Marketplace Scratch Pad

Main Street’s where it’s at

Scott Jagow Aug 31, 2009

Wall Street is a far away, almost imaginary place for most people. Yes, it can spark a certain populist anger, but if you really want to get somebody going, bring up Main Street. I don’t mean the symbolic one. I mean, their Main Street.

I’ve been perusing the content of a new documentary project called Mapping Main Street. I’m guessing the idea was sparked by the countless references to Wall Street vs Main Street in the past year. It turns out there are at least 10,466 Main Streets in America. From the website:

In May, the Mapping Main Street team packed into a 1996 Suburu station wagon and started a 12,000 mile journey across the country to visit Main Streets. In the process, we took photos, shot videos, and interviewed people.

On Main Street in a small town in West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, we met a retired man who is fixing up a boarded-up house that was once a hotel for jazz musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and B.B. King during segregation. In New Hope, PA, we sat down for beers with a cop on Main Street who talked about strangest fetishes he had come across in his line of work.

We’ve talked with farm laborers and business owners, people out on their porches and people on park benches. We’ve even stood in empty fields…all on Main Streets across the country.

A couple of the team members are public radio producers (Kara Oehler and Ann Heppermann), so NPR is part of the collaboration too. The first story aired a week ago on Weekend Edition Saturday. The web headline reads: “In Chattanooga, Main St. Is A Prostitution Strip.” The story begins this way:

On the surface, Main Street in Chattanooga, Tenn., looks nice. There’s a newly developed arts district with galleries, upscale restaurants, a packed breakfast joint called the Bluegrass Grill, even houses that have been certified as environmentally friendly. But if you stray from these newly renovated blocks, there’s a different side to Chattanooga’s Main Street.

“In Chattanooga, we have this underbelly,” Brother Ron Fender says. “You can walk down Main Street, and you don’t know that just over there, there’s prostitutes — or just over there is a camp where people sleep in the woods at night.”

The rest of the story gets personal with a former prostitute. What struck me was the comments section. For example:

  • “While I’m okay our community’s “underbelly” was not “swept under the rug”, I do wish with all the time spent “under the rug” the additional fibers with which our community is woven had not gone unnoticed.”

  • “My family and I live in Ferger Place just off of Main Street. I said we LIVE there. There is a problem and I see it almost every day. I go to Nashville every Friday, leaving at 5 AM, to attend business school. The problem is especially noticable at that hour of the day. Thank you to the author for picking this scab. Perhaps the city will now be motivated to help those of us who feel it is a problem to solve it.”

  • “We operate a boutique on Market Street, a block away from Main. We relocated here a year ago, in large part because of the revitalization that had been taking place. The community here is tight-knit and there is a genuine activism and concern in making this a neighborhood to be proud of. Many important facets were ignored in this story, and it seemed slanted to evoke a seething underbelly of masked degradation.”

I find it fascinating that people who live blocks away from each other see things so differently. But the common thread is that they genuinely care about what’s happening on their Main Street. I’ve seen this kind of reaction before, when I wrote about Flint, Michigan recently.

It’s encouraging. I wish more of the discussion of our economic recovery could be about our Main Streets and less about Wall Street or K Street. Most Main Streets don’t look the same at one end as they do at the other, and with certain obvious exceptions, that’s a good thing. Many Main Streets aren’t even the main street in town. It’s just a street connected to another one, which is connected to another one, and so on.

This is an ongoing project, and you’re invited to participate in Mapping Main Street. Read more about that here. The team has also commissioned some music specifically for the project. You can listen to it at the website. There are many different routes to explore, and it’s a pleasure to see the many different Main Streets of America all in one place.

One of my favorites is just a stone’s throw from where I was born — the intersection of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario.

Main Street, Youngstown, New York, home to the Ontario House:

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