Posted November 20, 2012

Professor’s new book explores Main Street mystique


Main Street has fascinated Miles Orvell for years.

It began in his youth, he says, as he sat in his Queens apartment house engrossed in the charm of ‘50s television shows — such as “Ozzie and Harriet” — set in Midwestern small towns.

But Main Street has been on the mind of Americans for a long time, says Orvell, professor of English and American studies at Temple.

"Main Street has pervaded the discourse of American culture for more than 150 years, molding both the physical and mental spaces we inhabit," he said.

According to Orvell, the idea of the small town — a symbol of good neighbors, safe streets and softball — lies at the heart of the American ethos.

In reality, however, things are never as neat as they appear in symbolic terms.

In The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space and Community (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), Orvell analyzes the mythic allure of the small town, as well as its contradictions.

"The story of Main Street is the story of the power of a symbol to contain our highest ideals of community,” he said. “And at the same time it reveals the crushing power of exclusion and convention.”

For the book, Orvell traces well-known representations of Main Street in our cultural past and present in the works of Sinclair Lewis, Norman Rockwell, Willa Cather, Frank Capra and Margaret Bourke-White. He also looks at its many incarnations in real spaces, including Disney World, new urbanist planned communities and shopping malls. Figuring prominently in his examination are familiar locales such as Levittown; Columbia, Md.; and the Richard Allen Homes in North Philadelphia.  

Although Orvell’s New York City  upbringing was definitively urban, his inspiration for the book came from the two Queens’ neighborhoods he called home: Sunnyside and Forest Hills Gardens, both sites of historic early 20th century planned communities.

His current residence in Chestnut Hill serves as another jumping off point for his exploration of “the death and life of small towns.” A late 19th century railroad suburb of Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill reinvented its Main Street in the ‘50s, changing neon signs to colonial facades.

Orvell argues that after 9/11, Americans have a need for security and a sense of community that is manifesting itself in a desire for living, shopping and city spaces that recreate Main Street. “Translating the cultural metaphor into real spaces, however, can sometimes result in overly tidy manifestations that diminish the ideals at the center of ‘community,’” he said.

"The best of Main Street is its inclusive community; the worst is its exclusion of those who are different,” said Orvell. “We idealize the small town, but in reality it’s a place of extreme social stratification.”

"Seeing Main Street for what it is and has always been, stripping way the false facades, we can see it as a container of American contradictions, but one that might also inspire us to achieve a society that really is as good as it looks and as good as it wants to think it is."

Orvell is also author of The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940, a book that first got him thinking about the ersatz constructions that are central to American culture.