Main Streets Bring Out the Best of the USA

Posted on July 4, 2011

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Main Street Attractions

More than just places for business or chokepoints for traffic, the central streets of cities are social arteries that blossom with life in summertime
By Crai S. Bower for MSN Local Edition
Columbus at night: The town of 26,000 people knows the importance of a night with life. // Columbus at night:The town of 26,000 people realizes the importance of not rolling up the sidewalks at night, the better to build a downtown core that throbs with life and commerce.\\ Courtesy Main Street Columbus(Courtesy Main Street Columbus)

Columbus, Miss., at night: The town of 26,000 people realizes the importance of not rolling up the sidewalks at night, the better to build a downtown core that throbs with life and commerce. (Courtesy Main Street Columbus)
By all accounts, from Florida to Fargo, from Portland, Maine to Portland, Ore., winter took no prisoners this year. Even San Francisco and Los Angeles saw snowfall, as ski areas set records and New Yorkers faced blizzard after blizzard. Eliot had it right this year: April was the cruelest month, when expectations of spring flowers were soaked under torrential rains, whipped into a frenzy by tornadoes and buried in yet more snow. In May, buds finally turned to blossoms, unfurling visions of longer days, warmer temps and a return to visiting patios and farmers’ markets.

City streets have since sprung to life, as people settle outside onto terraces, beside flower boxes and under trees that herald physical (and psychological) renewal. Nowhere is this annual ritual more evident than in our cities, where city planners have acted on our desire to stroll Main Street by widening sidewalks, adding trees or changing the zoning to allow more café terraces, a new ambience suggestive of Paris or Rome. Here’s a sampling of some of the North America’s brightest urban streetscapes, places where the stars aren’t embedded in the sidewalks, they’re the sidewalks themselves.

A once-desolate urban eyesore has been transformed, with new construction and a new name, into the state capital's primary destination to see and be seen. // In Lilttle Rock, an eyesore has been transformed into the Arkansas capital's primary destination to see and be seen.\\© Dan Linke, courtesy Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau(© Dan Linke, courtesy Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau)

In Little Rock, a once-desolate urban eyesore has been transformed, with new construction and a new name, into the Arkansas capital’s main place to see and be seen. (Dan Linke, courtesy Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau)

President Clinton Avenue
Little Rock, Ark.

Little Rock has taken President Bill Clinton’s name and his zest for life in creating a downtown hub complete with vibrant storefronts, vintage streetlamps and the River Market, a bazaar setting that features shopkeepers selling meats and wines, a twice-a-week Farmer’s Market and a 10,000-seat amphitheater along the banks of the Arkansas River. Ottenheimer Market Hall includes over a dozen permanent eateries and is open seven days a week. Sculptures dot the district and several local restaurants feature live music, enticing out-of-town visitors and new residents of freshly constructed condos and lofts to transform this formerly desolate urban eyesore into the state capital’s primary destination to see and be seen.

Home to Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, boasts a diverse array of restaurants that swells Maine Street. A new downtown master plan should make the amenities of this bucolic New England village even more appealing. // Home to Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, boasts a diverse array of restaurants that swells Maine Street. \\ Courtesy Brunswick Downtown Association(Courtesy Brunswick Downtown Association)

Home to Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, boasts a diverse array of restaurants that swells Maine Street. A new downtown master plan should make the amenities of this bucolic New England village even more appealing. (Courtesy Brunswick Downtown Association)

Maine Street
Brunswick, Maine

Yes, you can pause at the corner of Pleasant and Maine in Brunswick, the primary intersection of this quiet town that’s home to Bowdoin College (founded in 1794). A diverse roster of restaurants fill with members of this erudite community after events at the local art-house movie theater, concerts on the green or summer stock theater productions. A recently adopted downtown master plan will add to the canopy of trees and increase the terrace seating options in this emblematic New England village. Here, you can buy a book at the Gulf of Maine independent bookstore and settle into the Little Dog Coffee Shop for an afternoon read. Hanging flowerpots started to appear in April and, true to Mainers’ stubborn reputation, they won’t be stowed away until autumn’s first frost.
Bank Street
Wallace, Idaho

If you traveled east along I-90 through Idaho between 1967 and 1991, you’ll remember Wallace, the mountain town that defied and then finessed the federal government out of running the interstate straight through town. Led by Harry Magnuson, the town’s elders managed to get every single building along Bank Street declared a national landmark, barring demolition without exhaustive review. Magnuson and the others fought the government for 17 years, until a compromise was reached to reroute the highway. Today, every storefront remains open for business along this movie-set main drag (the 1997 thriller “Dante’s Peak” was filmed here). But Wallace’s nonfictional history is even more tale-worthy if a visitor is lucky enough to come across a retired silver miner at the Smokehouse BBQ and Saloon.

Huck's at night // Huck's Place at night, Coilumbus, Miss. \\ Courtesy Main Street Columbus(Courtesy Main Street Columbus)

Huck’s Place in Columbus, Miss., occupies pride of place on Fifth Street South, one of the major streets in a town whose planners saw the value in housing units above downtown businesses. (Courtesy Main Street Columbus)

Look closely at the urban-renewal renaissance and you’ll discover certain key characteristics like terrace seating, broad sidewalks and street art. While each of these helps establish the appeal of the streetscape, perhaps the most important component is experienced by a very few visitors: second floor residential dwellings. The planners in Columbus understood the importance of a neighborhood that doesn’t roll up its sidewalks at night, renovating more upper-floor housing units than any other Mississippi community. Not bad for a city of just under 26,000 people. The celebrations begin with Market Street Festival in early May and the Hitching Lot Farmers’ Market is open three days a week. The musically inclined gather for Afternoon and Noon Tunes at various times of the year, and The Columbus Riverwalk, a citizen’s initiative, recently entered its second decade.
Main Street
Newark, Del.

Like many of today’s thriving downtowns, Newark was left for dead in the 90’s as shops and shoppers made way for the suburbs. Today, University of Delaware students and residents alike head to Main Street to grab a sweet at Bing’s Bakery, ice cream or lunch at Caffe Gelato or contemporary comfort food at the Home Grown Café. The Downtown Newark Partnership combines public and private initiatives to keep the momentum flowing forward, including a comprehensive set of guidelines for the more than 250 local businesses that now call downtown home. There’s no better time than now to join those milling about Main Street to see firsthand how the urban core springs eternal.

There's more than football to life in Green Bay, including art, dance and a vibrant festival scene. // Green Bay? There's more than football to life in this city, including art, dance and a vibrant festival scene. \\ © Janna Turner(© Janna Turner)

Green Bay? There’s more than football to life in this city; art, dance and a vibrant festival scene take their place amid the “cheeseheads.” (© Janna Turner)

Broadway
Green Bay, Wisc.

A thriving street festival scene is probably not the first image that comes to mind at the mention of Green Bay. But this city of 100,000 packs dance lessons, concerts and art shows into the off-season with the vigor that its namesake wins NFL Championship trophies. Farmers’ Market on Broadway opens in June, a monthly gallery night brings out the cheeseheads-cum-esthetes, as does the Meyer Theatre spring season. Park in the Art, a local initiative, invites amateur and professional sculptors to submit designs for new bike racks. In May, a juried art exhibition debuts at the Art Garage, one of several gallery and teaching studios in the area, and “Fridays on the Fox” plus “Dine on the Deck” provide summer celebrations of the river and neighborhood that had laid in neglect for more than 60 years.

Antique hunters, history buffs and others throng Port Hope, Ontario, each spring and summer for garden tours, arts festivals and a weekly Farmers' Market amid more than 250 heritage buildings. // Antique hunters, history buffs and others throng Port Hope, Ontario, every spring and summer.\\ Courtesy Port Hope Economic Development and Tourism(Courtesy Port Hope Economic Development and Tourism)

Antique hunters, history buffs and others throng Port Hope, Ontario, each spring and summer for garden tours, arts festivals and a weekly Farmers’ Market amid more than 250 heritage buildings. (Courtesy Port Hope Economic Development and Tourism)

Walton Street, Port Hope, Ontario
With over 250 heritage buildings, the original “Toronto” remains a thriving example of early 19th century Ontario. Home to the Capitol Theatre, Canada’s only “atmospheric” theater (the sky twinkles with night sky stars), Port Hope launches spring in early April with the Float Your Fanny Down the Ganny Festival along the Ganaraska River, which runs into Lake Ontario. Antique hunters, history buffs and students of the Iroquois Nation all flood into Port Hope each spring and summer for garden tours, arts festivals and the weekly Farmers’ Market.
Massachusetts Street
Lawrence, Kan.

Hosting a major university certainly increases the potential of a vibrant Main Street, but a student-centric core can also have a negative effect, as residents shun the teeming students and post-adolescent shops. Not so Massachusetts Street, main street for America’s sixth best-educated community. While the district certainly lights up with coeds at night, daytime sees the Outdoor Downtown Sculpture Exhibit enter its 24th year. Many of the pieces on display during the exhibit have become permanent icons of Lawrence’s art scene. Galleries from Goldmakers to Silver Works and More line the street. The Farmers’ Market opens in early April, rolling works of art take over during the Art Tougeau Parade in mid-May, and Brown Bag and City Band concerts last through the summer. Final Fridays celebrate the arts on the last Friday of the month throughout the year, and street artists fill Mass Street from near and far to ply their talents during the Lawrence Busker Festival in August.

Main Street
Lee’s Summit, Mo.

Urban population growth often outpaces urban renewal, as new residents head to the malls in search of quick fixes for their relocation needs. Though 65,000 people have flooded into Lee’s Summit in the past 25 years, increasing the population to 90,000 citizens, the community has worked hard to maintain the charms of its downtown core as well as to secure Main Street’s position as the main artery of the community. While folks depart downtown during April’s Flights of Fancy Kite Festival for obvious reasons, they’re back in town for the Downtown Bunny Hop on Easter Sunday and really kick up their heels during the Night Flight Annual 5K Run through downtown, later in the spring. June’s “Downtown Days…Streets Alive” is one of several events, including the twice-weekly Farmers’ Market, which draws residents and visitors alike into the historic downtown district.
Crai S. Bower is a frequent contributor to MSN.

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