Miles Orvell, professor of English and American Studies at Temple University, is the author of The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (1989) and The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Space, Memory, and Community (2012). I spoke with him in June 2013.
How can small towns help suburbs find their way?
Miles Orvell: Suburban [downtowns] are struggling to find an identity and (more important) a function that works for today. To some degree they’re competing with suburban malls, many of which have undergone significant redesign. Indoor malls have been dying a slow death for the last 25 years, strangled by their predictably replicated and insipid spaces. People have tired of them, and the malls that have survived have done so by providing something closer to the “Main Street” experience—the spontaneity and comfortable feel of a human-scaled environment. But in the climate-controlled space of the mall, the surroundings still feel fake.
As conventional malls (even modified ones) have lost their luster, small towns with historic Main Street districts have realized the appeal that a downtown shopping street can have and they are trying to capitalize on their assets. But given the competition from malls that has endured for decades, these downtown centers, grown moribund in many cases, have been in need of imagination and energy—and often funding assistance as well.
The federal government has created partnerships and initiatives to help this revitalization agenda, including the National Trust Main Street Center, a part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And the results have been in many cases dramatic, with towns exploiting their own histories in an effort to provide what the instant Main Street malls lack: a sense of authenticity. That authenticity derives from the historic actuality that has shaped the architecture, the streets, and the peculiar features of towns that have developed gradually over time, as opposed to towns that have sprung up from the drawing board.
Many suburbs have elements of this that they can build on.
Orvell: While there is a degree of convergence between the Main Street mall and the revitalized authentic small town, there is also a real difference: a walk in the mall is a walk in the mall—a privately owned space that is controlled by the rules of the company, which keeps things nicely clean and sanitized but also somewhat lacking in the spontaneity of real life.
The real Main Street, by contrast, is open to a wider diversity of characters, is subject to the rules that generally govern public places, and there is no single controlling presence or overseer. If a business fails, there’s no one to put up a sign that says that a new franchise is coming soon. The real Main Street, as a street, never closes, and it’s messier than any ersatz mall. But it also feels more like real space, and that’s what’s attractive.
What helps make it real?
Orvell: What makes it real is that things are somewhat unpredictable in real space. A kid comes riding down the street on a bicycle; someone honks a horn; a woman is walking her dog; a breeze pushes the hanging plants; the sun comes out on a cloudy day. That’s what reality is, and not the sterile predictability of a mall. Of course the more amenities the better—benches, flowers, convenient parking, outdoor seating when weather permits, festivals that bring people out for special occasions, street entertainment. Downtown business associations can work together to achieve these things.
But it’s hard to plan for the right degree of messiness!
Orvell: Exactly. It’s about balance, and about creating a space where things can happen. Don’t forget that the “real” Main Street of today’s revitalized towns is in many ways as much a creation of an imagined ideal, a nostalgic past, as the mall is. Real towns weren’t filled with boutiques designed to attract tourists. They were the workaday world of butchers, grocers, cleaners, drug stores, shoe repair shops, and hardware stores. These essential functions have largely been relegated to strip malls just outside of the town center, with the “authentic” Main Streets of the revived small town featuring gift shops, candy stores, art galleries, restaurants, and coffee shops.
Under the influence of the Disney template, even the real small towns of the 21st century are remaking themselves to emulate that idealized experience, aiming for a vitality they may well have lacked in the actual past.
Sounds like we’re walking a tightrope here.
Orvell: Yes, it is a tightrope, and you want to get the right balance of shops, enough parking, and enough light entertainment to make things slightly unpredictable. What’s important for revitalizing the suburban downtown is to provide the functional shops that bring people out on a daily basis (cleaners, drug stores, hardware) along with the enhanced shopping that provides special destinations—special item shops, for example. Plus, of course, cafés and restaurants.
The revitalized downtown can be more attractive than the mall or the instant “town center,” since the latter suffers from the signs of fabricated space, space that has come out of the architect’s studio, funded by real estate investment trusts.
“Fabricated space”? What is that and how do we avoid it?
Orvell: The signs are in the blandness of design, cheap materials, lack of originality. Spaces that are built freshly to serve as new downtown amenities should have a distinctiveness in materials and design that will enhance the setting. Individuality of character can be visible in the trimmings, detail, color, the way the design fits the available space, etc. Avoid any “prefabricated” look, if possible.