Main Street: The Time-tested Basis for Green Heart Towns

The Main Street America™ revitalization strategy applied at the grass-roots level has allowed thousands of communities across America to recast their historic downtown districts as the heart of town life. The movement was launched by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1980. Since then, over 2,000 communities have followed the Main Street Approach, bringing renewed energy and activity to America’s downtowns and commercial districts, securing $65.6 billion in new investment, creating more than 556,000 net new jobs, and rehabilitating 260,000 buildings.

In essence, Main Street is a commercial district revitalization/transformation strategy accomplished through authentic historic preservation, and the Four Point Approach®.
— LL

Joining in 1986, the history of the Oklahoma Main Street Program has been rich, and we have long been one of the top programs in the country. This year we are implementing the recently released Four Point Approach Refresh. This is an exciting new top-down strategy that each of our program's Main Street communities can implement. I will write about the Refresh in a later post.

2017 Burger Day Festival
El Reno Main Street

I have served as the Staff Architect for the Oklahoma Main Street Program since 2011, and have walked historic Main Street districts from our state's panhandle to every other corner. The diversity of the Oklahoma landscape is equally matched by the uniqueness of each town’s historic district, and the people therein are no exception. Mainstreeters are among the "salt of the earth," and some have a little spice in there to boot. Every Main Street has its own personality, traditions, and unique gathering spots. 

Periodically, in future posts I plan to give you a better sense of what Main Street is about from my perspective. Working with the many wonderful people in our network has so far been one of life’s great highlights. I look forward to sharing the success of the Main Street America™ program and the transformation it can spark in your community. 

Why Do We Need Main Street? 

Main Street was born in response to key events that began decades earlier that harmed America’s historic commercial districts in our small towns and cities, following the end of World War II.

The American Housing Act of 1949

  • Federally insured home loans and a growing culture of automobile ownership led to increasing suburbanization. As people moved further out from the town center, it led to rapid decline in the condition of our historic downtowns. 
  • In the name of progress, Urban Renewal (circa 1960-1975) razed large areas of many historic town centers. Besides the perceived blight removal (aka slums), the demolition laid the groundwork for sterile, modernist buildings and plazas (in homage to the pigeon, perhaps) and the integration of our burgeoning highway system. 

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956

The passage of the Highway Act of 1956 led to the construction of over 46,000 miles of high-speed, limited access highways that stretched across the country. At the time, it was the largest and most expensive public works project of all time. 

I-94 Ribbon Ceremony in Wisconsin Attending were Miss Concrete & Miss. Blacktop

I-94 Ribbon Ceremony in Wisconsin
Attending were Miss Concrete & Miss. Blacktop

  • Former travel routes and the commercial development along them became less frequented, as Americans adjusted to a new high-speed lifestyle - traveling farther, faster than ever before.
  • New development occurred near the highway access points, and stole vitality from traditional routes through towns nearby. Newer state highways and bypasses were guilty too, and kept their distance from "congested" areas of towns. 
  • The ensuing decades of Planning continued to allow our towns and cities to be designed with first privileges given over to the automobile. The scale of the impact across our country could be one of the most negative cultural influences ever. It is a true shame that we are just now waking up to its effects.

Modern Challenges for Main Street

Although Urban Renewal affected small towns too, they maintained their historic commercial districts a bit longer, out of necessity. But even since Urban Renewal has ended, our historic districts remain a David battling Goliath in every community. Our single stone is the battle cry "Shop Local!" Today our challenges are BIG indeed. 

  • Beginning in 1969 Wal-Mart incorporated and began leading a movement of auto-centric, big-box development. Not only is this kind of development especially unsustainable, it also furthered the cycle of disinvestment in our historic downtowns.
  • City leaders saw the sale-tax projections and forgot about the many essential, local businesses these out-of-towners would hurt. The big-boxer's strategy was, and still is, to roll many different kinds of specialties into one location. This is for your convenience, of course, and huge profits for their shareholders. 
  • Today, Main Street is facing the Internet, and commerce is anyone’s game. Small-businesses must work as hard as ever to keep up with the threat of free shipping and everyone's need for instant gratification. Fortunately, social media allows anyone with a laptop to market their business within their circle and beyond.  

To combat these modern threats to Main Street, the battle cry "Shop Local" needs to be heard in every town square. Leaders like American Express have supported the efforts to build this consensus. I know that Main Street organizations across the country request "Shop Small" promotional items each year in anticipation of Small Business Saturday

Main Street Counterculture is Growing

For the last 37 years the National Main Street Center (now Main Street America™) has certainly become a nation-wide movement. It is a counter culture that champions the little guys, the Mom & Pops, and entrepreneurs. Loving your historic downtown is core to living in a Green Heart Town.

Loving your historic downtown is core to living in a Green Heart Town.
— LL

I hope you will think a little higher of your town's Main Street district, support small business owners, attend downtown events, and volunteer in the efforts to make your historic heart of town better for the next generation. 

Quote to Ponder

Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.
— Jane Jacobs

Questions: What kinds of memories do you have as a child in your downtown? Do our children/grandchildern have the same opportunity today? 

Share this post with a friend!