Envisioning not a ‘mythical” Main Street of the past, but a new one

An article in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times last weekend reminded me of some realities that tug a bit at the buoyant story of our city’s economic surge, especially as it is reflected in a resurgent downtown and a growing number of trendy islands of unique shops, omnipresent craft breweries and taprooms and A-list restaurants scattered about the city.

That growth and success was a headliner theme of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau Annual Tribute Luncheon this past week, coincidentally, and the success extolled there, while bracing as always, had me reflecting on the Times article.

In that article, Louis Hyman, an economic historian and director of the Institute for Working Studies at the H.R. School at Cornell University, explored what he called the “myth of Main Street.”

That perhaps mythical street is a proxy for the labor-intensive, booming manufacturing era that boosted – with the help of a labor movement that has been eviscerated in recent years – millions of hard-working Americans into the middle class.

Donald Trump’s famous – and effective – “campaign slogan was ‘Make America Great Again,’ but it could just as easily have been ‘Bring Main Street Back’,” Hyman wrote.

“But nostalgia for Main Street is misplaced – and costly,” he argued. “Small stores are inefficient. Local manufacturers, lacking access to economies of scale, usually are inefficient as well. To live in that kind of world is expensive.”

That’s worth remembering here in our prosperous bubble in the midst of a North Carolina economy still struggling in most areas outside the I-85 arc from the Research Triangle to Charlotte. And it’s worth remembering as our downtown sprouts million-dollar condos and soaring office and retail rents, as trendy bars sell $10 cocktails and as artisanal coffee shops sell a cup for more than a hefty bargain meal at a franchise fast-food joint.

Mayor Bill Bell notes repeatedly that “we’re the start-up capital of the South,” an on-screen Adam Klein, chief strategist at American Underground and one of the catalysts in achieving that status, said Wednesday. It’s that robust start-up culture that helps drive and in turn feeds off the success in downtown and, with new zest to its longtime role, the Research Triangle Park.

It’s helping to create a lively scene downtown well after dark, launching an escalating wave of new business.

And, to some extent, it’s illustrating along with those booming outposts, another Hyman observation:

“It’s worth noting that the idealized Main Street is not a myth in some parts of America today. It exists, but only as a luxury consumer experience. Main Streets of small, independent boutiques and nonfranchised restaurants can be found in affluent college towns, in gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn and San Francisco, in tony suburbs – in any place where people have ample disposable income…The dream of Main Street may be populist but the reality is elitist.”

We’re not there, but we’re at the edge, at least. We’re not oblivious – witness efforts to try to assure affordable housing, to push for a higher minimum wage and to brainstorm ways to help ensure that our teachers and civil servants aren’t priced out of our city.

We have a lot going for us. Speakers at the DCVB luncheon extolled, rightly, the diversity of race, gender and age that permeates our entrepreneurial culture. One speaker praised “a level of camaraderie that doesn’t exist everywhere.”

Great things happen in Durham, so maybe rather than reinvent a mythical “Main Street” we can develop one for a diverse, inclusive 21st-century city.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.