Over the past 34 years, the Main Street movement has transformed the way communities think about the revitalization of their historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts, and helped put historic preservation back in the community revitalization conversation. Cities and towns across the nation have come to see that a vibrant, sustainable community is only as healthy as its core.
Why Main Streets Matter
We all know where our Main Streets are, but do we know what they are and why they matter? Whether they are named First Avenue or Water Street or Martin Luther King Boulevard, what they represent is universal. Main Streets are the traditional center for social, cultural, and economic activity for their communities. They are the big stage, the core of the community. Our Main Streets tell us who we are and who we were, and how the past has shaped us. We do not go to bland suburbs or enclosed shopping malls to learn about our past, explore our culture, or discover our identity. Our Main Streets are the places of shared memory where the entire community still comes together to live, work, and play.
So what is Main Street? The phrase has been used to describe everything from our nostalgic past to our current economic woes, but when we talk about Main Street®, we are thinking of real places doing real work to revitalize their communities and preserve their character. Specifically, Main Street® is three things: a proven strategy for revitalization, a powerful network of linked communities, and a national support program that leads the field.
1. A Proven Strategy: The Main Street Four-Point Approach®
The Main Street Four-Point Approach ® is a unique preservation-based organizing framework that enables communities to revitalize downtown and neighborhood business districts by leveraging local assets – from historic, cultural, and architectural resources to local enterprises and community pride. It is a comprehensive strategy that addresses the variety of issues and problems that challenge traditional commercial districts.
2. A Powerful Network: The Main Street Approach in Action
Main Street is a national movement that has spanned three decades and taken root in more than 2,000 communities – a movement that has spurred $56 billion in reinvestment in traditional commercial districts, galvanized thousands of volunteers, and changed the way governments, planners, and developers view preservation. Over the past 34 years, the National Main Street Center has overseen the development of a national network of 46 coordinating programs. These coordinating programs help cities, towns, and villages revitalize their downtown and neighborhood business districts. Coordinating programs and staff help build the capacity of local Main Street programs, expand the network of Main Street communities, provide resources and technical assistance, and work with the NMSC to explore new solutions to revitalization challenges and respond to emerging trends throughout the nation.
3. A Leader for the Movement: The National Main Street Center®
Since its founding in 1980, the National Main Street Center has been the leader of a coast-to-coast network now encompassing more than 2,000 programs and leaders who use the Main Street approach to rebuild the historic places and support local assets that create sustainable, vibrant communities.
What Happened to America’s Main Streets?
Before World War II, Main Street was the community’s primary commercial hub. Downtown buildings usually had several tenants — typically a ground-floor retailer and, frequently, several upper-floor offices or apartments; together, these tenants provided enough rent for property owners to keep their buildings in good condition. The presence of the post office, library, banks and local government offices added to the steady flow of people downtown. Not only was Main Street the center of the community’s commercial life, it was also an important part of its social life; people thronged the streets on Saturday nights to meet friends, see a movie and window-shop.
In the past 40 years, America’s downtowns have changed drastically. The creation of the interstate highway system and subsequent growth of suburban communities transformed the ways in which Americans live, work and spend leisure time. With improved transportation routes, people found it easier to travel longer distances to work or shop. Roads that once connected neighborhoods to downtown now carried residents to outlying shopping strips and regional malls. Throughout the nation, in town after town, the story repeated itself. Downtown businesses closed or moved to the mall, shoppers dwindled, property values and sales tax revenues dropped. Some downtowns sank under the weight of their own apathy. Neglected buildings, boarded-up storefronts and empty, trash-strewn streets gradually reinforced the public’s perception that nothing was happening downtown, that nothing was worth saving there. People forgot how important their downtown and its historic commercial buildings were in reflecting their community’s unique heritage.
In many communities downtown merchants and property owners, tried to halt this spiral of decline by imitating their competition — the shopping mall. Their attempts to modernize downtown take the forms of pedestrian malls, covering traditional building fronts with aluminum slipcovers, and attaching huge, oversized signs on their buildings to attract attention. These well-meaning but usually ineffective methods did not stabilize downtown’s decline, mostly because they did not address the fundamental problem — that businesses did not change when the market did, and that people did not see the downtown as a destination for shopping any more. With the economic boom of the 1990s, Main Street also saw increased development occurring outside traditional areas, and the issue of “sprawl” with its uncontrolled growth and cookie cutter architecture that reflected neither a sense of place nor a sense of pride, an became an issue that most communities contend with today.
Facing these issues, over 1,600 communities have adopted the Main Street approach in the past 25 years to look again at Main Street, their heart of the community, to save its historic buildings, to revive its commercial core, to strengthen business, to control community-eroding sprawl, and keep a sense of place and community life in America.