The term “Main Street” has been used often since the 2008 recession as a descriptor and a rallying cry. Assistant Professor of Architectural Studies Kirin Makker will explore the history and realities of Main Streets across the country- and dispel many misconceptions – in a new book, “The Myths of Main Street.”
Makker has received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship as part of the Winterthur Research Fellowship Program that will enable her to compile an archives-based history examining planning and economic development in small towns (populations of 200 to 40,000) between 1870 and 1930. This research will provide much of the material for several chapters of the book, which she hopes to publish to Cornell University Press as part of their Urban Studies series in 2017.
“Main Street is as alive and relevant as we make it. It does not have to represent nostalgia and pastiche; it can guide us skillfully into the future,” says Makker.
She hopes that the book will present a more realistic framework of Main Street to remove limitations the misconceptions placed on designers, inventors, builders and others who rely on its image as a guide to the future. She also believes that we can draw inspiration from an understanding of what really made small town America work in its heyday.
“One of the myths of Main Street is that its iconic facade was local,” says Makker, explaining storefronts of 1800s Main Street were not painstakingly crafted from material milled or quarried nearby. Many, in fact were metal, purchased and delivered via rail by a select number of companies that produced hundreds of thousands of them.
“I had always assumed that the storefronts of small town America were built with mostly local materials and labor; they were hand-crafted. Taking a peak into the archives of metal storefront trade literature, however, shows us a different tale that helps dispel the myth of local Main Street.”
During her nine month long research fellowship at Winterthur, Makker will delve into such trade literature, as well as general store records, images of small town life, small town stores and Main Street, and relevant periodicals. Among the guiding research questions she plans to answer will be: “How was Main Street not driven by local business and discrete social ideas during its period of rapid development?” “How was Main Street tied to urbanization, trade, capital expansion, telecommunications systems, and burgeoning civic and city planning ideas occurring beyond its borders?” “How was Main Street ‘networked,’ and thus also became Main Streets?” and “How can we critically engage the American small town as a model for innovative development today?”
Makker earned her B.A. in English language and literature from the University of Texas Austin; an M.A. in English language and literature, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; and an M.Arch. from the University of Maryland College Park. She earned her Ph.D. in regional planning from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her doctoral dissertation explored the cultural and physical roots of the American small town and the impact of the Laurel Hill Association on the dominant ideas about the American small town.