I knew where Main Street was when I was eight. When the temperature dropped and darkness came around dinnertime, my heart beat faster. The biggest event of the year on Main Street in Huntington, Indiana, (population: around 16,000) would be soon.
On a crisp Saturday morning my younger brother and I bundled up in our snowsuits and gathered our next-door neighbors to race down to Main Street. We heard the merry strains of “Jingle Bells” wafting from loudspeakers tied to streetlights along the way. The size of the crowd in front of Penny’s was perfect—room for us to fit in to have a good view of Santa Claus, but enough people standing around to make it cozy—a break against the wind. Penny’s being the last stop where Santa got out and threw candy to the crowd of eager youngsters.
This annual parade became ho-hum to parents familiar with Sheriff Jones, who dressed up in a red suit and a white beard to ride the sleigh each year. If he could have hung a “Vote Sheriff Jones May 4” banner across the front of the sleigh, he would have. Instead, he pitched tasty, peppermint candies wrapped with his holiday greeting, “Vote Sheriff Jones May 4.” We ignored his speechmaking but followed his advice to begin the season’s shopping.
Our parents would haul us into Penny’s Department Store, where we stopped to see the whisp of gray smoke rise from the Lionel train circling a miniature Toy Town, dancing bears, and talking dolls—offering a lame resemblance to Macy’s windows, a half continent away. But we did not know any better then.
Decades later, red scarf and tan coat pulled tight against the wind, sans snowsuit, sans Sheriff Brown, I awaited the multi-story Snoopy floating down Fifth Avenue towards the Mother Ship, Macy’s on 34th Street. Followed by a two-story red sleigh and a realistic Santa with a bright red suit and a million-dollar smile, the parade satisfied. Evidence experiencing the frigid temperatures adds to the festivity came this year when the Pandemic removed the audience along the Macy’s Parade route and forced families to view online. Brought back fond memories, though it wasn’t the same.
Can you go home again?
We’ve all heard the phrase “You can’t go home again.” Main Street today may not be the same place we remembered when we wore snowsuits to attend outdoor Christmas parades as kids. The last time I walked a Main Street in Indiana was June 2003, when my daughter took me to Nick’s, the iconic campus pub in Bloomington. Her present to me: a visit to my college campus after she graduated from arch-rival Purdue, a couple hours away. Like all Main Streets, it changed over the years, but retained the essence of place for me.
When I thought about writing this blog, I ran across Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD’s, Main Street, How a City’s Heart Connects Us All. Her book offers the thoughts of a social psychiatrist with a heart for personal connection. Seeking this essential element of city geography led her to the Community Research Group at Columbia University and the New York Psychiatric Institute, where she worked for 26 years. To write about Main Street, she spent eleven years visiting the streets of 178 cities in the U.S and 14 foreign cities. She shares what she learned about what makes a city special, how they enrich and bring us together, and how they are now threatened in a myriad of ways. Her academic mission: to discern the contribution of Main Street to our collective mental health. I can only touch upon an example of a gathering place that was important enough for a community to fight to keep it. But the book also offers food for thought for those who love our cities and small towns and want to protect them.
Pandemic threatens Main Street favorites
Even before the Pandemic, the cost of rent has threatened the future of many favorite eating, drinking, listening, and congregating places. Several months ago, a long-time Austin location for musicians to “play out,” Threadgill’s, closed its doors on Lamar Avenue. North of town, maybe too far off 6th Street, Threadgill’s’ location was no longer a determining factor, as every Austin music venue shuttered for a while as Covid-19 ended customers’ cozy proximity to the bar and their favorite musicians.
Dr. Fillilove had her own wake-up call to the change gentrification can make in a community. Her favorite restaurant and bar, the working class Coogan’s at Broadway and 169th Street, opened decades ago not far from the New York Psychiatric Institute, where she worked in a neighborhood that led the city in drug violence. She’s frequented the bar and restaurant since 1990 and remembers her feet crunching the vials of crack cocaine along the sidewalk on her way to work.
Restaurant owner Dave Coogan helped enrich the neighborhood by hosting events to build community with the 5K Blues, Salsa and Shamrock runs and the park event, Hike the Heights, and by hiring and training bartenders, runners, cooks, and waiters from the neighborhood. Coogan’s held the promotion party for Bob Fullilove, when he became the first African American professor in the School of Public Health at Columbia University. His photo joined those of other regulars that lined the walls.
Community saves Coogan’s
On January 10, 2018, three years after the author moved to a faculty position at The New School near 14th Street, she read in the newspaper that Coogan’s was to close. Dr. Fullilove joined 15,000 New Yorkers in signing a petition supporting the restaurant in its battle with landlord New York-Presbyterian Hospital that upped the lease way beyond Dave Coogan’s ability to pay. They had been in negotiations for three years but could not come to a settlement. Friends emailed friends and finally a neighbor tweeted out: “one of the true Washington Heights mainstays, and has embraced every wave of neighborhood changes. I love Coogan’s. My stomach hurts from this news.” Lin-Manual Miranda, Hamilton author and Broadway performer, also sent an SOS to his father, the New York politico. He and New York Congressman Adriano Espaillat met with the CEO of New York-Presbyterian Hospital. They drew up a simple change in the lease that Dave Coogan could accept and he was back in business. He said he always knew the restaurant would be missed, but said, “the love that came out of this community was incredible.”
Weeks after his restaurant slipped the noose, Coogan visited a Hispanic elementary school in the Washington Heights neighborhood for pay back. He asked the students, “How many of you come from a small island surrounded by water? Raise your hands.” He knew most of the students were from Puerto Rico, and he raised his hand too. Coogan explained his family immigrated from Ireland, another island country. “My mother came when she was sixteen,” he told them. (Full disclosure: My grandmothers were second generation Irish immigrants, too.) He said the Puerto Ricans (likely Luis Maranda) saved the Irish and he was grateful.
Not every Main Street restaurant, bar or community gathering place will survive the Pandemic, but we need to back the ones we care about and nurture those who do. That is how it works on American Main Streets. As Dr. Fullilove explains: “Those making, retaining Main Street for us are one of the great centripetal forces holding our universe together.”
Keep posted: There is more to this story as we talk about famous Main Streets around the world. More in the coming weeks.