What makes a Main Street? For contemporary local boosters looking to market their downtowns, the answer lies in a mix of local history, architectural charm, quirky shops, and a dose of nostalgia. Main Street has a long history in American culture—the idea, more than the reality, conjures notions of placid small towns and idyllic communities—a concept now permanently rendered at Disney, where the ultimate Main Street draws nearly 20 million visitors per year. But Main Street is more than an idea—it’s a blueprint for local design and local marketing. Indeed, the National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has for decades offered small towns and districts of larger cities guidance in branding and marketing themselves to tourists, daytrippers, future residents, and business prospects.
American Studies scholar Miles Orvell nicely sums up the paradoxical meanings of American Main Streets: “if Main Street is the most “American” of places, it is at the same time a place of paradox, a symbol of American democracy, yet a place of exclusion. It is the most mundane and dreary of places, and yet at the same time a place that has been fashioned—in its avatar as Disneyland’s Main Street—into one of the most festive public spaces in the entire world.”
“Main Streets” across the Southeast embody precisely this mix of exclusion and inclusion, mundanity and festivity. We can see these trends in the way communities use history to create—and market–local identity. In DeLand, for example, the Volusia county seat founded in 1876, historical tales decorate downtown in a series of murals on the main street’s historic buildings. All but one of these murals feature predominantly white DeLanders representing turning-point moments of the town’s past; in one mural, an African American man tills the soil in the foreground of the town’s original cabin as founder Henry DeLand looks on (this painting reproduces an actual photograph). Several celebrate the town’s pioneer days; another commemorates the natural landscape (that settlement, of course, would modify substantially); another commemorates DeLand’s World War II Naval Air Station. Down a side street just east from downtown, another in the mural series tells a different story; titled, “DeLand at the Turn of the Century,” this mural is dedicated to the “people of color who lived and worked in ‘Red City’ & ‘Little Africa’ and helped to make DeLand the vibrant place it is today.” This painting—done, like several others in the series, by local artist Courtney Canova—winds along a wall that once ended the railroad spur to downtown shows African Americans and white workers engaged in the industries that built the town. This mural’s presence also marks the absence of what was once a thriving African American community on that side of downtown. Repainted in spring 2016, the mural’s bold colors jump out, like a brochure, and, indeed, ingeniously, Canova has included an image from a historic early twentieth-century DeLand brochure welcoming visitors to town. Here, the multicultural, multiclass population that built the town—through hard work—finds recognition.
On the other side of DeLand’s “Main Street” lies the historically African American neighborhood of Spring Hill, once home to turpentine workers when that industry thrived in the area as well as citrus and other agricultural workers. Here, another series of murals expresses a different perspective on local history. Painted by third-generation neighborhood resident Gina Gillislee Hickman, they represent people from that community recognizable to many with roots there, from community leaders like the first black president of the city’s chamber of commerce, to teachers and maintenance workers.
Of course, it takes more than murals and bricks to create local identity. In “Main Street” towns like DeLand, local events are part of the mix, creating a brand that says something like, “quirky fun, family, culture.” But these events also have a larger story to tell. Who participates and who attends? How do they resonate with local cultures? Down the interstate from DeLand, the historically African American community of Eatonville has a new streetscape, too. Inaugurated in 2012, the streetscape includes an archway, brick walkways, and planters—visuals similar to those that characterize many small towns in Florida and Georgia, but with a historical twist. For Eatonville, marketing history is inherently political, and the revitalized streetscape has the potential to raise the community’s profile—and make its important history as the nation’s first African American incorporated town more widely known. And Eatonville, of course, has its own festival—the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities—about to celebrate its 28th year. In Eatonville—like at Painter’s Pond or in Spring Hill–festivals, streetscapes, and plaques are political acts of historical remembering, not only celebratory aesthetic. This preservation movement in Eatonville—rooted in decades of community activism—is part of a national effort to make diversity part of the preservation story.
While Eatonville and other communities pursue conjuring bygone eras through the re-imagined streetscapes, the history visitors experience while walking local streets are not free of broader questions of race in the United States. Through historic markers, monuments, or murals, they tell a story of the past and use that story to create a brand for the community. Eatonville faces a challenge and a unique opportunity based on its unique link to Zora Neale Hurston. Visitors to its historic streets must ponder the meaning of communal stories that question why things might be missing and call for new stories, new places, new monuments and new understandings of history to create a fuller understanding of communities past and present.
Associate Professor of History and American Studies