If it's Quirky, it's Good

Posted on: March 4th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 3 Comments

 

Watertown, Wisc. is just one of the many Main Street communities in my state that have effectively utilized murals to generate interest in their downtown.

Watertown, Wisc. is just one of the many Main Street communities in my state that have effectively utilized murals to generate interest in their downtown.

Most everyone can recall taking a walking tour in the past. But can you remember where? Could it have been anywhere? Did it display authenticity? Did it encourage you to shop after the tour, have a bite to eat or visit a museum? Anthony Rubano with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency demonstrated how the walking tour has evolved in “Foot Traffic: A Fresh Look at Walking Tours”, a session at the National Main Streets Conference going on now in Chicago.

Probably the most fascinating piece of Anthony’s presentation was the explanation of building styles and the importance of connecting them to our shared history and heritage. When creating tours, yes, identify a style, such as Richardsonian Romanesque, but connect that style to the larger context—in this case, the Holy Roman Empire. You can do this with nearly every architectural style on your Main Street. Another example: if you have a prism glass design in one of your buildings downtown, it may be a Frank Lloyd Wright creation. Find out and if it is, you’ve just greatly increased interest in your itinerary.

Walking tour New Holstein style. This rural Wisconsin community knows where its appeal lies.

Walking tour New Holstein style. This rural Wisconsin community knows where its appeal lies.

And it’s not just your downtown commercial buildings you should be highlighting. Waters towers, gas stations, grain elevators, or a two story outhouse (no kidding) that are sites of interest. “If it is quirky, it is good and should be added to your walking tour.” Even those advertising slogans and murals of decades past that are still clinging to the sides of today’s buildings, called “ghost signs”, also have a nostalgic appeal to residents and visitors alike.

Anthony’s presentation was on his leading walking tours in Springfield, Illinois and a majority of his images were from Illinois communities. But the ideas and program can be used by a Main Street community anywhere. People seek authenticity; you do not find walking tours of big-box stores or a new suburban shopping strip. Those that already have this interest in your downtown and its history will learn more with a successful walking tour, and more importantly will spend more time and money in your downtown.

-- Trent Margrif

Trent Margrif is the director of the Wisconsin Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Stay tuned here and on their official blog as staff attending the 2009 National Main Streets Conference -- which is taking place this week in Chicago -- share what they're learning.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

The State of Main Street

Posted on: March 3rd, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Yesterday morning the downtown revitalization world was rocked with a dose of infectious enthusiasm and energy. Could you feel the energy emanating from Chicago?

Gregarious state delegations fill the annual opening plenary with enthusiasm and energy.

Gregarious state delegations fill the annual opening plenary with enthusiasm and energy. Photo: Linda Glisson

The 2009 National Main Streets Conference, “Becoming Main Street 2.0,” kicked off yesterday with a rousing Opening Plenary. The Palmer House Hilton’s glorious ballroom was filled with groups representing their states – clusters that are marked with delegation-style state signs. It began with Main Street Center’s Director Doug Loescher delivering some good news that despite tough economic challenges, historic commercial districts in America are holding on or even thriving. This was met with thunderous applause and much “wooting.” (Our conference is special in that when you get a bunch of Main Streeters together – people who are passionate about reviving the heart of their historic communities – it is hardly a somber or low-key event.)

Doug shared news from a survey taken by the Main Street Center that as many as 27% of Main Street districts  - communities with preservation-based economic development programs in place - are not reporting severe negative effects from the challenging national economy. In fact, in many communities tell us that business openings seem to be out-pacing closings 2 to 1.

And while the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reports 2008 holiday sales for independent businesses dropped an average of 5% from 2007, that’s nothing compared to what many national chains suffered: sales drops by as much as 25%. Even better news is coming out of Main Street communities that organized “Shop Local” campaigns: those participating businesses saw declines of just over two percent—a good testament to how coordinated strategies like Main Street can really make a difference.

Main Street is also at the center of several key cultural and economic trends right now. Our nation’s economic recession, our vast carbon footprint, and Wall Street collapse dominate our daily headlines. With its philosophy of investing in local assets, including rehabbing older and historic buildings, bolstering businesses and building public and private partnerships, Main Street is a living, working text book on economic and environmental sustainability.

David Brown, the Executive Vice President of the National Trust, drove the point home—that sustainability and historic preservation go hand in hand – with a sustainability success story that takes place in Dubuque, Iowa. He started with the sobering statistic that demolishing a 15,000-square foot building creates 1,200 tons of waste and rebuilding a new structure of that size releases as much carbon into our air as driving a car 840,000 miles. But we see a refreshing alternative in Dubuque’s plan to revitalize a 17-block warehouse district through rehabbing 28 mostly vacant structures. The project will create 1 million square feet of housing and commercial space while making maximizing energy efficiency and minimizing water waste. And by providing on-site job training for high school students to help rehab the buildings, the project is also building the skills and preservation ethic of local youth.

Clearly the dramatic reshaping of the business landscape represents big change. But the Main Street movement grew out of the urban renewal rubble of the 1970s and it is a time-tested approach that helps communities and economies adapt to new market realities. In the words of Terry Lynn Smith from Hammond, Louisiana:

“Tough economic times should be used as a lesson to all Americans. We are not lazy, we just get too comfortable…this should sharpen the stone, so to speak. Our Main Street program will learn from today’s economy. Rising up from what could be a disaster will be better and more enduring programs. I firmly believe we will get the job done.”

-- Andrea Dono

Andrea Dono is the associate editor for the National Trust Main Street Center. Stay tuned here and on their official blog as Andrea and her colleagues share posts live from the 2009 National Main Streets Conference, which is taking place this week in Chicago.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Teaching Preservation: Notes from an Undercover History Lover

Posted on: March 3rd, 2009 by Guest Writer

 

To be totally honest, when I first walked into Paul “Lash” LaRue’s Research History class, I didn’t know quite what to expect. With the sound of recorded transcripts floating into the hallway and a seemingly bottomless supply of snacks, it always seemed like the students from years prior were having such a good time. This is ultimately why I added the class for my schedule. Who doesn’t love food?!

Something

Historic railroad remnants in Washington Court House, Ohio.

Luckily, it didn’t take Lash long to get me jazzed about our class projects. On my first day, I remember being beyond intrigued by him explaining how Thomas A. Edison might have lived and worked as a telegrapher for the local railroad in our town, Washington Court House, Ohio.

See, I have always been fascinated by big questions like this. I can just imagine myself in a long trench coat with a dark hat pulled low over my eyes as I storm into Research History flashing my research historian badge.

In working on the project, one of the first biographies I read was A Life of Invention by Paul Israel, the director and editor of The Thomas A. Edison Papers. This man has access to millions of documents and patents of Edison, many of which Edison wrote himself. We exchanged a few e-mails, as he was also interested in the mystery of Edison being in Washington Court House at some point during his life. It was amazing to talk to a person as knowledgeable as Mr. Israel. I felt like I was a student working beside a famous doctor. It was such an honor.

As I read more – including Wizard of Menlo Park and Edison – I was disappointed to find no mention of Edison even passing through our town. I discovered, though, that even when a door was closed on my research, a window opened. The big discovery? Five articles mentioning Edison that were printed in our local paper.

Jackpot!

Although my research ultimately proved that Edison did not, in fact, live and work in Washington Court House, I did find some other fascinating (and probably related) stories along the way. For instance, there was an African-American inventor, Grandville Woods, who was nicknamed the “Black Edison” who is well documented as having lived and worked here. Most likely, he is who the author of the newspaper articles mixed Edison up with.

Overall, Research History has been an enriching experience for me because it has taught me exactly how much information is out there that it is just waiting to be discovered. Badge (and snacks) in hand, I look forward to following more clues, exploring more hidden alleys and solving more cases in the future.

-Shannon M.

Shannon M. is a senior at Washington High School in Washington Court House, Ohio. This semester, she’ll be working with his Research History classmates to document and preserve Good Hope Cemetery. Stay tuned as they share their experiences here on our blog and on their Flickr photostream.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

Sarah Elizabeth Ray and the SS Columbia: The Unknown Story of One Woman's Fight for Racial Freedom

Posted on: March 3rd, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

The above historic image of the SS Columbia dates to the interwar period and was taken by the noted marine photographer Bill Taylor. (Bill Taylor and the Marine Historical Society of Detroit)

The above historic image of the SS Columbia dates to the interwar period and was taken by the noted marine photographer Bill Taylor. (Bill Taylor and the Marine Historical Society of Detroit)

Sarah Elizabeth Ray was born in 1921 to a family of 13 children in an all-black community in Wauhatchie, TN. Ray’s upbringing was a relatively isolated one and spared from much of the sting of Jim Crow. She moved to Detroit in her 20’s with her first husband to find a better life and enrolled in a federally-funded secretarial program, the only African-American among forty girls. Upon graduating in June 1945, the girls decided to celebrate by taking the short boat ride to Boblo Island.

Bois Blanc Island (commonly known as Boblo, or Bob-Lo Island) was considered the region’s Coney Island. Once a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping to Canada, the island is located on the Detroit River just over the Canadian border. Between 1898 up until its closing in 1993, the entire island was privately owned by Michigan’s Bob-Lo Excursion Company as an amusement park and serviced by two now-historic vessels: the SS Ste. Clair and the SS Columbia.*

On the morning of June 21, 1945, Ray and her classmates boarded the Columbia to be ferried to Bob-Lo Amusement Park. One of the girls collected the class money and bought all the tickets at once. In a Feb 28, 2006 article in the Detroit Free Press, Ray recalled as she walked onto the boat that the man taking tickets noticed her brown hand and looked up, but said nothing. All were welcome at Boblo, except for disorderly people and colored people. After taking their seats on the top deck, two men walked toward them and asked the white girls next to Sarah whether they knew her. Her teacher was then told she could not continue on because she was black. Initially Ray refused to leave the ship, but after one of the men instructed a group of waiters to throw her off, she left. But Sarah hadn’t given up the fight. When she got to shore, she threw her 85 cent refund back at the boat and called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

The National Main Streets Conference: An Introduction

Posted on: March 3rd, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Greater Chicago provides abundant examples of historic preservation’s important place in the revitalization of urban downtowns and neighborhood business districts. (Photo: Linda Glisson)

Greater Chicago provides abundant examples of historic preservation’s important place in the revitalization of urban downtowns and neighborhood business districts. (Photo: David Urschel)

The National Main Street Conference is here! Part tent revival, part family reunion, part summit, the annual conference—organized by the National Trust Main Street Center since 1986—brings together the best and brightest experts and practitioners of commercial district revitalization from across the land.

The largest conference of its kind in the country, the event showcases the best practices, tools and great ideas to create vibrant places to live, work, and play. The majority of the 1,600+ conference attendees either work for the 1,200 Main Street organizations that dot the U.S. or for the coordinating programs that support them. The conference gives these attendees a once-a-year opportunity to convene with their colleagues from states near and far to celebrate their revitalization successes, to reflect on their challenges and to brainstorm together how to do even better.

The 2009 conference is already underway in Chicago, Illinois. This year’s theme, Becoming Main Street 2.0, focuses the spotlight on how Main Street organizations can harness new technology to advance the evolution of their older and historic downtowns and business districts. From Facebook to MySpace to Google Adwords, the conference examines how Main Street businesses and organizations can use these tools to communicate, conduct business and promote themselves.

Other topics for discussion at the conference are “Dude, What’s Up Downtown,” which attempts to attract Generation X and Y to Main Street; “Successful Farmer’s Markets from the Ground Up,” a how-to for starting and operating a local farmers’ market; “Modernism and Main Street” which explains the key role that buildings from the more recent past play on Main Street; and “Hispanic Leadership and Main Street,” one of several sessions that explores the diverse contributions that Hispanics and other ethnic groups make to a successful Main Street community.

A very visible piece of Andersonville’s unique charm is in its celebration of its Swedish heritage. (Photo: Linda Glisson)

A very visible piece of Andersonville’s unique charm is in its celebration of its Swedish heritage. (Photo: Linda Glisson)

In addition to more than 60 educational sessions, the National Main Streets Conference also gives attendees opportunities to take to the street to witness first-hand area revitalization efforts. "Selling Preservation in Chicago’s Latino Pilsen Neighborhood" explores the successes and challenges of language and cultural barriers in this Main Street commercial district; "Urban Renewal 50 Years Later: From Urban Main Street to Suburban Thruway. Now What?" takes a walk down Hyde Park’s 55th Street, a thoroughfare that has long struggled to redefine itself after Urban Renewal demolished much of its historic character. And "Chicago’s Andersonville Neighborhood: Local Sustainable Community Development", examines its unique economic development strategy, focusing on promotion and retention of locally owned businesses, architectural preservation, celebration of its Swedish heritage and modern diversity.

So as you can see the scope is vast and the subject matter fascinating. Stay tuned for more information about Monday's opening plenary session which explored Main Street’s position in these turbulent economic time—and I'm happy to say that there is plenty of good news!

- Erica Stewart

Erica Stewart is the outreach coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Community Revitalization Program. Stay tuned here and on their official blog as Erica and her colleagues share posts live from the 2009 National Main Streets Conference, which is taking place this week in Chicago.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.