Main Street evokes a particular image that is certainly challenged by the expensive homes on some of these Main Streets featured on Curbed. Here is one example:
Nantucket’s historic Main Street has been home to impeccably-maintained million-dollar mansions for decades, so it surprised the Times to find 141 Main in a shoddy state in 2001. That very house has since been fully renovated and listed for $7.9M. The historic columned manse, known as the George C. Gardner House, dates to 1835 and sits on a half-acre lot, but lacks any view of the ocean. There is, however, a private swimming pool, which, according to the listing, could no longer be installed under Historic District regulations.
As suggested by the Wall Street versus Main Street political rhetoric in recent years, Main Street is a powerful idea. Or look at the entry area in Walt Disney’s theme parks: a recreated version of the Main Street of the town in which he grew up.
In reality, real Main Streets don’t really matter as much today. Most Americans don’t live in small towns (with a majority of Americans now living in suburbs), many post-World War II communities don’t really have Main Streets, and businesses are now spread out all over the place in strip malls, shopping malls, business parks, and lifestyle centers. Americans are not as interested in running into neighbors and acquaintances on Main Street; we’d rather do so on Facebook.
These expensive listings suggest a transformation of Main Street away from the ideals of community life to the best private residences money can buy. Main Street, like many other things, can become commodified and can become exclusive by being priced out of the reach of many Americans. Additionally, these listings remind us of the variability across Main Streets. As we might guess, the Main Street of Santa Monica, California is going to be quite different than the Main Street of small town Kansas.
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.