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Rebirth of Main Streets

Stopping in four California and Oregon towns, a traveler checks the health of what was once the heart of every community—and finds some lively surprises.

  • Disneyland, Main Street
    Photo caption
    Walt Disney planted his 19th-century Missouri Main Street in Anaheim, Calif.
  • General Store, Troutdale, Ore.
    Photo caption
    The General Store in Troutdale, Ore., purveys sweets, souvenirs, and built-in atmosphere.
  • McNear's music hall, Petaluma
    Photo caption
    Daytimers savor the fresh air outside McNear’s music hall in Petaluma, Calif.
  • Paso Robles Public Library
    Photo caption
    History, as in the 1908 library, is alive and well in Paso Robles, Calif.
  • Petaluma water fountain
    Photo caption
    In wilder times, Petaluma, Calif., piped in water to keep men out of saloons.

It’s a sunny Saturday  afternoon, and I’m strolling down a Main Street in Southern California. Kids are darting in and out under the big marquee of the movie theater, there’s a line at the ice cream store, and at a clothing shop young couples hold up shirts and put on their “What do you think?” faces. A fruit vendor sells apples from a cart, and a horse-drawn trolley makes its way down the street. I’ll give Walt Disney this: He didn’t leave much out.

Main Street U.S.A. is the iconic gateway to Disneyland and its various worlds of make-believe, the place everyone passes through on their way to the future or a jungle filled with talking birds or a pirate-infested New Orleans. That’s not by happenstance. Disney wanted to put visitors in the proper frame of mind the minute they arrived, and he believed that a classic Midwestern Main Street modeled on Marceline, Mo., his hometown, captured a spirit of both innocence and joy. (He considered another archetype—a Western frontier town—as the theme park’s foyer, but discarded it.)

Disney didn’t want just any Main Street—he wanted the feel of one that was hitting its stride between 1890 and 1910. This period, he said, was the sweet spot of American life, a moment of delicate balance when the country looked both forward and back, when Americans still kept horses but saw cars coming and “the gas lamp was giving way to the electric lamp.” He called his Main Street “the crossroads of an era.”

Disney’s stylized version opened in 1955. Now, more than half a century later, Main Street—the one you see in real towns in every state—has reached a crossroads. Retail stores that once anchored the center of most towns started decamping after World War II for big-box malls out on the wide-open edges. For a time, “Main Street” seemed an endangered notion, like an organ-grinder, serving chiefly as a trigger for nostalgia or as metaphor—Main Street, of course, being the wholesome place that Wall Street is not.

But today Main Streets aren’t looking so much to the past as to the future. Coast to coast, many have bounced back and are thriving despite the poor economy, proving themselves resilient after the commercial bedrock shifted beneath them. They are reinventing and rediscovering themselves. Doug Loescher, director of the National Trust Main Street Center, sees them as emblems of several favorable trends—smart growth, localism, and sustainability.

And perhaps above all, they reflect a sense of community that has failed to take root elsewhere.

“I think people want a more walkable and sociable environment than the strip mall or isolated atrium mall,” says Michael Southworth, professor of urban design and planning at UC–Berkeley. Some mall developers seem to think so too. To attract shoppers, Southworth notes, they bring artificial Main Street elements to the mall. And at the same time, some real Main Streets in the towns they abandoned are getting new life.

But how? I left Disneyland just as a parade was getting under way—why was everyone waving when no one knew anyone else?—and headed north with a simple plan: Drive through California to northern Oregon, turn off the highway here and there to visit a Main Street (or in any event a town’s commercial center; those streets by any other name would still be Main), and see what’s up.

Paso Robles, Calif.
Paso Robles is halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on U.S. 101. Founded in 1886, it is built around the 4.8-acre City Park that holds a classical revival former Carnegie library now owned by the local historical society. Architecturally, the town looks both north and south, mixing the Victorian exuberance of San Francisco with a bit of solemn Spanish mission. The streets bustle on the evening I arrive. The movie theater facing the park has just let out and foragers are setting off in search of ice cream or cocktails or dinner at one of the many fine restaurants within easy walking distance.

“I remember downtown as where you went for everything—J.C. Penney’s, the drugstore, the supermarket,” says Matt Masia, who is 54 and whose family built the Adelaide Inn a mile and a half from downtown Paso Robles in 1961. “I’d get a piece of jerky at the meat counter and then go play in the park across the street while my mother shopped.”

But by the 1980s Paso Robles, like so many other small communities, found itself hollowed out like a pumpkin as chain stores sucked commerce to the fringes. “Downtown was sort of desolate,” says Masia, who is also president of the city’s Main Street Association. It was filled with junk stores and low-end shops and, he says, “There was no place to eat.”

Paso Robles pulled itself together. The nine-screen Park Cinemas, the one that loosed the swarm of foragers the evening I arrived, opened with the city’s encouragement in 1997. Restaurants followed to capture the resurgent foot tra≈c, and the dozen blocks around the gentle lawns and mature trees of the park came back to life with cafés and gift shops; specialty stores for pastries, cheese, sweets, olives; and 19 winetasting rooms, satellites of the 200 wineries in the hills outside the town. Paso Robles even shook off the effects of a magnitude 6.6 earthquake in December 2003 that damaged or destroyed some 40 buildings.

Like Main Street U.S.A., downtown Paso Robles is a place buzzing with distractions. “A successful downtown has entertainment, be it food, movies, theater, or festivals,” Masia says. “It’s not things. It’s a spirit. People are moving back downtown, and they act like it’s a new idea. But there’s a reason downtowns have been successful for hundreds of years.”

Petaluma, Calif.
Now here’s a remarkable sight: I’m standing in front of the 1886 McNear Building in Petaluma, along a river an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. With its cast-iron facade, prominent arched windows, brilliant paint job, and whimsical capstones on the arches (are those really mustachioed men?), it’s a symphony of rhythm and mass, connecting to the past on multiple levels.

Downtown Petaluma is rich in striking Victorian buildings—it looks a like a well-watered, well-fertilized, mature Main Street U.S.A. And Petaluma Boulevard—the local variant of Main Street—has landmarks such as Masonic Hall with its clock tower (1882) and the Italianate Mutual Relief Building (1885). But it also has structures that harmonize rather than solo. Overall, the town’s commercial district is a pleasing composition, with the boulevard bending to match a curve in the Petaluma River. The streetscape unfolds as you walk, one building after another revealing itself with an agreeable languor.

“It has quaintness and location. It’s always been a popular place to be,” says Marie McCusker, executive director of the Petaluma Downtown Association. She adds with some understatement, “It’s not mall shopping.” Merchants take pride in the looks and street life of their downtown and realize that being a not-mall gives them an edge for foot traffic. They meet every two weeks and discuss ways to draw locals as well as visitors with events including antique fairs and outdoor concerts. “There’s a huge level of volunteerism,” McCusker says.

It doesn’t hurt that Petaluma has great bones. Those grand buildings communicate in a language we understand even if it’s one we no longer speak, in cadences and accents that enrich and ennoble. The 1932 post office, whose facade gracefully mirrors the bend in the street, has the bones, perhaps appropriate for its current incarnation as a health club. The former Wells Fargo Bank, built in 1926, sits like a tall slab of stone at a prominent downtown corner . . . and is now a three-story antique shop. One step inside is an instant detour into the past, and it’s not the merchandise that takes you there—it’s the impressive silence of large spaces and the lambent light filtering down from 32-foot-high ceilings.

Cottage Grove, Ore.
Up past the California redwoods and the vineyards of southern Oregon, I ease off Interstate 5 and drive into Cottage Grove, the Covered Bridge Capital of Oregon (with six of the state’s 50 specimens in or near town). Cottage Grove had its heyday when gold mining and timber harvesting ruled, from about 1860 to 1920. I hadn’t planned to spend the night, but walking around for 20 minutes changed my mind and I booked a room. The afternoon was 49 degrees, spitting down a light rain, but the town still had a welcoming warmth to it—due in part, I’m guessing, to the hulking smokers of Big Stuff Barbecue issuing a lazy sort of ambrosial mist that seemed to follow me ghostlike through the streets.

A 4½-block stretch of East Main Street, the backbone of Cottage Grove’s Historic Down­town District, is flanked by one- and two-story buildings, many built of an appealing ocher-colored brick. They house antique shops and a bike store and an auto parts shop and Schweitzer’s Casual Mens Wear and a machine gun shop with heavy mesh over the windows. Nothing’s fancy. Everything is comfortable.

I walk into the Backstage Bakery & Cafe through a small door on Seventh Street near Main and order a scone to temper my hunger until barbecue time. The bakery is tiny, not much more than an alcove, but then I step with my baked good through an interior door, and find myself in a space between a pub and a bookshop, or what I like to think of as the Eternal Dilemma. Both sides are populated by people talking quietly or browsing. I stand between them and eat.

A simple measure to gauge the health of a downtown is the number of flyers pasted in shop windows. Cottage Grove is festooned with them—for the Cottage Grove Garden Club, a motorbike run, an American Legion spaghetti supper, a reading by a local children’s book author.

Across from West Coast Machine Guns, I stop into Victoriana Antiques & Costumes, which Lesley Neufeld opened six years ago. A former Hollywood costume designer (she worked on Pirates of the Caribbean and Waterworld, among other films), Neufeld says she set up shop here because she felt that Cottage Grove’s Main Street could use a good store like hers to lend some interest and life. “If I’m traveling, Main Street is where I head, especially if it’s a historic downtown,” she says. “It has the most interesting buildings, and there’s always food there.”

Neufeld figures the blend of businesses here involves more happenstance than planning—those who own their buildings, like the proprietors of the furniture shop and the quilt store, tend to stay put. Others drift in, hoping to catch the attention of visitors. It’s sort of organic.

Like its counterparts in Paso Robles and Petaluma, this Main Street was not cut from whole cloth. It evolved, accruing bits and pieces from the people who live in the community and have a stake in keeping it healthy.

Troutdale, Ore.
Turning right at Portland onto Interstate 84, I come to my last stop, Troutdale, which bills itself as the Gateway to the Columbia River Gorge. In the 1920s it had a different billing: Celery Capital of the World. Farms filled the countryside, and along a low bluff on one side of the main road through town ran the train that brought supplies in and took produce out. So the street grew up lopsided—built up only on the side across from the tracks. Then the celery went away and rail lost its primacy and the city decided to do something with the land on the other side of the street: They would build a Main Street.

The city council and a couple of residents got together to figure out how, and some of them went to other small towns like Cripple Creek, Colo., to see what they could learn. In time, design guidelines were developed, lots sold, buildings built, and businesses opened. Today you can drive down the Main Street portion of East Historic Columbia River Highway and not notice that the northern side is just 10 years old, its mix of building features suggesting an earlier era: Western-style false fronts, Italianate facades, a Queen Anne turret.

Midway on the street is the Troutdale General Store, founded nine years ago by Terry and Jodi Smoke. It seems familiar; maybe it reminds me of the Emporium at Disneyland. A well-engineered nostalgia is at work here—there are cracker barrels and old neon signs and a gravity-fed gas pump—and it’s pleasingly cluttered, by design. The afternoon I visit, customers cluster near the soda fountain, an honest-to-goodness 19th-century bar imported from Arizona.

“When we opened,” Terry Smoke recalls, “we had a 90-year-old woman come in, and she said, ‘I’m this high off the ground. I remember all of this.’ A lot of parents bring their kids in and explain that this is what it was like. Everybody knew everybody in town, and everyone said ‘hi’ on the streets. Main Streets are the heart of America.”

I head to the counter and, like everyone else, order a bowl of smoked salmon chowder, which Terry makes every Friday. This does not seem to be a secret in Troutdale, as roughly half the city’s population arrives to order a bowl, chatting while they wait.

And it occurs to me, maybe you can fabricate a Main Street. The Troutdale General Store may not be as classically “authentic” as a store that opened its doors in 1910 and never closed, but it’s grounded in Troutdale in the way a mere stage setting for cast members could never be. Disney offers a series of one-way interactions, between actors and audience, not the kinds of two-way exchanges among people that serve as social glue. I think Walt Disney had the right insight with his Main Street U.S.A. But he didn’t get even halfway there.

One thing stuck in my mind about the Disney parade a week earlier. When the noise and drums and cymbals stopped, the conductor boomed through his headset mic, “Welcome to Main Street U.S.A., where every day is a celebration!” And everyone applauded. He got that right. But outside Anaheim, I found a different, quieter celebration under way, one that also seems well worth applauding.

Photography by Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland, Chris Leschinsky, Melissa Barnes

This article was first published in January 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.