The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community by Miles Orvell (review)
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The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community. By Miles Orvell. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. 286. $39.95 cloth)

In choosing to echo the title of the Jane Jacobs blockbuster The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1962) fifty years later, Miles Orvell has set a high standard for comparison. His goal is to explore the cultural meanings of American small towns. (“Main Street” sometimes means commercial districts in his discussion and sometimes is shorthand for small towns and cities in their entirety.) The result is an invigorating kaleidoscopic tour as different elements pop into prominence in different chapters.

The first two chapters deal with efforts to reconstruct an imagined small-town past in places like Greenfield Village, Williamsburg, Disneyland, and the “colonialization” of the Germantown Avenue shopping strip in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia (where, I must confess, my mother-in-law used to buy me Christmas presents at the very tasteful Jos. A. Bank, Clothiers).

Chapters three and four are a fascinating exploration of the transformation of the small town in the national imagination (or at least the imagination of intellectuals and artists) from slough of back-slapping mediocrity to embodiment of democratic virtue. Orvell offers insightful and contextualized discussions of expected texts like Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920), Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938), and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but he adds in the work of photographers associated with the Farm Security Administration in the late 1930s. Chapter five complicates the picture by discussing the Muncie of Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown studies, describing the class divisions that the Lynds saw, the racial divisions that they ignored, and the utter obliviousness of Life magazine to these same divisions. All three chapters draw on the author’s expertise in literature and photography and are excellent examples of the American-studies approach of placing cultural products in social and historical context. [End Page 281]

The last three chapters shift to the realm of city planning and design. We get a tour of communities influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City idea from the 1920s to the 1940s, revisit Levittown and Columbia, Maryland, explore New Urbanist communities, and take on HOPE VI projects that have tried to reinsert “suburban” style projects into derelict Philadelphia neighborhoods. These are reliable treatments, although as a reader who is steeped in city-planning history, I found them less original than earlier chapters (others, of course, may respond differently).

There are some quibbles about the grounding of some comments. Ozzie and Harriet may have oozed “Midwestern banality” into television sets, but the Nelsons actually lived in Hollywood, California (p. x). Sinclair Lewis did not intend that Zenith be understood as a “small city”; he gave it a population around 400,000, which would have ranked it sixteenth in the nation in 1920, on a par with Cincinnati and Minneapolis (p. 100). The planned regional mall, with anchor department stores, was intended by some developers to mirror a large city downtown, not a small main street.

I learned a lot from this book, with new insights about topics as diverse as model railroad towns and Depression-era photography. Beyond quibbles, I did find the object of analysis somewhat hard to pin down. Norman Rockwell’s Stockbridge, Massachusetts, was surely a small town, but was not Muncie (70,000 in 1930) a city? Are not there basic differences between freestanding towns like Gopher Prairie, a neighborhood shopping district like Chestnut Hill with vastly different market forces, and suburbs like Radburn and Levittown? But then, they are all knit together by an ideal, are they not? Orvell has his own thoughts, but he is also willing to leave us space to ponder whether that ideal is vapidly nostalgic or socially dynamic. [End Page 282]

Carl Abbott

Carl Abbott teaches urban studies and planning at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. Recent books include Frontiers Past and Future: Science Fiction and the American West (2006) and How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America (2008).