A review by Christopher Hawthorne in The Los Angeles Times of a recent documentary film about the controversy ages ago between Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of American Cities, and Robert Moses, the planning “czar” of New York City—a David-and-Goliath struggle between two opposing points-of-view in which Jane (playing the “David” role) ultimately emerged victorious—echoes the issues involved in a more recent planning controversy of the same nature. This was triggered by an April 9 article in the Sunday Review by Louis Hyman entitled “The Myth of Main Street.”
We will not attempt to reproduce Mr. Hyman’s long article here (there is a link to it below, in the first letter), but will simply summarize it. His argument is that America’s typical Main Street (see photos below) had, by the end of the twentieth century, failed as the social and commercial nexus of our towns, its stores largely boarded up or in disrepair—replaced by far more efficient commercial venues such as Walmart, selling at far cheaper prices. Hyman’s perspective seems to have stirred up a hornet’s nest among his readers, who feel that cheap goods are not necessarily what Americans desire most. This caught our attention because we too have felt for some time that America is paying too dearly for cheap sneakers from China, in a loss to our traditional cultural values. This feeling is clearly reflected in the numerous letters to the editor, three of which we reproduce here.
Typical Texas small-town
Mount Airy, North Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina
Deadwood City, South Dakota
Our Nostalgia for Main Street
Reproduced from The New York Times, Sunday, April 16, 2017
To the Editor:
“The Myth of Main Street,” by Louis Hyman (Sunday Review, April 9), itself perpetuates myths that deserve deconstruction. I have been studying Main Streets since 2008, and in visits to 135 Main Streets in the United States and overseas, I find that there is a great range of vitality that cannot be attributed solely to the wealth of the neighborhood. Poor neighborhoods with powerful Main Streets enjoy not only the benefits of targeted commercial opportunities, but also the other “goods” of Main Street: its civic and cultural offerings, its contribution to society building and its fun.
I have also observed, in my visits to those Main Streets, that there is a tenacity of industry everywhere. Small factories hum with productivity, support local workers and contribute to the nation’s gross national product. There is no reason, in a nation of more than 300 million people, that these remarkable assets cannot be rebuilt into a network of decent jobs and quality goods. This is a much better option for the nation’s health than revisiting piecework, however gussied up by being on an online platform.
MINDY THOMPSON FULLILOVE, New York
The writer is a professor of urban policy and health at the Milano School for International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at the New School.
To the Editor:
Louis Hyman seems O.K. that many town centers are now composed of nail salons, karate studios and boarded-up windows, while “thriving” cities have turned their centers over to luxury condos and stores.
Mr. Hyman dismisses small businesses as “inefficient.” He values lower prices as the greatest good. My father-in-law drove autos from the town’s Studebaker dealership. When the dealer changed to Dodge, he drove Dodges. Small business used to help bind communities. Now, such community support is quaint.
Even considering its new hires, opening a Walmart Supercenter leads to up to 14 locally owned businesses and 150 retail jobs disappearing, property crime and obesity rising, and tax revenue dropping.
Modern consumers rarely consider how their obsession with paying rock-bottom prices is driving labor sources abroad. Business’s primary value has shifted from serving as a community’s backbone to enabling fire-sale prices.
JOHN PETERS, Wayland, MA.
To the Editor:
The wealth that built Main Street gave us a distinct physical legacy that should not be allowed to die. There are thousands upon thousands of late-19th-century brick and stone Main Street post offices, firehouses, libraries, theaters, churches, mixed-use buildings and town halls, all set close to the sidewalk within walking distance of each other and the surrounding houses. Main Street was not just a place for making a living; it was the civic heart of town, formed to enable gathering and learning as well as commerce.
Chain stores may change economics, but they need not change the essential form of these walkable places. Woolworth’s and Kress contributed handsome urban buildings that still stand, many reoccupied by newer chains like CVS and Dollar Tree, or independent businesses. Some, of course, are derelict. A Works Progress Administration-style federal program could put locals to work repairing their Main Streets and renovating adjacent downtown factories for, say, clean energy jobs and training. But that would require a different president and Congress entirely.
SANDY SORLIEN, Philadelphia
The writer is a photographer and urban planner working on a book about main streets.
Is This the Acceptable Alternative to Main Street?