Skip to main content
57:00
Published:
Rating: NR

Main Street America

Remember when you used to head downtown to shop, to eat, to enjoy a night on the town? It seemed like everything you needed or everywhere you wanted to go was "downtown," from your medical doctor to your favorite diner.

Fifty years ago, downtown Akron was the thriving center of an industrial city, supporting a mix of small businesses, residents and industry. But like many American Main Streets, downtown Akron's began to devolve into a collection of failed businesses and abandoned buildings. By the 1950s, an exodus began as people moved away from the city and into the suburbs, acquired cars and began shopping closer to where they lived at newly sprouting malls.

A number of "revitalization" plans have been proposed over the years—the reinvention of downtown Akron is both a work in progress and an ongoing source of anxiety. But why bother with renewal at all? What does a strong Main Street mean to a city and its residents? How does a city justify the special financing and tax incentives that are used to attract new development? Whose interests are met through revitalization? And why is it so difficult to achieve?

MAIN STREET AMERICA, a PBS Western Reserve production, explores the stories of four different cities—Akron, Ohio; Port Gibson, Mississippi; Springfield, Illinois; and Portland, Oregon—each in various stages of rejuvenation and working to overcome problems that have been years in the making. Reporter Jody Miller of PBS Western Reserve NEWSNIGHT AKRON looks at why these cities are pursuing renewal and the various ways they are hoping to achieve it.

"It was amazing to me that in Port Gibson, Springfield and Portland, I interviewed many community leaders whose thoughts were mirrors of each other and of those we hear in Akron," said Miller. "In all four cities, the people we talk with—from mayors to developers to private business people to historians—are all passionate about their respective communities and passionate about the efforts underway to improve their downtowns and Main Streets. We came away with an overwhelming sense that for these people, Main Street and their downtowns were the hearts and identities of their communities."

From cities like Portland, which is held up as an epitome of a successful downtown, to Port Gibson, which is just beginning its revitalization, each of the communities is working through collaborations and public/private partnerships to take the best of the past and recapture a sense of pride and a unique idea.

According to Miller, the recipe for success in these four communities has been as individual as each community; what has worked and is working in one may not work for another.

"It was fascinating to see what other towns have done and compare Akron to those efforts," she said. "These cities, Akron included, are dedicated to creating a new Main Street that holds the promise for a city's future while nurturing a community's heart, home and haven, all rolled into one."

But revitalization is never easy.

"The hardest part of revitalization ... is helping a community see what the opportunities are and see what the obstacles are," explains Kennedy Smith, director of the National Main Street Program based in Washington, DC. "There is a very strong tendency in the U.S. to believe that the answer to problems can be bought, that the way to revitalize your downtown is to bring in a convention center, a festival marketplace, a ball park, a whatever the big project du jour may happen to be, whatever the next big city over just did. Everybody thinks that if they do that it's going to work. And that's not really a solution, that's not thinking through what really is best for this community. That's the hardest thing of all."

PBS Western Reserve MAIN STREET AMERICA considers Smith's remarks in light of urban renovation and Main Street projects, looks at what is worth saving downtown and explores what kind of revitalization plans actually work toward realizing the dream of renewing Main Street.

MAIN STREET AMERICA is a production of PBS Western Reserve. Host/Reporter/Writer: Jody Miller of NEWSNIGHT AKRON. Executive Producer: Don Freeman. Producer/Director: Duilio Mariola. Writer/Associate Producer: Janis Worley.

A PBS Western Reserve production, 2002.

Featured Cities

Akron, Ohio:
Population: 230,000
Has begun working on a new revitalization project in the last few years.

Port Gibson, Mississippi:
Population: 1,800
Port Gibson is the third oldest incorporated town in the State of Mississippi and is the county seat. Located in the far southwest corner of Mississippi on the Natchez Trace, The town has been working on revitalization over the last ten years.

Springfield, Illinois:
Population: 112,000
Springfield is on the northernmost reach of the Mason-Dixon Line. The state capital, this city is located mid-way between Chicago and St. Louis. Springfield is known best as the home of Abraham Lincoln and supports a large tourism business. Has been working on revitalization since the mid-1980s.

Portland, Oregon:
Population: 500,000
Portland is located on the western coast of Oregon on the Willamette River near Mt. Hood. Money Magazine named Portland the “Most Livable City in America” in 2000. Has been working on revitalization since the early 1960s.

Educational Resources

Subject Area: Social Studies

Grade Level: High School

Download the MAIN STREET AMERICA teacher guide.