Are Main Streets a thing of the past, or are they just getting ready for their closeup?
Colborne Street, Brantford, Ontario/Public Domain
Are Main Streets a thing of the past? Kaid Benfield thinks they might be, run out of business by the big box store and suburban sprawl. He writes in the NRDC Switchboard:
One of the causes of the decline of real Main Streets is that the scale of the retail economy in our country has changed so dramatically since their heyday, with expansionist and successful superstores and national chains leaving little room for small, local businesses to prosper.
He writes about the ones that survive:
The places in America that still have successful Main Streets likely have special economic circumstances, such as a tourist economy, a truly remote location, or a surrounding or nearby wealthy suburb whose residents like the historic, walkable atmosphere for certain occasions but go to the mall or a big-box to buy clothing or electronics.
But I wonder if there isn't a reversal of this trend beginning to happen, a Main Street revival as more people ditch their cars. In cities that are doing well, like New York or Toronto, I see new retail shops opening up all over to sell to those who don't have a car to drive to IKEA. The big grocery chains are opening mini-stores to meet the demand of those who walk or cycle. Some of the historic character is being lost to intensification, but that is just putting more customers into the neighborhood to shop at those stores.
It's not just in the booming cities, either; smaller nearby cities are catching the overflow, leading to a renaissance on the main streets of Philadelphia near New York or Hamilton near Toronto.
I am loath to be critical of Kaid Benfield, who did such a lovely profile of me recently. But I wonder if it isn't the big box stores and the suburban malls that are in trouble, while the Main Streets are about to come into their own again. Kaid acknowledges this, noting that "Today, it is the suburban malls that are on the decline, and some of those disinvested urban districts are revitalizing and reclaiming their urban commercial streets". He's right that certain kind of main street uses are never coming back; nobody needs a Main Street insurance office anymore. But other businesses are coming in and filling the gap, businesses that didn't exist twenty years ago.
I really do think that Main Street is just getting started.