, and bars, all struggling to prevent financial collapse, are now able to serve tables outside, as long as they are widely spaced. Main Street provides the ideal opportunity for this big step forward. It can reasonably be converted to pedestrian-only use, offering all these businesses space that might otherwise be used by automobiles. One might argue that tables could just as effectively be set up in the parking lot of the local Olive Garden. But consider how well Main Street is suited to give what patrons seek most longingly: the opportunity once more to see and to be seen. The old commercial corridor in the heart of town offers a collective experience, a super-charged space, where the guests of multiple businesses interact. It is only natural that some sort of promenade from place to place would naturally evolve, recharging the spirits of all who partake. The world is still alive, and we share this space, this unique time, despite any division in political beliefs, despite the fear and uncertainty that may still linger from the lockdown and the protests.

This sense of community, of not feeling so alone, can be powerfully generated by the experience of seeing faces near and far, up and down the street, hearing the hum of conversation and distant laughter. We urgently need to employ this magnificent if underused space to its maximum potential. We are sitting on the possibility of filling the street, or at least parts of it. Let life flow beyond the curbs and parking meters. Once word gets out that the Main Street has been fully employed, that the sweet summer air flows generously and safely around everyone, an enormous sigh of relief will flow through town. The power of a shared experience of this kind should not be underestimated.

We are fortunate indeed that Main Street has been waiting for us, is available to be central, if not essential, to our lives once more. Will we get through this trying time, and is Main Street a potential key to our survival? Will the restaurants really stay afloat in the months ahead? Will the county still have anything left in its budget to operate the library this fall? It’s all too early to tell. But if we are to focus our dollar-spending anywhere, I would venture to say that Main Street is where we should do it. I don’t think people really imagine themselves living in the antiseptic bubbles provided by life as lived in an automobile, gathering dinner from a drive-up window, or wandering nervously through a parking lot into the supermarket or the Home Depot, and racing home as quickly as possible. We are justifiably anxious to resume our lives. And yet we need space to do this safely, to avoid backsliding into a new wave of infection. But not just ANY space will do. Main Street, the courthouse square, and the old town center offer the best KIND of space. Main Street was erected more than a century ago to be an outpost of civilization in a formidable and threatening wilderness. This is a powerful thing to remember during these troubling times; it could inspire us to turn here once more for the strength and comfort so sorely needed today.

fig. 4 _ Sandusky, Ohio

Main Street Moves On

Main Street is currently suffering an unthinkable setback due to the lock-down and subsequent social distancing mandated by the worldwide COVID-19 crisis. The government-mandated freeze of activity has eliminated customers for any of the local shops, bars, and cafes in most states, food markets and drug stores excepted.

As I write, restrictions on activity are gradually being lifted in places, making possible a slow return to business for some but not all. This is not the first catastrophe to hit the old center of town, our long-cherished but sidelined Main Street; but it most certainly is the swiftest and most unexpected upheaval yet experienced, a true blindsiding. With lightning speed, much of Main Street’s slow climb up from the economic obsolescence caused by corporate big-box stores over the past few decades seems to have been undone. With government policy permitting big-box stores and delivery warehouses to operate as usual throughout the crisis (only because part of their business is selling groceries), it almost seems as if the intent is to squash small, locally owned businesses; the big-box chains are rapidly selling the same books and dresses and chairs that are behind locked doors on Main Street. And since chain restaurants out on the strip have been engineered since inception for curbside delivery, once again corporate America is favored over local ownership; small restaurants and cafes re-worked for curbside pick-up are really struggling to make the numbers work.

fig. 1 _ Wooster, Ohio

It is worth examining, at this point, Main Street’s long history of challenges and setbacks, if only to provide hope that it may survive yet another catastrophe. The fallout from COVID-19 is far from the first major trial for this steadfast street. The growth of train and automobile use introduced perhaps the first major challenges to Main Street’s hegemonic status in America. At one time, each small town or village commercial center enjoyed a “captive audience” of customers. Up through the mid-19th century, village residents and farmers were limited by how far they could comfortably haul groceries and dry goods on foot or by horse. However, once it became possible for trains to take customers easily to other towns, local merchants no longer held a monopoly over their in-town customers. Naturally, food items and heavy equipment were always acquired locally. But discretionary spending could often be accomplished with a great deal of choice. This shopping freedom was accelerated exponentially by the motor car. County seats benefitted initially from the freedom of choice offered by improved transportation. They were magnets for customers because of the large number of merchants gathered around the courthouse square, but also because so much business was generated by government. They were also hubs for rail transport: regional trains, intercity lines, and local horsecars and electric streetcars. As rail and shipping crossroads, they were natural market centers. They provided more than basic sustenance, but increased social opportunities and cultural experiences. Smaller towns began losing population as the nation began its long transition from being a rural populace to becoming increasingly an urban nation, thanks to job opportunities created by the industrial revolution and national food processing, among other phenomena. As early as the turn of the 20th century many small villages that once thrived in the 19th century were merely ghost towns.

But eventually even the county seats were dramatically challenged. Chain stores like the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (the “A&P”), J C Penney Company, Sears, Roebuck and Company, and F. W. Woolworth were the first signs of a new momentum that would threaten local merchants for decades. Ironically enough, most of these corporations were born and gestated in smaller to mid-size county seats. That’s where business could thrive in the late 19th century, and that’s when the menace began. By the first decade of the 20th century, most of these chains were well established. The edge they possessed over the locally-owned stores was the ability to buy in bulk and then pass on a significant savings to customers. By the 1920s, local and national editorials frequently discussed how great this threat had become; citizen groups were formed to discourage buying from such establishments.

fig. 2 _ North Canaan, Connecticut

Post-World War II retail trends required more floor space for retail and prioritized the automobile, and thus the trend toward development outside of the old town center began in earnest. This favored chains, but did not exclude local business. At first, modest establishments just out of the town center were built, each providing space for less than a handful of merchants and a small area for cars to pull off the road. But then large shopping “plazas” were developed farther out, with vast fields of parking. And, of course, the ever-present one-off drive-in restaurant made its way to small-town America, modeled after successful auto-oriented dining long-established in sunbelt cities like Los Angeles and Houston. Such an establishment was usually the unique creation of a local proprietor, and it ruled the town for perhaps a decade or so before the likes of McDonald’s muscled in. The same auto that helped county seats draw customers from smaller towns, leading to their economic demise, now made regional shopping centers possible, offering even MORE selections than did the shops around the courthouse square.

By the early 1970s, many small towns with strong leadership attempted to compete with the new local and regional shopping centers. This effort to help Main Street followed loosely on the heels of ambitious programs launched in the mid-1950s by big cities responding to the steady decline in customers for once-powerful urban retail magnets like State Street in Chicago. Often the plans aimed to emulate the superficial attractions of the new shopping developments. Continuous metal marquee awnings were mounted over shop windows up and down Main Street. Older facades were often covered with aluminum panels in a quick effort to modernize. But perhaps the most startling visual effect was not an addition but a subtraction. Projecting signs were eliminated en masse, either through direct ordinances requiring swift removal or by way of amortization schedules with imminent deadlines, thus quickly encouraging merchants to substitute grand neon store identities with cheap, plastic replacements fastened flat to storefronts. The desired effect, all things considered, was UNITY. Instead of allowing each business to shout for attention, Main Street aimed for an atmosphere of serenity, something like the new malls being built everywhere. In all honesty, Main Street was rather brutally altered, and the benefits were fleeting. It was difficult to compete with corporate America. Few big chains were interested in the smaller spaces available in 19th century buildings, so corporate retail mostly avoided Main Street.

fig. 3 _ Dubuque, Iowa

By the 1990s, Main Street realized that competing with shopping centers by aping them was leading nowhere. So an about-face occurred, assisted by agencies such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Instead of hiding history, small towns everywhere decided to MARKET history. Main Street uncovered its older buildings and used the architecture to its advantage. Increasingly the market for Main Street was composed of visitors. The influence of Disneyland’s Main Street has been discussed at length by authors like Miles Orvell and Richard Francaviglia, work I recommend highly. The National Trusts’s Main Street program offered its own bias as it aimed to guide restoration while simultaneously coaching businesses in practical matters. These are forces, among others, that explain why many Main Streets appear the way that they do today. To put it crudely, the result is a sanitized, radically edited version of history. However, in defense of the various Main Street programs, it must be said that their strategy has helped many businesses stay afloat. And commerce must thrive in order to keep buildings in good repair. Main Streets are being shepherded to future generations, where conditions will hopefully be more favorable and respectful.

In the early 1990s, as I began studying the architecture of America’s Main Streets for my book Signs, Streets, and Storefronts, small-town shopfronts everywhere were peeling away ill-fated efforts to modernize from earlier decades. The new strategy of leveraging history was well underway when a new bomb hit town, square in the middle of courthouse square, so to speak. County seats everywhere were targeted by a mega-merchant enjoying a meteoric ascent over America. No plan had yet been so carefully (or diabolically) aimed at the healthy market enjoyed by county seats, the very market made possible by the train and automobile when these civic hubs sucked the life out of the smaller towns around them. I will describe the battle as I experienced it visually along Main Streets across the United States in my next essay.

fig. 4 _ Anywhere, USA

Main Street survived a true economic Hiroshima in the 1990s and early 2000s. It is worth considering that fact, today, as businesses everywhere contend with the loss of customers because of the recent pandemic and civil unrest. Ponder the profound resilience and potential of the historic city center, both big and small. Main Street is still standing, defying all the odds. One need only travel America in a few month’s time to see the slow but steady reemergence of a determined survivor.

fig. 5 _ Wilton, Iowa
fig. 6 _ New Ulm, Minnesota
fig. 7 _ Redwood Falls, Minnesota
fig. 8 _ McMinnville, Tennessee

Mind on Main Street

In my mind, I am driving along an old highway, entering a small American town that I’ve never seen before. It is late in the day, and the sun is low. I am nearing the center of town. I should also mention that in reality it is presently May of 2020, and such a trip is forbidden to me, confined as I am to my apartment while the Coronavirus severely restrains movement and threatens street life everywhere.

But in my rich imagination, I am on the road again, doing what I have done for many years, following my intuition, my research, some playful map-reading, and perhaps a road tip from a friend. I am exploring small town Main Streets with my camera and my note pad. And since this particular excursion is the creation of my own thoughts, I am going to embellish it with a vintage car to convey me; the top is down, the radio plays cool jazz, and the steering wheel glides easily in my hands as I make one final turn for my approach to Main Street.

After a cursory sweep at the wheel up and down this central commercial corridor, I park and step out onto the sidewalk. The rest of my journey this evening will be on foot. The town is very quiet, which is not unusual in smaller towns at this time of day. The shops are all closed and the town hall and library are dark. The tavern, around the corner, is out of view. It’s too early for the restaurant. I make my acquaintance with the street and the buildings at my leisure. No one is around to puzzle over the camera hung on my neck or question my slow, curious pace. For a time, as the sun gets lower and bathes the street with a very flattering rosy gold, this place is mine. It is a charmed time for me. This is the “magic hour,” when photographers hasten their pace to capture the fleeting golden light as the sun begins to set and transform ordinary views into enchanted landscapes.

Arriving in a small town like this, I often find myself fantasizing, projecting myself into its history. I imagine myself growing up here, and dream a lifetime of memories at the old movie theatre. What if I had been a projectionist there while I was in high school? I see an old café across the street during my dream visit, a place where I might have hung out after school, or where I habitually met my dad for a quick cup of coffee before our workdays began. I can see a physical accretion of time on the façade of the café building. The old streamline moderne porcelain enamel panels of the storefront were covered in the late 1970s by rough wood siding. It might have seemed, while I was in my teens, like a great way to update that old place. But right now, in my dream visit in 2020, it disappoints, looks rough and neglected. I want the 1930s back. But I confess to myself that I rather like seeing layers of history.

fig. 1 _ Hamler, Ohio. August 2018

I have seen plenty of towns over the years to help fuel my imagination for this fantasy visit today. I explore the silent shop windows, poke around the corner here and there to discover what’s on the side streets, admire the old houses with great front porches. This town of my imagination still has a hardware store, a true marvel considering that it competes with a Home Depot in the county seat nearby. And there is a handsome brick town hall at the end of Main Street, where it intersects the main highway. There is also a library and a working post office, both modest in design, but still delivering energy and information and life to the street.

I am not anxious about my photography this evening, because I know I will be here for a full day tomorrow and I will enjoy the magic hour once more. I will meet people and ask questions and make notes, and start to piece together a real sense of the town’s history and how it manages to survive today. I will meet the pharmacist who owns the drug store with his son-in-law, and I will chat with a few shop owners and listen with great interest to their dreams and disappointments. I will dig into the local archives and befriend a couple of very committed librarians. I will praise the owner of the cinema, a man in his 70s who makes no profit on movie showings, but he isn’t going into the red somehow. And the neon of marquee is at least 80 percent operational: no small miracle, considering the expense.

Had my visit to this small town been real and there was no virus shutting the world down, I would awaken the next day to a street with fleeting, sporadic moments of activity and the bright white glow of morning sun. I would order breakfast at the cafe, I would buy something at the pharmacy, I would prepare for my visit to the library. I would watch the comings and goings of cars at the hubs for idle conversation, the small cafes, bars, and restaurants. I would have a very full day studying the architecture and watching the people, finished off with a flourish as I watch the neon theatre marquee light up at dusk.

fig. 2 _ Abandoned Main Streets can be as interesting as active Main Streets. Shawnee, Ohio. October 2017

But this is Spring of 2020, and the harsh reality is that none of this will happen on a real visit. Business may be hurting everywhere, but Main Street is particularly devastated. Although the pharmacy is open, it is facing tough competition from the Walgreen’s on the highway with its drive-through window for medications and minimal exposure. The restaurants are all shuttered, and they, too, face competition from coffee drive-throughs and home brewers; so curbside sales are nil. Conversation is a luxury we cannot afford at the moment, unless it’s online. The hardware store opens for limited hours, but that’s the extent of retail at the moment. If somebody wants a book from the book shop, they must turn, instead, to the Walmart in the next town. Same story for the appliance and furniture stores. And the dress shop. Because Walmart sells food, the entire store is mysteriously seen as essential, the result of clumsy, short-sighted government rules for addressing the Coronavirus. In contrast, Main Street is largely padlocked. This entire reaction to the crisis has somehow, monumentally, favored corporations over small businesses. The movie marquee is dark at night, every night, and there’s little hope for opening up a business that barely makes it month to month. Yet it is seen by many as the beating heart of Main Street.

I have been writing about Main Street for many years. It chills me to think that I have been documenting something that might not survive this crisis, that may exist someday only in photographs. That’s not such an extreme statement when you consider how the merchants have been operating with such thin profit margins for a long time, and they may now live many months with no income at all. Restarting failed businesses may take decades. And buildings need tenants and cash flow, or they are neglected and fall eventually to rubble. Sometimes I am questioned about the relevance of Main Street. I sometimes hear, “It’s just a museum of its former self. It isn’t real, it’s a theme park.” That has not been my experience. Main Street is indeed greatly changed from what it was fifty years ago, but it has responded to its challenges with very well-reasoned strategies, like emphasizing experiences and services over everyday goods. And Main Street is still the center of town, and certainly more than a shopping center. It is the home of local government and culture, a repository of history, and a place where people live. It is where parades happen. It is the supreme American gathering place.

fig. 3 _ Shawnee, Ohio. October 2017

As we have sheltered in place for months now, it has been suggested that we have collectively realized that we can survive, if not thrive, without being in each other’s presence nearly as much as we used to be. Instead, I believe we have learned, with a vengeance, how very essential it is to be truly face to face. This real proximity allows us to focus better, to comprehend more clearly via body language and eye contact, and to spontaneously break away from group conversations to share one-on-one. Although my focus is primarily on the architecture of Main Street, what resonates most for me is what I have learned by talking to the citizens who use this street. My conversations have truly colored the way I see it, how I understand its historic evolution, how it adjusted to change, how and why its buildings are loved or abused. The conversations held at libraries every day are small but essential. So are the talks held at the cafes and taverns. And the idle chats between merchants and customers.

As much as I cherish arriving in a new town during that special quiet spell before sunset, what brings greatest pleasure for me is the next day, when people start moving about and the place hums as best it can. And at night, when I thrill to the illumination of the neon on the façade of the movie theatre, the greatest gratification actually comes from seeing people start to arrive for the movie, pausing under the marquee for a moment, one by one, buying their tickets. And when a movie showing ends, and a small surge of people step outside under that illuminated canopy to share thoughts about their experience, or plan their next step, I feel a sort of envy… or perhaps ecstasy. My heart swells, seeing not only that this great little building has been preserved, but that it continues to be used and enjoyed. I vividly realize that this place, the whole street, seems very much alive…and quietly, though resolutely, valued by its citizens. And that burn of emotion I feel when I stand there watching, yearning to join them, reminds me how important it is that this life is able to continue.


Sketches on Main Street

Today the Main Streets of Ohio, Iowa, New York City, and the world unite in a quest for survival and rebirth. During Spring of 2020 many of us are sequestered in our homes. Our beloved Main Streets stand empty — streets that have seen wars, revolutions, depression, recession and more. We look forward to seeing the reset that is bound to take place.

With these sketches I celebrate the silent beauty of streets awaiting their next chapters.

fig. 1 _ Albia, Iowa
fig. 2 _ Bryan, Ohio
fig. 3 _ Grinnell, Iowa
fig. 4 _ Grinnell, Iowa
fig. 5 _ Grinnell, Iowa
fig. 6 _ Albia, Iowa
fig. 7 _ Napoleon, Ohio
fig. 8 _ New York City
fig. 9 _ Sidney, Ohio
fig. 10 _ Sidney, Ohio
fig. 11 _ Sidney, Ohio
fig. 12 _ West Liberty, Iowa
fig. 13 _ West Liberty, Iowa
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