Friday, October 3, 2008


Main Street (remember that ol' thing?) is suddenly back in vogue, invoked hourly by politicians and pundits. Suddenly, after years of being completely ignored, Main Street has currency again--because it is the opposite of Wall Street. And everyone is scrambling to be as opposite of Wall Street as they can. Back to the good old days.

A little too late, alas. Funny that now they care about Main Street. What Main Street exactly are they talking about? I don't mean metaphorical Main Street, I mean real Main Street, as in the ones that have been emptying out and dying and going ghost-town for the past twenty years as strip malls and Wal-Marts suck the life out of the town center and into gangly, hideous, ever-extending limbs.

With the assistance and approval of many a plum tax incentive and dare I say many of The American People.

Downtown Park Rapids.

My hometown of Park Rapids, MN, which has a population of 3500 and a Main Street three blocks long, "got" a Wal-Mart last year. Concerned citizens had staved off Wal-Mart for many years, fearing what would become of the local merchants on Main Street, who already have an uneven time in a rural economy whose residents' median income is half that of the rest of Minnesota, and have to rely largely on three months of summer lake tourism to carry the rest of the year. But crafty Bill Jones, our resident crooked lawyer--seriously, the guy is like a villain from an old western, the stunts he's pulled approaching legendary in their brazen corruptness, like literally scamming little old ladies, he is a genuine crook of the classic order, and somehow despite the malpractice suits and license suspensions he always snakes back onto the scene--Bill Jones bought 28 acres of land along the highway, got the city to annex the area against many of his neighbors' wishes, and then sold it to Wal-Mart for $1.2 million.

Now there is a 161,000-square-foot Wal-Mart SuperCenter in Park Rapids.

The devil's advocate might argue that Wal-Mart will draw people from all over the region to Park Rapids, and some of that money might spill over to Main Street.

However, Wal-Mart has also sprung up 36 miles south of us in Wadena (pop. 3900), 43 miles west of us in Detroit Lakes (pop. 8000), and 52 miles north of us in Bemidji (pop. 13,400). Consider that there's not much more than woods, fields, and a handful of one-block towns scattered between, and relative to the area, that's a Wal-Mart blanket.

So this classic Main Street we love to wax nostalgic over is like the elderly citizen left to deteriorate in a "rest" home: how great it was, a paragon of goodness, those were better days, gotta run, see you next holiday. Obviously it's not just Park Rapids. Take the lovely and half-empty downtown of Bemidji, where all the picturesque brick sidewalks and benches and four-way stops can't stanch the hemorraghing of customers to the lopsided big-box growth metastasizing out of the northwest end of town. I'd wager most old Main Streets in an American small towns--where, for all the proud extolling of their virtue and importance, hardly anyone lives anymore--suffer the same fate, including Wasilla, Alaska, where Mayor Palin wooed in the chains, including W-M.

Downtown Bemidji.

And now a "Wal-Mart Mom" has become a viable voting demographic--joining NASCAR Dads, I guess, among the first (?) electoral demographics stamped with a corporate brand.*

But maybe even more insidious than Wal-Mart--which is indisputably soulless, a non-place--are the new fake Main Streets that have been cropping up all over, especially in affluent suburbs and planned communities. In the Portland suburbs, they call it The Streets of Tanasbourne™; the one near Cleveland is Crocker Park ("It's all in a park-like setting filled with the captivating charm and bustling energy of a traditional downtown main street.") But it doesn't matter what they're named. They're malls without roofs. They spring up instant and glittering like those crystal gardens we grew on rocks in elementary school, and are stocked exclusively with mall staples. You can even live in them. (Overheard in the Crocker Park Gap: "Oh, we moved into one of the condos above Talbot's down the street.") They even sport the kiosk directory of stores, replete with YOU ARE HERE. Wherever that is.

*I can't help but think here of Infinite Jest, set in a near future where the years themselves no longer have numbers but corporate sponsors: Year of the Maytag Whisper-Quiet Dishwasher, Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment, Year of Glad.


AnnMarie said...

this story though i've heard it and felt it a thousand times makes my heart ache. my own people are in a tiny minnesota hamlet on the iron range. the little downtown of biwabik is almost completely vacant. the only commerce that seems to happen downtown is at the four taverns that line main street and in the yard of a an abandoned elementary school where teenage boys sell and smoke pot.

lovely pics, they made me homesick...

Mike Chase said...

My wife and I were victims of that insidious bastard Bill Jones many years ago when we still lived in PR... Of course we were also young and naive. Perfect targets for him I suppose.

Good post. I miss Main Street PR. WalMart makes me sick.

Anonymous said...

Looking for more information about Bill jones, anybody??

Anonymous said...

one thing wrong PR's pop. is now (10,450) seriously, they havent changed it in over 10 to 15 years

CHELSEY said...

The official population within the city limits is 3,500-some, per the 2000 census--but yes, if you include greater Hubbard County the area Park Rapids serves encompasses 10,000. (And double or triple that in the summer, when the tourists and summer residents descend.)