The Death and Life of Main Street

The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community

Miles Orvell
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 308
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  • Book Info
    The Death and Life of Main Street
    Book Description:

    For more than a century, the term "Main Street" has conjured up nostalgic images of American small-town life. Representations exist all around us, from fiction and film to the architecture of shopping malls and Disneyland. All the while, the nation has become increasingly diverse, exposing tensions within this ideal. InThe Death and Life of Main Street, Miles Orvell wrestles with the mythic allure of the small town in all its forms, illustrating how Americans continue to reinscribe these images on real places in order to forge consensus about inclusion and civic identity, especially in times of crisis.Orvell underscores the fact that Main Street was never what it seemed; it has always been much more complex than it appears, as he shows in his discussions of figures like Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Frank Capra, Thornton Wilder, Margaret Bourke-White, and Walker Evans. He argues that translating the overly tidy cultural metaphor into real spaces--as has been done in recent decades, especially in the new urbanist planned communities of Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany--actually diminishes the communitarian ideals at the center of this nostalgic construct. Orvell investigates the way these tensions play out in a variety of cultural realms and explores the rise of literary and artistic traditions that deliberately challenge the tropes and assumptions of small-town ideology and life.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0149-6
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    What is the best place to hide in America? Three films of the 1940s offer the same answer: small-town America. In Alfred HitchcockʼsShadow of a Doubt(1943), serial killer Charles Oakley hides out in a small California town, Santa Rosa, with his sisterʼs family, though suspicion and the pursuit of the law eventually drive him to flee. InThe Stranger(1946), Orson Welles uses a small town in Connecticut as the refuge of Nazi mastermind Franz Kindler, who has escaped from postwar Europe and assumes a new life as a professor at a small college before he is hunted...

  5. Chapter One Main Street Mythologies
    (pp. 13-46)

    Every town or settlement in the United States has a central artery running through it, and in most cases that road or avenue is called Main Street: it is the essence of the small town and synonymous with it. Yet for all its generic character, consider the range of referents embedded in this most familiar of icons: Do we mean the New England town with its traditional village green, with commercial streets bordering it, and featuring a steepled church that calls the community together into a symbolic whole, both political and religious? Or do we mean the southern town, with...

  6. Chapter Two Fighting Extinction: The Reinvention of Main Street
    (pp. 47-71)

    The small town has been dying for almost as long as it has been in existence. The product of geographic, social, and psychological forces that conduce to association and collective effort, the town is also a relatively fragile organism open to attack from a multiplicity of forces. From deserted ghost towns in the West, to Main Streets with boarded and vacant shops in the Midwest, to deserted towns in New England that stand like a memory of their former bustling selves, there are countless examples of failed and failing towns that have succumbed to a variety of elements. In this...

  7. Chapter Three Living on Main Street: Sinclair Lewis and the Great Cultural Divide
    (pp. 72-99)

    There is a perfect irony in the fact that the model for Sinclair Lewis’s Gopher Prairie—Sauk Centre, Minnesota—now celebrates the author ofMain Streetas its favorite son. Lewis had excoriated the town in his 1920 novel, which would famously shatter the complacency of small-town America; and his satire was transparent enough for Sauk Centre to acknowledge, in a town website nearly a century later, thatMain Streethad indeed irritated the townspeople, who were not incapable of seeing that some of their leading citizens were models for the novel’s characters. But Lewis would have appreciated the energy...

  8. Chapter Four Main Street as Memory
    (pp. 100-129)

    Even as the dust was settling on Sinclair Lewis’s demolition of Gopher Prairie, the author was moving on to a critique of the small city, the Zenith of his 1922 novel,Babbitt. Now it was not the dullness of the small town that provoked Lewis; it was the very effort to move it forward under the sign of “progress.” Businessman Vergil Gunch of Zenith offers this uplifting summary of the small town’s effort to raise itself, literally, out of the mud: instead of wooden sidewalks, “you find pavements and you don’t want to just look at what these small towns...

  9. Chapter Five Main Street: Belonging and Not Belonging
    (pp. 130-148)

    When the new Park Forest development thirty miles south of Chicago was marketed in the late forties as the first postwar planned suburban community, the brochure addressed the reader in terms of the bifurcation between city and small town that had become an accepted convention of American culture: “Many of you reading this story come from smaller cities in the Midwest. Recall for a moment the friendly, heartwarming, social life that was so much a part of your everyday experience. If life in a big city has denied this enjoyment of human companionship to you and your family, here is...

  10. A section of color illustrations
    (pp. None)
  11. Chapter Six Utopian Dreams: From Forest Hills to Greenbelt
    (pp. 149-183)

    Sitting in a small airport in the Florida Panhandle, following a week spent looking at Florida’s New Urbanist developments of the past twenty-five years, I see a large sign directly opposite me advertising newly built properties in the area: “Preserving nature’s beauty and tucked inland just enough to be off the beaten path, we’re building communities where small town living means quality of life, not lack of choices.”¹ It is the perfect conclusion to my trip. The billboard, with enticing photographs of unpeopled spaces, sums up an ethos that has been widely appealing, if not dominant, in the late twentieth...

  12. Chapter Seven Rethinking Suburbia: Levittown or the New Urbanism?
    (pp. 184-214)

    With the withdrawal of the government from community building following the Roosevelt years and World War II, the future of new town planning was in the hands of private developers, who stepped into a perceived vacuum in home construction in the United States. And the focus immediately shifted from the creation of the ideal community to the creation of individual houses, packed into suburban developments, in short, the kind of tract housing that has become endemic to suburbia for the past sixty years. In doing so, builders were responding to what was perceived as the American’s God-given right, the sum...

  13. Chapter Eight Main Street in the City
    (pp. 215-234)

    Drive through some parts of North or West Philadelphia today, less than a mile from the high-rise office buildings and luxury condominiums in the core of Center City, and you will see single-family homes and twins, constructed of brick with white-painted front doors and trim, many with front lawns and backyards, a white picket fence here and there, sidewalks, porches, and even possibly a cul-de-sac. Over the past fifteen years or so, the urban blight that had marked these areas—run-down townhouses, abandoned buildings with boarded doors and windows, broken glass and defaced walls, rubble-filled lots, the remains of derelict...

  14. Conclusion: Consuming Main Street
    (pp. 235-242)

    One might see a kind of poetic justice in this circle of history: the cities that decimated the small towns during the first half of the twentieth century were themselves brought to the brink of disaster by a burgeoning suburbanization movement, including the outlandish growth of shopping centers and malls outside the city. Then, with the decline of suburban malls in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the small towns began to establish their own functional identity by re-creating (or inventing) themselves as incarnations of nostalgia, even while the suburbs have tried to redefine themselves as small towns, with...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 243-268)
  16. Index
    (pp. 269-286)