The Main Streetification of shopping malls

Perhaps you have seen the advertisements for Small Business Saturday – it will be fascinating to see if this campaign works. While the national retail market is not good overall, this piece suggests that “Main Street [is] making a comeback at the expense of the shopping mall.”

In short, the most successful malls usurped the role of Main Street as the commercial and even cultural center of the communities they served.

Now, however, many shoppers want Main Street back.

Development of new malls has almost completely stopped, with only two being erected in the country since the beginning of 2009, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Outdoor town center concepts, featuring brick sidewalks, streetlights and even public clocks evoking the Main Street of yore, are climbing to a degree that many owners of enclosed malls are considering dramatic makeovers, some including plans to tear off the roof of, or “de-mall” enclosed shopping centers.

I feel this headline is a bit misleading: we’re not talking about a return to traditional downtowns. Rather, it is taking older shopping malls and adding “older” elements, creating a 21st century facsimile of what retailers and Disney want you to think old downtowns were like (but with modern amenities). This isn’t that different than the strategies a lot of older downtowns have pursued in order to become a little more mall-like. Perhaps the real story here is that we are moving toward an amalgamation of shopping mall and downtown where people want to purchase the latest and greatest but really feel like they are in a community setting. Perhaps we could call these new facilities “Main Street malls.” (Though I wonder how these are different from some of the new “lifestyle centers,” particularly the New Urbanist ones.)

I am a little miffed that the article provides little evidence that shoppers really want “Main Street malls.” Are developers not building malls because they are not needed or have the tastes of shoppers changed?

Incorporating Hispanic businessowners into civic and business groups

Many communities have civic and business groups comprised of local businessmen. In Iowa and in other places in the United States, it has been a challenge to incorporate Hispanic business owners into these organizations:

Main Street Iowa, like other programs nationwide, has been working to overcome barriers, many of them cultural, that keep Hispanic-owned businesses from joining the historic preservation group.

Specialists such as Thom Guzman and Norma Ramirez de Miess said the effort is crucial to revitalizing Iowa main streets and downtowns, because Hispanics are rapidly becoming a fixture in Iowa’s business landscape. Hispanics are the state’s fastest-growing business owners and have the fastest-growing population…

Terry Besser, a sociologist with Iowa State University, said Main Street programs — as well as chambers and other merchant or business groups — have their work cut out for them. Her research shows that Hispanic owners often distrust outsiders and government.

A study of 18 rural communities in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska showed that 24 percent of Hispanic-owned companies were business association members, vs. nearly 70 percent of businesses owned by white men.

The main suggestion in the article is that community leaders need to build personal ties with Hispanic businessowners before they can address commerce issues. How many communities do a good job at such outreach? This is an issue of social networking: white businessowners are plugged into these community organizations which can then lead to other opportunities.

This is a growing concern in communities where shopping areas, whether they be historic downtowns or strip malls or shopping centers, may be split between businessowners of different backgrounds. Working on projects, like building preservation or facade improvement, may prove to be more difficult. Local business organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, usually aim to work on improving business opportunities for the whole community but this could be problematic in terms of lobbying or getting things done if large portions of the business community are not on board.

Yet I wonder if the aims of Hispanic business owners and these groups are the same and if it is really a problem if they are not.

Viewing Main Street at Disneyland alongside its inspiration (Marceline, Missouri)

A number of sociologists have in recent years written about spaces where there is an attempt to build in nostalgia, to recreate an atmosphere from the past but with new materials and design. One of the places to see this is in Disneyland’s Main Street, the opening part of the park where Walt Disney attempted to produce a copy (or an improvement?) of the typical small-town downtown.

The Chicago Tribune has a short photo essay where they show pictures from Disney’s Main Street alongside pictures from downtown Marceline, Missouri, the small town that Disney claimed influenced his later Main Street. While this just a limited set of pictures, seeing these images side by side does reveal some things:

1. Main Street in Marceline looks similar to the Main Streets of many small towns: brick buildings, a little bit drab (probably partially due to the fate of small towns since the era when Disney was in Marceline), some “old-time” features (such as the clock on the stand at the corner).

2. In comparison, Disneyland’s version really does seem “hyper-real”: it is much more colorful (or is that just the sun in southern California?), the buildings feature extra features (more architectural touches, more flash than just the plain brick), and there are crowds of people walking through. While the buildings of Marceline are more functional, the buildings at Disneyland are meant to entertain and invoke feelings (such as nostalgia and consumerism). Disneyland’s Main Street looks like a movie set whereas as Marceline looks like dull reality.

3. Perhaps we could make a case that Disney took his pre-teen experiences and translated them into his Disneyland Main Street. Perhaps to a pre-teen, Marceline’s downtown was the height of excitement: different goods being sold, people from around the town (and area) gathering together, new things to look at. A more cynical take would be that the Disney Main Street is a glamorous (or garish) pastiche of real downtowns where people cared less about entertainment and more about maintaining community.