Miles Orvell: Main Street in the 21st Century

The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community, by Miles OrvellFor 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. In The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community, 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.

In the following guest post, Orvell writes about the relationship between malls and main streets in the twenty-first century.


Travel across the U.S.A., from Maine to California, and sooner or later you’re bound to stop at a new Main Street-inspired mall. Along the way, you may also find yourself driving into a town with an actual historic Main Street that is struggling to assert its relevance in the age of malls and supermalls. After the postwar romance with the mega shopping mall—which drained the vitality out of small towns across the U.S.—Americans are gradually coming back to the idea of the small-scale community embodied in the Main Street model.

The new Main Street malls that have proliferated in the past ten years have been gradually replacing a generation of indoor malls that promised climate-controlled environments, modest recreation (mini-golf), and the occasional central point of interest (fountain, carousel), but were largely insipid spaces. Yet ironically, these indoor spaces were themselves inspired by the “town center” idea promulgated by Victor Gruen. Gruen, a Viennese architect who came to the U.S. in 1941, revolutionized the retail industry with his designs for indoor and outdoor malls in the 1950s, including Southdale Mall in Minnesota (1956), a huge indoor space often considered the first indoor mall. Gruen’s malls provided a template that was widely imitated across suburbia and was even brought into the city in an effort to fend off the suburban competition. But these spaces, modeled as they were on Gruen’s fond memories of European public spaces, had a deadness and monotony that never quite provided that experience of lively civic space. The malls have been dying for the past twenty-five years, though many have found new uses, for example, as sites for garden-apartment complexes.

The new Main Street malls are designed to remedy the problem of mall ennui by providing a space more closely modeled on the liveliness of Main Street—a variety of facades and shop windows, friendly benches and lampposts, neighborhood scale, sidewalks. This model functions best where weather permits an outdoor space, but it can be brought inside as well. And behind these Main Street malls stands the ur-Main Street, created by Disneyland in the mid-1950s. If there’s a sameness to these new Main Street malls, it’s because they are of course ersatz creations, products of a designer’s dream of what “the Main Street experience” means to us today.

If American shoppers have become disenchanted with the mega-mall and are enamored of the Main Street mall, why not go to Main Street itself? As conventional malls have lost their luster, small towns with historic Main Street districts have realized the appeal that a downtown shopping street can have and they are trying to capitalize on their assets. But given the competition from malls that has endured for decades, these downtown centers, grown moribund in many cases, are in need of imagination and energy—and often funding assistance as well.

The federal government has created partnerships and initiatives to help this revitalization agenda, including the National Trust Main Street Center, a part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The results have been in many cases dramatic, with towns exploiting their own histories in an effort to provide what the instant Main Street malls lack: authenticity. That authenticity derives from the historic actuality that has shaped the architecture, the streets, and the peculiar features of towns that have developed gradually over time, as opposed to towns that have sprung up from the drawing board.

While there is a degree of convergence between the Main Street mall and the revitalized authentic small town, there is a also a real difference: a walk in the mall is a walk in the mall, a privately owned space that is controlled by the rules of the company, which keeps things nicely clean and sanitized but also somewhat lacking in the spontaneity of real life. The real Main Street, by contrast, is open to a wider diversity of characters, is subject to the rules that generally govern public places, and there is no single controlling presence or overseer. If a business fails, there’s no one to put up a sign that says that a new franchise is coming soon. The real Main Street, as a street, never closes, and it’s messier than any ersatz mall.

But the “real” Main Street of today’s revitalized towns is in many ways as much a creation of an imagined ideal, a nostalgic past, as the mall is. Real towns weren’t filled with boutiques designed to attract tourists. They were the workaday world of butchers, grocers, cleaners, drug stores, shoe repair shops, and hardware stores. These essential functions have largely been relegated to strip malls just outside of the town center, with the “authentic” Main Streets of the revived small town featuring gift shops, candy stores, art galleries, restaurants, and coffee shops. Under the influence of the Disney template, even the real small towns of the twenty-first century are remaking themselves to emulate that idealized experience, aiming for a vitality they may well have lacked in the actual past.

The Main Street template, born in the Disneyland of the Fifties, has become for the twenty-first century a space that tries to recreate the civic ideal of an open commercial society, whether in the mall or in the actual small town. But we need to recognize just how fabricated these spaces are, especially the Main Street malls, owned by real estate investment trusts which cater to a nostalgia for a society that we have come to idealize in an America that has become, increasingly, the home of corporations.

Miles Orvell is professor of English and American studies at Temple University. He is author of several books, including The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community. Read his previous guest post on this blog, “From Mayberry to Dogville: The Small Town as Microcosm.”