Main Street is a powerful image in the minds of Americans. The icon brings about strong feelings of nostalgia. People long for the Main Street of yesteryears, the place where life was simpler and communities and families were closer. However, the question remains: is this an accurate depiction of Main Street, or is this the myth that everyone chose to believe? Main Street, which according to Orvell is essentially synonymous with the small town, is dead. This is not to say that literally every small town is gone. There are still Main Streets in towns across the country, just not the fantastical Main Street that is so often associated with America. One of the reasons why there is such a powerful longing for this icon is because it presents an image that is a far cry from the more distant-feeling suburbs and cities that most people live in today. People want Main Street because they do not have it, which is why the concept works so well as a selling point for places like Disneyland. But, judging by the state of small towns in 2015, one could theorize that the mythic Main Street would simply not survive in present time. Main Street is gone, and perhaps there is nothing to lament about this.
Orvell describes the image of main street as “a self-conscious remembering of a place, a remembering that is a consequence of moving away from it” (98). People hold on tightly to this image of the past as they are leaving it behind. But, to play devil’s advocate, maybe everyone in the United States began moving on from the small town and from Main Street for a reason. The imagery put forth about Main Street today is obviously idealistic. Everyone can accept that real small towns from the past were not immune to the problems that people faced in suburbs and cities. It is possible that Americans value and miss Main Street so much, not because of the physical space itself, but because it is from the past. There seems to be a tendency to look backward on past times, whether those times were good or bad. As Orvell describes, people share a created memory of Main Street that reflects what they want it to, not necessarily an accurate or personal memory. People criticize the present, and it is human nature to believe that the past was superior to the changes in society taking place.
The above image of a current small town looks extremely similar to many small towns today. Main Street is not the bustling, welcoming public place that accepts everyone into a close-knit community. Instead, it is a quiet, oftentimes dilapidated road with run-down buildings and out of business signs hanging in windows. It is rare to find a small town that has not been infiltrated by at least one chain restaurant or fast food place, making the “mom and pop store” image difficult to uphold in reality. The contradiction here is that if so many people are longing for Main Street, than why are small towns being abandoned? There are enough Main Streets in the country to assume that theoretically there would be enough space for many citizens to move and rehabilitate these areas. Maybe people do not do this because small town life is incompatible with today’s times. Or, maybe the vast majority of people do not want the reality of a small town. Instead, they want an escape from their own lives for a few hours, where they can walk along Main Street at Disneyland. Then, when their vacation is over, they can return to the lives off of the mythical Main Street, to the reality that they chose.
Orvell, Miles, and Jeffrey L. Meikle, eds. Public space and the ideology of place in American culture. Vol.
3. rodopi, 2009.