7 Oct 2008 8:16 am   //   Filed under: Hard times

The myth of Main Street

It’s become popular among politicians and TV journalists to ask when the economic pain on Wall Street will be felt on “Main Street.” Take a drink every time you hear somebody say “Main Street” during the debate tonight.

I have a problem with this metaphor. For most ordinary folks, if there even is a “Main Street” in their town, it was totally decimated by Wal-Mart in the 1990s. Main Streets are vestiges from a time before interstates, when dense towns formed organically around crossroads, harbors and train stations. No more. New developments in the suburbs are built without any kind of central business district. If you still have a downtown, it’s probably not a place you hang out. There’s a good bet it’s limping along with a few struggling offices and maybe a weird old barber shop.

The way people live now, home is a cul-de-sac. Business is conducted in a shopping center or an office park a 15-minute drive away on a six-lane divided highway. Mailboxes Etc. or FedEx Kinkos has replaced the Post Office, Amazon or Barnes & Noble has replaced the book store, Safeway or Kroger has replaced most other food shops. Nobody walks anywhere.

So perhaps your town has no soul. But there’s a good unintended consequence to all this. When all your local businesses are part of national chains, they can ride out a few years of a bad economy. Home Depot, Costco and McDonald’s are going to be fine.

So if not Main Street, where will economic trouble cause the most pain in small towns and cities? I think school districts. Schools are localized. They rely largely on local property taxes, bond issues and mutual fund investments for income. We’ve let the businesses in our towns grow huge, national and powerful, but left our public schools in a precarious situation.