Pretty much anywhere you go in smalltown Michigan, Main Street looks like something from a train board. Brick storefronts, faux gas light lamps, perhaps an antique looking clock, and a cobblestone or brick crosswalk. These historic districts have been in the news recently as the Michigan legislature considers bills that would loosen the rules on what you can and can’t do in a historic areas.
On first glance Michigan's historic main streets are really quite Norman Rockwell adorable.
The thing is, I noticed recently that every main street in Michigan looks pretty much the same. They have the same restored storefronts, the same faux brick crosswalks, the same imitation gas lamps, and often the same directional signage. Hanging from all those faux gas lamps are banners that change with the seasons, but vary little from town to town. When I thought about it, historic districts pretty much anywhere in the country look a lot like the ones here. It’s as if they get all those lamps and clocks and bricks from the same big box store.
Like teenagers with identical long straight hair, leggings and UGGs, all our main streets are conforming to the same ideal of perfect smalltown America. This is no accident. There's a whole national organization that helps communities revitalize their Main Street streets and it provides a set of guidelines for what a main street should be when communities set about redeveloping their downtowns. While the website doesn't have specific design instructions, there are elements that are recommended — it needs to be walkable, have good signage, and lighting.
It's great that so many small town main streets are seeing a resurgence with coffee shops, restaurants and little boutiques opening in communities that got left behind when suburban strip malls and big box stores became the thing. Any one of them taken on their own is actually really quite cute. I just wish they weren't as standardized in appearance as the Panera and WalMart's down the road from the historic district of Ann Arbor, Amherst, or Ashville.
That’s the thing about the uniform look of all our small town main streets — they are pretty much interchangeable. Blindfold me and drop me in the middle of ond and I'd be hard pressed to tell you where I am. Search for Main Street on Pinterest and the similarities from town to town are striking though at least the Colorado towns have big mountains in the background.
For whatever reason we're compelled to have the same exteriors. Each of those UGG-wearing girls at the local high school has a different family story and a different personality even if it isn't reflected in her appearance. Likewise each of our towns has a unique history and story. One is there because of the railroads. Another because of the lumber industry. Others are there because of factories, mines, or native American trade. But these stories aren't told when a place’s natural features are made over to look the same as all the others.
For all our individualist rhetoric in the US, we are really good at trying to be like everyone else and make everything look like everything else. Welcome to Anyplace USA.