Friday, September 26

The literal Main Street

Ever notice that many of the terms we use in our national discourse are, in a literal sense, related to urban form? This is interesting to me. “Wall Street” means the entirety of global finance (or at least the U.S. share if that can be teased apart). Yet Wall Street, of course, is also a physical location in lower Manhattan. “Main Street” is shorthand for the national economy as experienced by average citizens. The job market, inflation rate, exchange of goods and service all occur here. Then again, Main Street is also an idealization of specific historic downtowns throughout the country.

Yet these terms don’t fit reality very well. The flow of money really happens in the netherworld of the Internet and emerges physically wherever any shareholder or fund manager happens to be. Even many of the investment bankers who work at a Wall Street address actually take up residence in Connecticut, Long Island, or maybe Westchester County. Similarly, only a tiny fraction of the national economy happens on anything resembling a Main Street. Perhaps Walmart or the Toyota dealership out by the freeway interchange would be a more apt association.

Any pundit or blogger with a passing knowledge of finance is now weighing in on how to manage a “Wall Street” catastrophe, while shoring up levees to protect “Main Street.” I’m still stuck on the words themselves. Somehow we’ve retained these idealizations of both the big city and the small town in our language, even if these forms have, in reality, been exchanged for sprawling metropolitan areas or rural big box store shopping destinations. Maybe as these discussions occur in the “public square,” it’s worth remember that they are actually occurring in the privacy of our homes or offices in suburbia. Not too many soapboxes out there.

Maybe what this anachronistic language tells us is that we have a deep-seated desire for genuine places – even if we have to use a little imagination.

Flickr photo credit.

1 comment:

Eric Orozco said...

Ironic...because the current crises really snowballed from the unsustainable land use and transportation effects of the sprawl economy. The fact that most of us don't live on Wall Street or Main Street made us vulnerable to the effects of rising oil prices and unscrupulous lending (encouraged in many cases by developers of instant sprawl communities...see Beazer). That's the fundamental reason for our fragile situation and why it is going take a lot of painful life-style changes on our end to crawl out of it. Crisis = an opportunity, I say.