How to Analyze a Town

18 May

There are dissertations dedicated to town studies, but with a little upfront research and a willingness to use the Basics below, you can give an impressive description of a town and get more out of your visit.

Basics:

  1. Know at least some basic history of the town, such as when it was settled who settled it, and any past events that affected it, such as a war battle or natural disaster.
  2. Know the basic demographics, like its population, ethnic and/or religious majorities.  Censusviewer.com is a good source for quick demographics for small towns.  For populations over 6,000, try City-data.com.
  3. What are the town’s major industries?  Look for factories, farms, forests with young trees, or businesses that seem one-sided (such as rows and rows of automobile dealers, or numerous signs for outdoor sports).   Obviously, if the town is next to a lake, beach or mountain, it will usually cater to tourists.  A town with a college is accustomed to accommodating residents and visitors.
  4. Look for clues to the town’s origins.  Railroad tracks usually indicate that the town was a central stopping point for old railroad companies, especially if there is a depot.  Water sources were important for both agriculture and river transport of goods.  Natural springs are often hidden, but they were a good source of fresh water as well as a popular base for resort communities.   If you don’t see any such clues, then the town was possibly a stop along an old wagon trail that was eventually paved.
  5. Look for clues that out-of-towners are welcome.  A strong presence of group-oriented local businesses (restaurants, shops, churches) can indicate a more social atmosphere.   If the town saw fit to install a “Welcome to Smalltown” sign, then at the very least they’re glad to let you spend money there.
  6. Gauge the safety and security of the town. If you are uncomfortable even getting out of the car, look around for reasons.   Are there safe paths for pedestrians or bicycles?  Is there an obvious presence of “eyes on the street” or law enforcement?  Are there exterior lights?  What are the operating hours of the local businesses?
  7. Look for clues about the town’s financial state.  Are the streets and parks clean and maintained? Check public facilities such as libraries and coffee shops to see if they’ve cut back their hours or labor force.  Are there many vacancies, rentals or For Sale signs?
  8. Be familiar with the town’s current events.  Look for public meeting notices, local news sites or city council meeting agendas.  A school consolidation, successful festival, or new landfill can have a substantial impact on a town’s mood as well as its future.
  9. Talk to People:  The most important aspect of a town is its people.  Even the most obscure town will have a couple of residents happy to talk to you, as long as they trust your intentions.

Scavenger Hunt: Mandalas

23 Apr

What in the world is a mandala?

Typical Buddhist mandala pattern: Ceiling in the Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal

The Sanskrit word for “circle,” a mandala is a geometrical design that basically entails a four-petalled lotus incorporated with mixtures of a cross, a square, or a circle divided by four, but always with four as its basis.  In various spiritual traditions, mandalas are a way to experience a sense of wholeness, to aspire to a higher entity or consciousness, to establish a sacred space, and to help with meditation or prayer.  It is also a common word used for charts or symbols associated with the cosmos and astrology.

Left: Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal (Want to see a cooler view? Check it out on Google Earth). Right: Designers of the large fountain at Suntec Shopping Mall in Singapore deliberately incorporated the mandala as its basis of design

Mandalas have been found everywhere and in all ages.   In the traditional sacred art of the Buddhist and Hindu religions, the mandala has a radial balance, with four T-shaped “gates” containing a circle with a center point.   In Christianity, it is seen in the Celtic cross, the oculus of a cathedral dome, and in rose windows, among other locations.

Floor plan for St. Paul's Cathedral, London

So what does this have to do with Main Street?  The persistent use of the circle-in-square geometry denotes a common need for such ideals as order, balance and the totality of the universe.  It reveals aesthetic goals that are simple and regular while allowing room for abstract and adaptability.   The fact that we systematically place these patterns in the center of our communities — in town squares with fountains, for example — suggests that our towns are more universal in their meaning than we may realize.  From a higher perspective, our community plazas and courthouse squares can be considered great mandalas — our connections to public unity and aspiration.

The courthouse in Lexington, Kentucky suggests a mandala influence in its building and stair plans.

Courthouse plaza, Davidson County, Tennessee

Center-Mania: Why Are So Many Towns Named “Centerville?”

17 Apr

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Flip through the back of a U.S. Road Atlas, and you’ll find around 100 incorporated towns or cities with some variation of the word “Center” in their names.  If you include unincorporated villages and settlements, you’ll find at least 154 total Center-centric communities.  The most popular name is Centerville or its spelling variant, Centreville (22 towns).  There are also nine towns named Central City, nine named “Center” (or Centre), and nine named the more creative “Centralia.”  Of course, we also have Centertowns, Centerburgs, Center Points, Clay Centers, and an El Centro.  Then there is my favorite: Centrahoma.

So the obvious question should arise:  Why “Center?”  The most common answer is probably just as obvious: Geography.  Some towns literally were in the center of the state, such as  Centerburg, Ohio.  Centralia, West Virginia is both the center of its county and of the state.  In the majority of cases, however, the communities grew up at trade routes or railroad stops between larger cities (Central, South Carolina is halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte).  Many communities, such as Central City, Kentucky, formed at major wagon trail crossings.

Throughout the 19th century, particularly in the Midwest and the South, the concept of centrality was very important, not only from a travel standpoint, but from a political one as well.  Many communities adopted the argument that a county seat would best serve the population from the physical center of the county. The size of this center was often irrelevant (the county seat of Center, Nebraska has 94 residents).  And since being a center of anything inferred power and importance, once a community was elected as a county seat, it often changed its name to reflect its central location.

There are a few exceptions, of course.  Centralia, Illinois, is not the center of anything; it was named after the Illinois Central Railroad.  And Centerville, Iowa happens to be the center of Appanoose County, but it was actually named after William Senter, a prominent politician.  When the town’s incorporation papers were filed in1855, someone mistook the name for a misspelling and “corrected” it to Centerville.

Now, about all those towns named “Middle….”

The World’s Narrowest Main Streets

13 Apr

In researching the Narrowest Main Streets, I used the same parameters for verifying America’s Widest Main Streets:

  1. They must fall into my definition of Main Street, which is “the most important street in a community.”   I do not necessarily limit main streets to small towns.
  2. Measurements are taken from building front to building front.   The building edge is typically the storefront, but if the street is completely lined with covered porches, the building front is considered the outer face of the porch.  This measurement includes the sidewalks, because quite often they cover the original street.
  3. They must feel like a single unified space or zone.

Narrowest Main Street in the World:  Main Street, Placencia, Belize

Recognized by Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s narrowest street, this street is actually a four-foot sidewalk framed by sand, shops and restaurants.  Nevertheless, locals and visitors alike regard it as Palencia Village’s real community zone.  From the storefronts, the overall width measures around 12 feet at its narrowest points.

 

Narrowest Main Street in the North America:  Main Street, Locke, CA

The historic Chinese American town of Locke, located in the Sacramento River delta, is the embodiment of small town nostalgia, and its 22-ft wide Main Street has become its icon. Rebuilt in 1915 after a devastating fire, the narrow two-story buildings are lined with porches, balconies, Chinese signs and wooden sidewalks.

Honorable Mention:  Fan Tan Alley (Chinatown), Victoria, BC 

At just five feet wide and three stories tall, this former gambling district successfully transformed into a tiny but functional commercial slice with small shops, a café, and apartments.  Fan Tan is not the primary street in this district, but it is certainly worth a look.

New Urbanism: Why Looking Backward is Moving Forward

10 Apr

I found an interesting article on New Urbanism and its appeal to small town fans:

http://www.trulia.com/blog/BudZeller/2012/04/new_urbanism_continues_to_attract_small-town_fans

What struck me the most, however, was an argument similar to what I’ve heard before:  “…new urbanism has its detractors as well. Barry Berkus, of B3 Architects in Santa Barbera,Calif., argues, ‘Neo-traditional design looks back, not forward. New urbanists think all good architecture was done before 1940. But society has moved on.’” 

Moved on to what, exactly?

It is important to move forward, of course; with the exception of some of Gehry’s leaky messes, new technologies have led to some magnificent new architectural achievements.  And Greek Re-Revival houses may be pushing the boundaries of the monotonous after we’ve looked at those round columns for 2500 years.

But why is such a sin to look back?  Why is revisiting traditional styles so unsophisticated, particularly if these styles are being used in a new, progressive way?  We need neo-traditional design every bit as much as we need neo-modern design.  Like it or not, there is a human need to link to our past, to know our roots.  It’s the same need that compels U.S.citizens to link another nationality to their name (African-American, Native American, Anglo-American).  

I am not going to apologize for nostalgic architecture.  There’s another reason folks look back to Main Streets from 100 years ago – because it worked from a social standpoint.  Because slowing down to walking speed is actually healthy sometimes.  Automobiles were a raging step forward in human mobility, and a wonderful invention, but when the Main Street architectural forms abandoned the pedestrian for the car – well, we see what resulted.  After WWII, architects probably quoted Berkus’ line word for word, and here we are today, trying to fix 90% of what the Modern movement did to Main Street.   

Sure, building a carbon copy of Mayberry in an Atlanta suburb is counterproductive to the concept of moving forward; but combining Mayberry’s general planning style, a regional vernacular and modern construction techniques can produce a successful, distinctive living environment.  Traditional architecture should not be abandoned; it should continue a community’s story, write its next chapter — which is what New Urbanism does, when approached responsibly. 

So, long live New Urbanism – at least until the next neo-traditional revolution.

The Real Scoop: America’s Widest Main Streets

7 Apr

This should have been easy search.  Seriously, in the decade of satellite surveying and phones that argue with you, one would think that simple street measurements were more readily available – especially for those that claim to be the widest.   In order to sift through the claims, the most important task was to complete was to establish a single set of parameters from which to compare each claim.    From there, any measurements weren’t available from reliable sources had to be made via my computer’s tape measure.

Parameters for verifying the widest Main Streets:

  1. They must fall into my definition of Main Street, which is “the most important street in a community.”   I do not necessarily limit main streets to small towns.
  2. Measurements are taken from building front to building front.   The building edge is typically the storefront, but if the street is completely lined with covered porches, the building front is considered the outer face of the porch.  This measurement includes the sidewalks, because quite often they cover the original street.
  3. They must feel like a single unified space or zone.

Widest Urban Main Street:  Canal Street, New Orleans, LA

At 170 feet wide, Canal Street is often called the widest road in America still classified as a street, as opposed to an avenue or boulevard typically associated with larger cities.  The city originally envisioned it as a grand avenue with a canal, but the canal never developed past a dry ditch, and the ditch was eventually filled in for streetcars.

 

Cobden, IL

Widest Main Streets (with a railroad)

  • Front St., Cobden, IL:   Front Street’s widest point is around 380 feet wide, though this was not its original width.   After the Illinois Central Railroad track literally split the main street into two parts and pushed them outward, the main street technically became the nation’s widest.
  • Ennis, TX:  At its widest block, Main Street measures at approximately 340 feet.   Ennis was planned and built exclusively to support the  Houston and Texas Central Railway, and it still uses the railroad.

Onawa, IA

Plains, KS

Widest Rural Main Streets (without a railroad):  

  • Iowa Avenue, Onawa, IA:   The city claims loudly that it has the widest main street in the United States, but it’s difficult to determine because there are no actual dimensions stated anywhere online.  My crude measurements show 152 feet, but with my +/- 4-foot margin of error, they may be right.
  • Grand Avenue, Plains, KS:  Despite the fact it’s called avenue, this street, including the 12 foot wide sidewalks, measures 155 feet, 5 inches.

The Real Spaghetti Westerns: How Italian Villas Shaped Main Street

2 Apr
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(photos courtesy jpmoser.com, syv-online.com)

From an architectural standpoint (or any standpoint, for that matter), the last two things that anyone would consider siblings are an Italian villa and an Old West saloon, but if you look at the evolution of Main Street throughout the last half of the 19th century, the family lineage reveals itself.

The Old West dates to the Victorian Age, particularly the years from about 1850-1880.  Victorian architecture produced several substyles based on the latest European trends, such as Second Empire, Gothic Revival and Neoclassism.  Of these styles, however, the one that proved the most influential on American Main Street was the Italianate, a reminiscent blend of Renaissance progressive thought, some Classical Roman proportion, and especially, the luxurious Italian country villa.

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(Photo courtesy villacetinale.com, sangres.com)

As a result, typical 19th century American Main Streets adopted the predominant Italianate traits:  tall bays; repetitive windows with simple glazing; arched or curved crown molding  and thick cornices.  On more elaborate facades, these cornices were heavily detailed, usually overhanging past the wall surface and supported by corbels (heavy brackets).    Towers and balconies with balustrades were also common.  The Italianate façade was popular for false fronts, because it adapted to different building materials and budgets, and the advances in cast-iron and press-metal technology made the decorative elements easy to mass produce.  Add in the ground floor storefront, large sign and territorial touches (like adobe corners or shade porches), and you get the American Main Street vernacular.

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Deadwood, SD (Photo courtesy papiblogger.com)

For earlier settlements and boom towns popping up in the west, including the mining and gold rush regions, the commercial cores went up fast.  Wood, brick and adobe (in the Southwest) were the most readily available materials.  Detailing was kept to a minimum, but the Italianate style was now mainstream, so the simple facades maintained the parapet profile, the strong cornice and arches.   Once a town began to prosper, it quickly let the world know through its Main Street facade, so renovations with Victorian details du jour were common.

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Winthrop, WA (photo courtesy gonorthwest.com)

Scavenger Hunt Item: Meskers

22 Mar

The next time you’re on a small town Main Street, look closely at the storefront frames.  If you spot an old storefront facade formed completely out of metal, chances are that it’s a Mesker.

Pioneered in 1879 by the Mesker Brothers, who were sons of a German tinsmith, these pre-fab iron facades were hugely popular in late 19th-century downtown buildings.  After the Civil War, the ornate High-Victorian style was at its pinnacle, and industrious entrepreneurs sought ways to re-purpose gun-making machinery.  Mesker storefronts could be mass-produced and easily adapted to include the ornate European details.  As a result, over 5000 storefronts were installed throughout the U.S., establishing the Mesker Brothers as instrumental figures in shaping the American Main Street character.

Mesker Brothers Ironworks made more than storefronts, of course; they forged everything from nameplates to WWII submarine equipment, though the earlier storefronts still command attention.  Their main foundries were in St. Louis and Evansville, Indiana, and in 1988, they moved to Huntsville, Alabama.  Many of the storefronts now are either destroyed, decayed, or not yet identified, and several organizations, such as the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, are asking for help in locating them.  The Mesker Brothers typically imprinted their company nameplate on the storefront, so look closer to see if it’s still visible.

More info:  http://meskerbrothers.wordpress.com/

Test photo post

16 Mar

Brugges, Belgium

Taken in 2006, this is a close-up of one of my favorite streets in Europe.

What are all these buttons for?

11 Nov

Future posts should be much more informative.  This is a test to see how everything looks…

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