Bringing Our Downtowns Back
The Charlotte, Michigan ‘M-50 Committee’ met for the first time earlier this year to talk about ways to make M-50, also known as Cochran Avenue, more business- and pedestrian-friendly, as part of an effort, shared with several other citizens’ committees, to help revitalize Charlotte’s downtown. In beginning this effort, this writer stopped to reflect on, in the larger scheme of things, Charlotte, and so many other cities and towns in America, found their ‘Main Streets,’ once the center of urban life, neglected and in need of help to restore some of their former vitality.
You can still see what downtown – ‘Man Street, USA’ – used to be like at Disney World. Sadly, this is only a trip down Memory Lane in many locales, due to the unintended consequences of several developments since the heyday of the kind of thriving entrepreneurial environment that existed into the 1960s. If you have seen ‘Cars,’ you have seen a story built around the decline and rise of the main street of Radiator Springs. When Route 66, ‘Main Street’ in many of the cities and towns it passed through on its way from Chicago to Los Angeles, was supplanted by the interstate highway system, automobile traffic that used to flow through town now bypassed it, taking the customers who rode in those cars with it. The unintended consequences of a highway system that President Eisenhower championed, in part, because of his many troubles in moving men and equipment by road in preparation for the ‘Louisiana Maneuvers’ in 1940 and then seeing the Autobahn in Germany at the end of World War II, as a ‘national defense’ initiative, was that many Main Streets cost their vitality, sapping the downtowns they bisected in the process.
A darker chapter in the decline of Main Street stems from the urban planning craze that swept America after World War II. Pioneered by New York’s Robert Moses, a master builder and genius of political infighting who parlayed an unpaid position as state parks commissioner into a de facto infrastructure czar whose powers extended statewide, ‘urban renewal’ projects poured grandiose visions of how cities should look into concrete on a massive scale. Moses’ efforts led to the erection of such landmarks as Jones Beach and the Triborough Bridge, as well as numerous ‘parkways’ – freeways ostensibly built to connect the New York park system. The erection of so much infrastructure came at a price: Many poor neighborhoods (and the occasional wealthy one) were seized through the power of eminent domain and their residents were displaced to make way for the new roads. The result was that viable neighborhoods, filled with human networks of families, businesses and social institutions gave way before the bulldozer, with what remained on the periphery losing its vitality. Despite keen criticism from thinkers like Jane Jacobs, the urban renewal trend lasted for decades and spread from New York across America, remaking the fabric of every community it touched, often at the expense of the old, unplanned jumble of human habitations that supported Main Streets in favor of newer arrangements that could be reached by car: Suburbs and shopping malls. (An allusion to how this played out in California found its way into ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ where the villain schemes to take over Toontown and then sell it to Cloverleaf Industries, who plan to dismantle the trolley car system of ca. 1947 to make way for freeways and the ‘exit’ enterprises – gas stations, tire stores, repair shops and the like – that support car culture.)
New Urbanism brings us full-circle: Restoring M-50 as a vital commercial and residential mixed-use corridor through the heart of Charlotte is precisely the kind of initiative that can help revitalize an entire community by redirecting energy and activity back to where it used to flow before freeways, shopping malls and ‘big box’ stores drained it away: Downtown.
As this and the other committees move forward from planning to action, public participation is both welcome and needed to ensure that all who want to have a voice as we work to rebuild our hometown. Please take the opportunity to attend a meeting, join a committee or to contact them with your hopes and ideas. They’ll be happy to hear from you. And if you’re not from Charlotte, why not see if you can find other people in your town who want to restore your Main Street and offer them a hand?
-Lloyd A. Conway
(For an in-depth look at the rise and fall of Robert Moses, see Robert Caro’s ‘The Power Broker.’ The classic work of his nemesis, Jane Jacobs, ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities,’ became the bible of the ‘New Urbanist’ movement, which seeks, among other things, to bring back Main Street as the locus of mixed-use urban life.)