Ten a.m Saturday, just got back from Main Street USA and I want to report that I saw no signs that the bailout of Wall Street is working or not. Folks are just going about their business as usual. Establishments that bustle on a Saturday morning appear to be bustling. There were no open parking spaces at the Post Office. The bagel shop was sold out of cinnamon raisin bagels but more would be out soon if I could wait ten minutes. Dom, the owner of the hardware store, had the size air filters for the furnace I needed in stock but he was sold out of twenty-one inch wiper blades. He was glad to order some for me. "Come by Tuesday." He didn't mention whether or not his credit line with his supplier had been affected at all.
So I can't tell if Main Street's ok with what's happening on Wall Street or if what's happening on Wall Street is bothering Main Street at all.
Main Street. Wall Street. Wall Street. Main Street. The two streets have been in the news a lot lately, uneasily paired like distantly related and estranged cousins brought together for the reading of a will both suspect will reveal that the dearly departed has stuck them with equal responsibility for a mountain of debts.
Matt Yglesias doesn't like the way journalists and politicians have been overusing "Main Street" as shorthand for that part of America not directly involved in buying and selling stocks. I don't like it either. But for a different reason.
Matt doesn't like the term because the America it's supposed to evoke isn't where most of Americans live anymore. That country of small towns and smallish cities where folks did all their living and working and buying and selling within a short drive if not a short walk of a thriving little shopping district, of a main street or two, full of locally-owned stores and small businesses where the clerks all knew your name and everyone you ran into was a friend or a neighbor, is all but gone now. Some of us live in the country, some of us live in the town, sometimes we get a great notion to jump in the river and...Sorry. Where was I? Some in the country, some in the town...Oh yeah! But most of us live in the suburbs, an expensive gallon or two or three removed from the office parks where we work and the malls where we shop, and if you think about it, it's kind of odd that a financial crisis affecting the global economy of the early 21st Century keeps getting described as if we're all living in Bedford Falls at the beginning of the 20th.
One result of the extended bailout debate has been to make me pretty sick-and-tired of metaphorical invocations of “Main Street.” This isn’t 1908... just about everyplace else you go, people are shopping and working either downtown, or else in a suburban mall or office park. We need an economic recovery plan that works not only for Wall Street, but also for people shopping at big box stores...
..Most people live in suburban portions of large metropolitan areas and participate in an economy that operates in part on a global scale and in part on a metropolitan scale. It’s important, it seems to me, for our basic language about our politics and our society to reflect reality and not some dimly recalled echo of the past.
That might be true. Depends on what you're calling a suburb. The first modern American suburbs sprang up at the end of the 19th Century and were built not off of highways but along rail lines. They were small towns that in growing grew into one another but did not lose their individual identities or economies and many of those not only still exist but still thrive as distinct towns with prospering main streets.
There's a big difference between the sprawling subdivisions outside of Dallas and the tightly-packed, tree-lined neighborhoods of the towns ringing Boston. Allen and Melrose are both technically suburbs, but the main street of one is a six-lane highway feeding into an endless series of parking lots and the main street of the other is Main Street where you can walk from Uncle Merlin's embroidery shop to the bakery to the butcher's to the bank to the back room of Benny's bar---and I promise never to alliterate like that again---without getting out of earshot of your car alarm, not that it's likely to go off, because who's going to break into it with all those people walking around on their errands?
There are still Main Streets, and as it happens I live on one of them. Just around the corner from one anyway. Our town's main street isn't called Main Street but that's what it is, with a couple of banks, the hardware store, a few restaurants, an ice cream parlor, an insurance agent's, a barber shop, a dentist's office, a florist, and a video store all within a few blocks of each other. The public library, the post office, the police station, the town hall, and the fire house are right along there too.
The bagel shop is just off the even more thriving main street of the town three miles south of here, and to our north is New Paltz where we spend a lot of our time and money and the village there is almost entirely a main street.
In fact, I have never lived very far off of Main Street. The town I grew up in is actually a quintessential suburban nightmare of the 1950s and 60s, development upon development of split-levels, raised-ranches, and faux Colonials on streets without sidewalks that lead nowhere but to the arterials that take you to the malls and the Thruway. But those developments sprawled outward from an old-fashioned suburb of walkable streets connected to the main street of the nearby business district and because Mom Mannion didn't have a driver's license she insisted we live in that part of the town, so as far as I was concerned we lived in Mayberry. I walked or rode my bike everywhere to everything and all the store owners and their clerks knew be by name before I was eight.
It's pretty much the case then, that in my personal experience America is all Main Street. Except for my four years in Boston I have never lived anywhere else and unless a winning lottery ticket buys me a brownstone in Greenwich Village or a rich relative comes out of nowhere to front me the money for a co-op on the Upper West Side I'm not going to live anywhere else, and that's fine, I don't want to. I like it on Main Street. The blonde has always agreed with me on this. She grew up in Mall-land and hated it. So it's kind of funny that the reason I hate the term "Main Street" isn't that it's inaccurate but that for me it has connotations entirely opposite of the world its meant to conjure up. To me Main Street isn't what I grew up on, a friendly place of sunny virtue. It's a mean little patch in the boondocks, full of bigotry, Babbitry, and boosterism---that's two b's less alliterative than the last time---where people are liked and admired for how little they differ from everyone else, where they judge one another by how well they keep their place in the social pecking order and value everything by how much money it puts them out of pocket.
The reason for this is...I read the novel.
Sinclair Lewis poisoned the word for me, and God bless him for it. The words are as phony as an American flag over a used-car lot. Self-congratulating hokum invoked by hucksters and charlatans intent on separating all of us from our last nickel in the name of perverting all that's good, holy, and healthy.
This is what I think of whenever I read or see the words Main Street:
But a village in a country which is taking pains to become altogether standardized and pure, which aspires to succeed Victorian England as the chief mediocrity of the world, is no longer merely provincial, no longer downy and restful in its leaf-shadowed ignorance. It is a force seeking to dominate the earth, to drain the hills and sea of color, to set Dante at boosting Gopher Prairie, and to dress the high gods in Klassy Kollege Klothes. Sure of itself, it bullies other civilizations, as a traveling salesman in a brown derby conquers the wisdom of China and tacks advertisements of cigarettes over arches for centuries dedicated to the sayings of Confucius.
Such a society functions admirably in the large production of cheap automobiles, dollar watches, and safety razors. But it is not satisfied until the entire world also admits that the end and joyous purpose of living is to ride in flivvers, to make advertising-pictures of dollar watches, and in the twilight to sit talking not of love and courage but of the convenience of safety razors.
And when you look at it that way, then you're likely to think that the current financial crisis wasn't caused by Wall Street. It's a pure product of Main Street.