Main Street, USA and the Power of Myth
Now storefronts house real estate offices, specialty food shops, and art galleries. The theater is intact, as is the church, the post office, and the hardware store. All have a fresh coat of paint or have had the dirt sandblasted from the brick. While revitalization is preferable to disused Main Streets, it must be remembered that these cites are replications.
Main Street USA is a complex projection of the physical, conceptual, and rhetorical. First, it is a place—Main Streets are real streets in real towns. There are over 10,466 streets named “Main” in this country. 1 Second, it is a myth created by embellished memories abetted with idealized images. It reaches into the core of the American psyche, and conjures associations of honesty, simplicity, and goodness. Finally, as a dominant image of the American way of life, it has proven useful politically. The pervasive strength of Main Street as a symbol combined with its potency as a myth has been used with great success by twentieth and twenty-first century politicians to motivate voters to behave contrary to their best interests.
Since the 1990s, there has been an uptick in revitalizing many American small town downtowns in an attempt to regain their former prominence as the center for social and economic transactions. Architect and writer James Sanders observes, “The elite are the ones embracing the revitalized downtowns. What they end up with is not a true old downtown.” While physically, the buildings resemble their former selves from a period between 1890 and 1950, the interior uses have changed to suit the times. “They are basically open air shopping malls.”2 Now storefronts house real estate offices, specialty food shops, and art galleries. The theater is intact, as is the church, the post office, and the hardware store. All have a fresh coat of paint or have had the dirt sandblasted from the brick. While revitalization is preferable to Greenfield building or disused Main Streets, it must be remembered that these cites are replications. Says Peter Halley, the hyperreal artist and cultural critic, these “[c]ities are doubles of themselves, cities that only exist as nostalgic references to the idea of city and to the ideas on communication and social intercourse…[T]hey no longer fulfill the function of the old cities. They are no longer centers; they only serve to simulate the phenomenon of the center.” 3
Revitalization is mimicry, simulacra in the second layer of falsity. According to film archivist Rick Prelinger, “Small town rural America doesn’t have many competitive tools in its tool box but you notice that any town that can afford it has prettied up its Main Street. But most of these towns are just either total retirement communities or they have vanished, and are now just ghost towns. It’s working, poor people making crafts or selling antiques that don’t really have much value. And so Main Street is almost an anachronistic thing.”4
What appears to be little known is the degree to which so very many of our Main Streets across the country have been irreparably damaged by the methamphetamine epidemic. In his book, Methland, Nick Reding describes how, in thirty years, the American small town and methamphetamine have become synonymous. As a reporter, Reding ran across the drug in 1999 when he was in Gooding, Idaho writing a story on ranching. On his frequent trips to the Midwest, he continued to observe methamphetamine’s growing presence. In 2005, he began the book and settled on telling the story through the experiences of Oelwein, a small town in Iowa.
Like many small towns that relied on farming and small businesses to sustain it, Oelwein lost out to the K-marts and multinational farming corporations. On Main Street, “the sidewalks were cracked, half the buildings… stood vacant, and foot traffic was practically nonexistent.”5 Behind the main drag, in the Third Ward, one can “look down at the collapsing sidewalk or across the vacant lot at a burned out home…[as] a young man in a trench coat picks through the Dumpster, shaking despite the heat. Here, amid the double-wides of the Third Ward, among the packs of teenage boys riding, gang-like on their Huffy bicycles, the economy and culture of Oelwine are more securely tied to the drug than [to any other industry].”6
- Mapping Main Street, http://www.mappingmainstreet.org/ ↩
- James Sanders, interview by Ann Weiser, phone call, October 20, 2011, New York, New York. ↩
- Edward Soja, “Inside Exopolis,” Variations on a Theme Park, ed. Michael Sorkin (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992), 113. ↩
- Rick Prelinger interview by Ann Weiser, taped, Dec. 2, 2012, New York, NY. ↩
- Nick Reding, Methland: Thr Death and Life of an American Small Town, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009) 12. ↩
- Ibid, 5. ↩