Friday, December 15, 2006

Preserving Main Street

I love the traditional American Main Street lined with independent shops hawking their independent versions of the American dream.

Conversely, I dislike the sprawling soulless American suburbs with cookie cutter strip malls and box stores.

Needless to say, I’ve been greatly disappointed to see that the majority of growth that has occurred during my lifespan has happened in the suburbs. In most cases, the downtowns that I loved as a youth are less than they were when I was born.

The sprawling suburbs have consumed a large portion of the farmland and open space that excite the imagination and charge the soul.

For that matter, one of the primary reasons that I’ve wasted time creating community directories has been an interest in finding ways to preserve the great traditional cultural centers of America that I strongly believe are important to the American psyche.

Anyway, while surfing through the net today, I happened on two interesting sites. The first is the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) from Bozeman, Montana. This organization proclaims the importance of supporting local independent businesses. (Something that my little directories do, and do quite well).

I digging through the various AMIBA sites, I found that many were intensely involved in efforts to preserve traditional main streets such as the Colorado Preservation Council.

My brain began juxtaposing two ideas: Supporting independent businesses and preserving Main Street.

It finally dawned on me what was wrong. The two ideas are oppositional.

Traditionally, Main Street has been the most dynamic, happening and changing place in a city. The reason that people used to flock to Main Street was because it was the happening place that was constantly changing. People used to flock to Main Street to see what was new, innovative and exciting.

The precipitous decline in Main Street began when preservationist councils and aggressive zoning boards started the process of hyper regulation of growth in downtown. Sadly, in most cases, the goal of the zoning board is to preserve the market share of a few powerful players in a city. While zoning boards have proven incapable of attracting business and people to an area, they are extremely adept at shielding powerful concerns in a city from competition.

The goal of preservation councils is generally to stop growth and preserve the character of an area as it existed at some point in the past. The goal of the preservationist is simply soak the town in bureaucratic formaldehyde; so that the downtown will never change. The fact that such sterile environments are neither conducive to the growth of business or to the public at large does not matter.

The traditional American Main Street is not simply an architectural style that existed at a given period of time. Main Street is a process of continual change. If Main Street is first and foremost a process of change, then the very cry to preserve Main Street is an oxymoron. How do you preserve an entity when change is the central to the nature of the entity?

If we really want to renew our downtowns, we need to find ways to reignite the process of continual renewal that defined the traditional Main Streets. We need to get back to the world where we see Main as a center of innovation, growth and improvement, and not as an ideal that existed in the past, that has been lost.

To preserve the dynamic character of downtown, we need to break from the modern mind set that values preserving old buildings to one that preserves the beating heart of Main. That living, beating heart demands continual growth and change.

The Planning commissions are not the ally of small business. Planning and preservation committees are the primary enemy of growth and small business.

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