Why Every Main Street Looks The Same
How Municipal Policy & Financial Incentives turned Main Street Into Chain Street
Walk down the Main Street of any city or town today and you might notice something off. It’s not that the roads are too wide (though they are), or that the sidewalks are too narrow (though they are, too), or even that there’s not much to walk towards (though this is usually true, as well). These are all known elements that North Americans have gotten used to in their streetscapes for nearly a century. It’s not even that what would be considered the Main Street for most communities isn’t actually a Main Street at all, but rather a stroad amidst sprawl — those highways masquerading as “commercial corridors”. None of these things would strike the casual observer as deviations from the status quo.
No. Look into the storefronts, or at their signs, and you’ll notice something else. Something that contributes to the sense of sameness, dullness, and overall lack of character that seems to be a near constant critique of contemporary places. They render our communities as spaces where we don’t particularly want to spend much time in, despite them being all that we have.
From neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, Main Street to Main Stroad, these stores are all the same. The set of incentives that drives this sameness is prevalent in every community in America. It’s the story of how our basic needs have become corporatized through scale & credit, zoned to transactionalism, and rendered profoundly anti-human at the expense of the small businesses and idiosyncratic development patterns that lend character, diversity, community, and meaning to our places.
Historically, the composition of a town’s Main Street was fairly consistent; All communities had a grocery store, a bank, a barber shop or salon, a few restaurants, and perhaps a dry goods store or boutique. But nearly every one of these stores was locally owned, so even if two towns had the same type of stores on paper, the character, personality, history, and complex interpersonal dynamics imbued into those places would have such a radically different impact that one could hardly say that either town was very much like the other at all.