Main Street is not only a place; it is also an idea.
Walt Disney put this idea into the public consciousness with the opening of ‘Main Street USA’—a replica of an early 20th century American town—at Disneyland in 1955. He packaged a sense of history and community strength, as well as commercial vibrancy.
Today, Main Streets in big cities and small towns across the United States are undergoing a renaissance that is making them more dynamic, and more real, than anything Disney could have dreamed. These streets are hubs of diverse community activity where, day and night, people come to shop, watch a movie, mail a letter, or meet friends for a meal.
Over the past 30 years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Center has worked with communities to rehabilitate buildings and revitalize downtowns and commercial districts by using small-scale, innovative approaches that leverage historic, cultural, and architectural resources to encourage new local business. The National Trust model has been replicated across the country.
In Los Angeles, the decades-old Broadway Initiative was a partnership between real estate developers, the local community redevelopment agency, and preservationists who worked to transform the historic downtown into “a vital 24-hour urban place—a center for arts and entertainment, a community for residents, a lively marketplace, and a gathering spot.”
Smaller cities from Old Town Lansing, Michigan to Newark, Delaware, to Silver City, New Mexico have also made investments in their Main Streets that have helped create jobs, rehabilitate historic buildings, reduce vacancy rates, and bring a commercial and social vibrancy back to once-neglected downtowns.
Oyster Bay, Long Island is following the Main Street model and achieving results. The hamlet of Oyster Bay is rich in history, with a desirable location on the harbor, a downtown comprised of 19th and early 20th century residential and commercial buildings, and historic landmarks. After years of grassroots efforts, public and private investors have united behind a vision of a revitalized Main Street and, as a result, the downtown is seeing unprecedented improvements. Isaac Kremer, the Executive Director of the Oyster Bay Main Street Association, reports that over the past decade the Main Street program and community leaders have “generated more than $30 million of investment, improved more than 60 historic buildings, and attracted more than 50 new businesses.”
Kremer believes that part of the success of the efforts has been “changing the perception of the place in people’s minds.” Events like farmers’ markets and a concert series have helped to make downtown an attractive destination for the entire community. Small-scale physical improvements, such the installation of lamp poles, flower baskets, and information kiosks, have also helped to make downtown a more inviting place.
“You need comprehensive efforts and someone pushing the efforts every day,” said Kremer. It is not one person, one organization, or one business that makes Main Street revitalization possible. But rather it is the combined resources—the sweat equity of volunteers, financial support of businesses and banks, and the support of governmental agencies—that make change possible.