By Dace Koenigsknecht
Economic Restructuring Specialist
Michigan Main Street Center
Michigan State Housing Development Authority
As followers of this blog can discern, I managed to smooth talk myself into a highly desired position within the Michigan Main Street Center. (Editor's Note: It wasn't that smooth.) I’m honored and excited to come to work each day, but I intend not to belabor the wonderful introduction posted by Joe a few weeks past.
One point taken from that introductory post, however, will lead us into today’s topic; my recent presentation at a national historic preservation conference. I humbly describe the experience as both educational and inspiring, and feel that I have been bitten by the ‘lecture-circuit’ bug. My paper briefly traced the front sitting porch through architectural styles from roughly colonial times to World War II. After that, mass-market housing essentially eliminated the front porch, leaving social functions of the household to be held in the privately-fenced backyard. I presented an argument that porches merely reflected their times; from the height of social Victorian entertaining at home, to entertainment becoming a destination onto its own – opera and movie houses, or Sunday drives on the parkway. Front porches had lost their social status, as people no longer valued random street-side encounters. They carefully planned backyard barbecues and excursions to popular public venues.
Finally, to the lesson pertaining to downtowns; a brief history of streets. Research for my paper continues to take on new life, as I am increasingly intrigued by the connection of the front porch to its accompanying street. Historically, urban streets served as the lungs and parks of densely occupied districts, offering inlets for fresh air and open-space for children to chase dogs and hula-hoops. The wide streets, whether residential or commercial, enabled and encouraged social activity. Neighbors talked politics against the front gate, and merchants hawked their wares on storefront sidewalks. Streets were pedestrian-scale, roughly paved with cobblestone and wood. However, the horse would change all that.
That’s right, the horse and all its accumulated waste encouraged civil engineers to develop paving that could be cleaned easily – and affordably. Spurred by the economic and political force of the affluent, smooth pavements were pushed outward from city-centers to their suburban homes. Those with means to own the latest in transportation technology simultaneously utilized paved streets, and pushed for their expanded use. These smooth streets became busy arteries for wagons, carriages, bicycles, trolleys, and early automobiles. The streets were soon hazardous to pedestrians, becoming impediments to neighborly interaction and sidewalk sales. With loss of its street, the front sitting porch was relegated to storage of broken washing machines.
We come full circle, or do we? Current research and literature tout the advantages of pedestrian-scale streetscapes. I argue to look at the front porch as a symbol of loss, not of architecture, but rather the social aspects of neighbors and customers that fear the street – the Red Sea separating people and businesses. It is in hard economic times, such as now, that parting of the sea is required. For example, there is a movement in cities across the country to close streets on a regular schedule, like Sunday afternoons, to bring people outside and encourage them to interact – spontaneously – in person. Yes, cities all over close streets for special events, but this goes further by returning the function of the street to people. As these people congregate, they also buy, and such schedules have been successful for both residents and merchants alike.
By no means does my commentary imply a fix-all solution, but rather another view of history – those not willing to learn from it are doomed to repeat it. It is the desire of everyone associated with our towns and cities to see them thrive and flourish in this new global millennium. Our streets, our Main Streets, should be comfortable and profitable – acting as conduits not invisible walls. I look forward to this challenge and others in my new role, as our focus is clearly in our name: Michigan MAIN STREET Center.