Granville, Ohio
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Marty joins WBEZ’s Podcast Reset

Eye On Main Street’s own Martin Treu, recently joined Sasha-Ann Simons from WBEZ’s daily talk show Reset to discuss a new Chicago ordinance which creates protections for some of the city’s most iconic and historic signs and murals. Listen to Sasha’s 35-minute interview with Marty here, and learn more about the history of these signs, their importance in the urban landscape, and the process of restoring them.

Carlisle Lockdown

“I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.” —Klaatu, The Day the Earth Stood Still

It is late April in the year 2020 AD. The stay-at-home order prevails across much of the US. Just as in towns across the country, the historic commercial core of Carlisle, Pennsylvania stands almost empty today. The friendly cafés, the bookshop, the banks, the courthouse, as well as the libraries and schools are closed until further notice. We are reminded of the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still in which an alien lands and tells the people of Earth that they must live peacefully or be destroyed as a danger to other planets. Though he comes as a messenger of peace, the nation is spellbound in fear.

Welcome to the era of the “Coronavirus Pandemic.” If you are one of the lone stragglers walking on the street and you are hungry for a snack or need to use the restroom, too bad. Dogs are lucky. All they need is a nice tree or a patch of green, and the thoughtful owner who carries a pocketful of doggie treats. With the face masks that we are required to wear, it is hard to see if someone is smiling at you or scowling. And physical interactions are out of the question unless you already live with someone you care for. But a mask is not a muzzle and we can still speak out and have meaningful conversations or just say hello to a stranger.

fig. 1 _ Read Global Buy Local. It is hard to buy local when stores are forbidden to be open.
fig. 2 _ Virtual fellowship is all that is allowable. Carlisle PA 21 April 2020.

In capitals across the world, politicians are now working with the police, the medical industry and other huge corporate entities and foundations to map out the paths our lives are permitted to take. That is a scary sentence worthy of Nazi Germany. Within this labyrinth are some helpful and caring individuals, but their efforts and data points are often coopted by enemies of truth and goodness. The cause and nature of this crisis is in dispute, so non-compliance with all of the changing governmental requisites is rampant. Though estimates of death rates vary widely, no one disagrees that the COVID-19 event has been destructive to our health and the economies of our nations.

fig. 3 _ The Prom That Never Was; Carlisle PA, 21 April 2020.

As we have been sequestered in our homes, we have had time to study the situation and to make choices about what really matters to us. Some people have chosen to ignore all the news and just play with their pets and their kids. Others have been drinking more alcohol and watching more junk TV. But many have chosen to really explore what is happening right before our eyes and they are forming their own opinions after listening to a growing number of scientists, scholars, new-thinking politicians, and other visionaries who are suggesting some paradigm shifts from where we were as a citizenry just a few months ago.

Fascinating stories play out every day on our computer screens and TVs. Not all of them can possibly be true. The story you are told is the one that complies with the agenda of your news source. Statistics are often manipulated to scare you and/or make you vote a certain way, or consume a certain way, or think a certain way. But we feel we need to get a grip on some kind of information because our lives and livelihoods are now impacted more than ever by people and agencies that may oppose our well-being. Many special interest groups have been hijacking the news. Some days it looks more like a “scamdemic” than a pandemic.

fig. 4 _ Even our four-legged friends are socially distancing. Carlisle PA, 21 April 2020.
fig. 5 _ Meditation Cancelled by the State; Carlisle PA, 21 April 2020.
fig. 6 _ Was King Tut Cancelled Too? Carlisle PA, 21 April 2020.

Is this a false flag operation designed to Balkanize us, so we can be controlled by someone or something? Is this an opportunity to get in touch with our divinity and overcome fear, so we can fulfill the reason for our creation? Is this an opportunity for us to say “no” to addictive consumer lifestyles? Is this an opportunity for a new system to be constructed in which your every move can be monitored by the state? Is this an opportunity to bring out into the open evil persons who have been lurking in the dark, as well as angels who have been serving our higher good? Is this a time for us to question globalism as a business model?

Answers to some of these questions stare us in the face today as we stroll through downtown Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Governor Wolf might suggest that our business here is not essential. We beg to differ. We are advocates for a way of life that could be the antidote to many of the problems we are now facing. By coming here, we are able to breath some fresh air and to get in touch with something that is precious, something that used to be the heart and soul of much of American culture: Main Street, the local shopping district within walking distance of your home. This is a place in which you are a real face, not just a data point on some chart.

Is the current crisis an opportunity to reignite the engine of humanity, a wake-up call to reconnect with our essential need for local community and individual freedom — or is this the end of Main Street as it has been since the founding of our country, and the dawn of a new age in which big government, big box retail, big pharma, big media, and countless global initiatives run your life?

In the words of Professor Barnhardt in The Day the Earth Stood Still, “It’s only at the precipice that we change.”

fig. 7 _ I am SO hungry! Carlisle PA, 21 April 2020.
fig. 8 _ Easter Hats Never Worn; Carlisle PA, 21 April 2020.
fig. 9 _ Carlisle PA, 21 April 2020.

On Main Street with Martin Treu

No place was a more nurturing incubator for the classic American Main Street than Ohio in the 19th century. For a newly-expanding nation, Ohio provided valuable natural resources, manufacturing capabilities, and markets. New turnpikes, railways, and waterways filled in the blank spaces on the map of Ohio and towns grew up alongside these busy thoroughfares. Ohio’s Main Streets were commercial hotspots. Ambitious new buildings and public spaces attested to the growing civic pride and prosperity. For almost two centuries Ohio’s Main Streets served as epicenters of entrepreneurship.

The prosperity of most of Ohio’s small towns did not last forever. Across the state, a deluge of plant shutdowns — especially in the 1980s — shattered the economic stability of town after town. Most of these industries did not come back. During this same period big box destination stores drained retail business from Main Street. Today, some towns have reinvented themselves and are surviving and even thriving. Other towns have given up and appear to be closed down forever.

We do not intend for our photographic essay to limelight ruins and ghosts. Rather, we showcase the quiet beauty of towns in repose. Our hope is that these photographs are sympathetic and transcendent and that they honor the survival instinct of the American town while also suggesting new possibilities.

In August 2016, on the outskirts of Toledo, we began a series of road trips out of which “Still Life on Main Street” emerged. By late 2018, we had visited almost every county in the State of Ohio. Our Midwestern roots called us to this homecoming. We are outsiders who were insiders, setting out to capture in photographs Ohio’s Main Streets today. Our focus was on town centers, but we also shot the drive-in movie theaters, the motels, the shopping centers, and other suburban businesses that began to compete with the old Main Streets in mid-20th century America. Like many of the Main Streets, these aging roadside attractions had seen better days.

fig. 1 _ Marty on location in Portsmouth, Ohio.

Our trip was full of surprises. We set out to revisit the thriving Main Streets of our remembered youths, and we did find a few of those. Soon, however, we became fascinated with the ways Main Street had evolved since we lived there many years ago. We became intrigued with the quirky, the ironic, the creative, and sometimes humorous devices used by entrepreneurs and local governments to attract business, even in towns where poverty seemed pervasive.

New themes began to emerge on these silent streets as we delighted in the unexpected juxtapositions: the pop-up gun shooting school in a 1850s Greek Revival mansion in Chesterville, the tiny back street beauty salon aspiring to be exotic and glamorous in Shreve, the deadpan stare of an abandoned Main Street that was once the thriving town center of Shawnee. There was a stillness that pervaded all of these places that was conducive to meditation. We felt a kinship with these towns. Each had its own history, its own soul, and its own potential.

During our sojourn, we experienced the tensions between edge and center that have eroded the roots of community in towns across the country. It is a battle between the motor vehicle and the pedestrian, between the highway and the Main Street, and between the chain store and the local store. Some of our photographs captured the awkward interface between newer highways and the old walkable town centers. At first, we were taken aback by the way tractor trailers barreled through town threatening anyone in their path. But soon we decided to have fun with this, and we played a cat-and-mouse game as we photographed these huge trucks invading otherwise quiet town centers. Trucks became a favorite subject. We were almost run over by a huge tractor trailer in Medina as we captured its raucous presence on a lovely fall day on the town square.

fig. 2 _ Mike taking a break for lunch.
fig. 3 _ Having lunch at K’s Hamburger Shop, Troy, Ohio.

A typical photo shoot went something like this: the assistant, Mike, walked behind the photographer, Marty. When Marty needed to shoot from the middle of a street, Mike watched for tractor trailers, which seldom slowed down. We chatted about what we were seeing — architectural styles, urban design, social and economic trends and possibilities while vehicular traffic and a few pedestrians were moving around us and yet seldom interacting. The photographs of “Still Life on Main Street” captured the essence of our conversations.

Many shots involved long waits for the right light or multiple visits to the same site to capture various changing circumstances. Achieving the perfect shot could face some challenges. In Georgetown, we discussed the courthouse square for over an hour waiting for the sun to rise. In the foreground stood the 1851 neo-classical Brown County Courthouse–pristine-white, free-standing. The square was lined with late 19th-century polychrome-painted commercial buildings. Our goal with this shot was to portray the courthouse as the guardian of the town, with the grand open space and the shops serving as its backdrop. We did not want to see cars in this picture. It was about the relationship of the courthouse to Main Street and about the space: the square, the large blue sky. By the time the sun was just right for our shots, shoppers started to arrive and park their cars in front to the buildings we wanted to highlight. The sun was getting higher by the minute. We had only a 30-minute window to get this shot before the crisp early light would become too harsh. In this setting we patiently watched the patterns of the local citizens: how they dressed, where they went, what they bought. One woman just did not leave. Her car parked out front was holding up a perfect shot. I walked over to eavesdrop on the conversation she was having with the shop keeper. They were discussing the merits of one dishtowel over another. I was tempted to interrupt and buy both towels for the woman just to get her moving and gone. She finally bought one towel and then they began to pray together, which was touching but also tested my patience as yet another customer parked out front. I began my own prayer that all these people might soon leave. Suddenly, all the cars moved out of frame and the image was perfectly captured.

fig. 4 _ Court Square in Georgetown, Ohio.
fig. 5 _ Marty on location in Chillicothe, Ohio.

We are grateful for the wisdom imparted to us by the streetscapes of Ohio that can be shared with others through these photographs. This material and these people have given us great joy. We were welcomed virtually everywhere with kindness and friendly curiosity; we were removed by police from only one town, but that was worth the trouble because we were rewarded with a most interesting photograph and some good laughs.

In many of Ohio’s aging towns, we saw a new order that is more budget-conscious and ad hoc than prideful or civic-minded. Deferred maintenance abounded, adding a valuable layer of information to our bittersweet story. We came into town after town witnessing a once-busy Main Street with no activity whatsoever except an occasional vehicle racing by. Many of these once-thriving commercial hubs no longer have customers. Few of our photographs show any people. This is how it was. We did not need to wait for the streets to be empty to shoot most of our pictures. Georgetown was a rare exception.

At the end of our final two-week road trip through the state, we left Ohio and returned to our home bases. What were our thoughts after walking and driving and climbing on rooftops and talking and standing for hours on the Main Streets of Ohio for over two years? Many times we have longed to revisit one of the many lively Main Street Ohio coffee shops. Throughout Ohio there are exceptional coffee shops in some unexpected places. It is in these new generation small town businesses that we begin to see why some Ohio Main Streets are making comebacks. Here we see the same noble, civic-minded pluck that made Ohio great as a frontier state two hundred years ago. Another new storefront entity that we see is the prayer room. As in the movie theater of old, citizens can drop in to a prayer room and imagine a different world. And then there are the libraries. Ohio has some of the highest per capita public library patronage statistics in the US, and most town libraries in Ohio are on Main Street. In many towns the only sign of life is kids biking and walking to the library.

fig. 6 _ Marty and Mike at the theatre.

Ohio’s Main Streets are still living organisms, though many of them appear to have lost touch with the narratives that spurred their founding and rise to greatness. As we stood on a typical street corner, we saw buildings and the space between the buildings — streets, sidewalks, parks, and public squares — in which community had been nurtured. In the process of taking these pictures and studying them as a body of work, we were able to pause and appreciate places that once served many generations of citizens but that now appear to be empty stages waiting for Act Two.

And what might Act Two look like? It might involve more people buying dishtowels and sipping coffee and praying and driving and walking on Main Street and rejuvenating some of the historic structures that have been abandoned or underused. Perhaps busier towns will be more difficult to photograph but they will be more livable. And some day our photographs may be seen as capturing a special moment in history when Main Street was a Sleeping Beauty on the verge of reawakening.

Still Life

From the air Ottawa, Ohio looks like it would be a vibrant community. All the major local roads lead to this carefully planned and densely built up county seat. It appears to be a very walkable town, with a commercial and civic core surrounded by residential neighborhoods with tree-lined streets.

During a recent visit, I studied the intersection of Ottawa’s Main and Hickory streets from the quiet prospect of a lawn chair on the sidewalk behind the Putnam County Courthouse. The grand neo-classical 1912 limestone courthouse is the focal point of a Main Street lined with well-preserved late 19th century commercial buildings. On this overcast Saturday afternoon in September not a soul could be seen on the perfectly maintained sidewalks around the courthouse square, and only an occasional car or pickup truck passed through town. One mile north of the courthouse the huge Super Walmart parking lot was packed with cars. Fifty or sixty years ago Ottawa would have been quite different. In those days the Saturday afternoon shopping crowd would have been downtown in full force. Though conceived as a hub for commerce and civic life, today downtown Ottawa has ceased to serve its original purpose. No longer a regional shopping center, it is now a peaceful place that lends itself to solitary contemplation. Without the busy traffic and other distractions of days gone by, one can now meditate on the carefully detailed architecture and urban spaces that still define this as a special place.

fig. 1 _ Putnam County Courthouse. Ottawa, Ohio

Across Ohio, small towns bear witness to the transformation of American civilization from a rural-agrarian to an urban-industrial society. Most Ohio towns were established and developed during the decades prior to the emergence of the mass-production factory culture of the late 19th century. The typical county seat/market town either evolved into an industrial center or it languished. This transformation accelerated in the late 19th century. The sense of community that had been nurtured in the small towns eroded as industries began to draw workers to cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.

Pre-industrial Ohio resembled the world we associate with writers like Mark Twain and Sherwood Anderson who documented the kinds of conversations and relationships that helped to establish cohesive places. The disruption of this cohesiveness began with industrialization, but small towns were to experience yet another assault in the later twentieth century: the growth of national retail chains that built stores outside the town centers and undercut local pricing. In the impressive architecture of town centers like Ottawa’s we can still see evidence of the era when Main Street was the axis mundi of local community. Stores like Walmart were part of the suburbanization of the landscape that emphasized convenience, privacy, and discounted prices over civic consciousness.

We can document the shock waves that have assaulted these precious places by forces outside the town limits — forces that threatened the intimacy that had existed among townspeople for generations. Infatuated with modern conveniences, lower prices, and higher wages to be found outside the old town center, citizens forsook their old ways for something new and modern. The spiritual corruption of industrialization was the furthest thing from the minds of those seeking change.

The diminished relationship of nature to the town center also played a role in the evolution of the small town. Fields and forests within walking distance of town one hundred years ago gave townspeople a connection with nature that has been compromised. Today the distinction between town and country has been blurred by the development of broad areas along all the arteries coming into town. This blur — also known as suburbia — distances the old town center from the landscape from which it emerged and it further isolates the inhabitants from the benefits of nature.

Though the founders of Ohio’s towns were ambitious entrepreneurs, to speak of ambition here today seems paradoxical. Today the streets of these towns are noticeably devoid of pedestrians and local traffic. Cross country tractor trailers — passing through town at high rates of speed — have replaced the smaller trucks that used to bring merchandise downtown to be sold. Many Main Street business appear to be either operating with reduced hours or abandoned. In many towns venerable institutions like pharmacies, hardware stores and movie theaters — once beacons of light and destinations for a county-wide audience — are in ruins. The movie theatre in Paulding, Ohio stands a few hundred yards from the courthouse square. This was once a popular landmark with cool modern architecture, a place that inspired the imagination of Pauldingites. Now it is boarded up and pieces of the building and other trash blow around on the sidewalk out front.

fig. 2 _ Paulding Theatre (1949). Paulding, Ohio

Old post cards and photographs of Ohio Main Streets froze all activity typically capturing the streetscape during off hours. These images portrayed the street devoid of the smells and noise and messy chaos of people interacting and traffic moving though town. They idealized these places as pristine peaceful oases. Today, in places like Ottawa and Paulding, with little human activity or traffic on Main Street, you can experience the serenity of a 1940s post card. Like walking onto a stage after a play has ended and the audience has left, you can study the backdrops of the grand 19th century facades and empty display windows and imagine the scenes of days gone by. As you stand there it is tempting to propose some kind of creative use for this location — like recreating the parade scene from Hello Dolly or staging a ballet or an opera here. Or perhaps creating an amazing race of some kind. With cars or just thousands of runners. Or a religious revival meeting like the one we encountered recently in Greenville, Ohio where dozens of people were witnessing to each other, sharing testimonies and reading the Bible right on the street. This dynamic was more vibrant than any shopping excursion. One thing is certain for now: the audience has definitely moved itself to Walmart. So we can enjoy Main Street all to ourselves. And we are free to imagine a new story for this beautiful old stage set.

fig. 3 _ Main Street Looking East. Van Wert, Ohio
fig. 4 _ Main Street Looking West. Van Wert, Ohio
fig. 5 _ North Hickory Street looking toward East Main Street. Ottawa, Ohio
fig. 6 _ Mural on South Oak Street, Ottawa
fig. 7 _ Plenty of parking space at Ottawa’s Walmart on a quiet weekday.
fig. 8 _ East Second Street. Delphos, Ohio
fig. 9 _ Main Street Looking North. Delphos, Ohio
fig. 10 _ North Main Street. Delphos, Ohio
fig. 11 _ South Main Street. Delphos, Ohio
fig. 12 _ South Main Street. Delphos, Ohio

Pennsylvania’s First Main Street

If you want to get an idea what William Penn’s original utopian vision for Philadelphia looked like, you can visit a re-creation of his country home: Pennsbury Manor. This estate is at the northern end of the 15-mile stretch of land along the Delaware River that Penn had hoped would be the urban nucleus of his new colony. Though largely unrealized, his original concept was comprised of a series of manor houses set back from the river with villages at various landing sites on the riverfront. The river would be the main thoroughfare along which citizens would travel between the villages and manor houses and to the world beyond.

The experience of arriving at Pennsbury today is surreal. On a recent visit we drove though a series of waste disposal sites, power plants, large moss-green pyramids (buried waste), and RV campgrounds. But the immediate precinct around the 37-acre manor site reveals how Penn saw the Delaware River as the Main Street of early Pennsylvania and you can see how anti-urban was Penn’s ideal settlement pattern.

Penn’s vision for a river community for the landed gentry and their tenants was not a workable platform for the growth of what was soon to become the largest city in colonial America. When he arrived from England in 1682 his surveyors had already laid out the grid of what was to be the plan for Philadelphia; they had not been able to obtain title to more than one mile of river frontage because most of the frontage had already been settled by Swedes, Dutch, and others. The rectangle on which the new plan would sit was purchased from three families. The site was easily demarcated: a two-mile stretch between the Delaware and Schuykill rivers, measuring one mile north to south.

fig. 1_ 1801 View of Philadelphia along the Delaware River from the Kensington Oak under which Penn signed his famous treaty with the Native Americans in the early 1680s. On the right side can be seen an example of the kind of country estate Penn had initially envisioned to be the basis for his ideal ”greene country towne.“
fig. 1 _ 1801 View of Philadelphia along the Delaware River from the Kensington Oak under which Penn signed his famous treaty with the Native Americans in the early 1680s. On the right side can be seen an example of the kind of country estate Penn had initially envisioned to be the basis for his ideal “greene country towne.”

To explain Penn’s aversion to cities just review what was happening in England in the mid-17th century. The old landed gentry whose power bases had been quasi-feudal country estates were giving way to the merchant/capitalists based in the cities — breeding grounds for (in Penn’s eyes) all types of human corruption including crime, disease, fire (1666), and fornication. Penn wrote that in cities one sees the works of men whereas in the country one focuses on the works of God.

Though Penn was an idealist he was also a businessman who wanted his Holy Experiment of Pennsylvania to be profitable. So he gave up his linear river colony — with the Delaware River as its main thoroughfare — for the gridded rectangle which was more conducive to real estate speculation in that smaller parcels could be easily sold off and developed.

In some way Penn’s dream has materialized as today Philadelphia has more green park space than any city in the US. Ironically, the area immediately surrounding Pennsbury Manor is a polluted hodgepodge of industrial development.

fig. 2_ Mid-18th century map of Philadelphia showing the grid as it was sited between the Delaware and Schuykill rivers.
fig. 2 _ Mid-18th century map of Philadelphia showing the grid as it was sited between the Delaware and Schuykill rivers.