Last summer, during a visit to Vancouver, my nine-year-old son climbed the pediment of a cast-iron traffic-light standard and put his palm on the glowing hand that warns pedestrians to stay put. My mother pointed out afterwards that my photograph of the event contained its own French caption, in the word visible over his shoulder: main.
We were in Chinatown, on Main Street, which is near a past centre of Vancouver and far from any present centre. At that particular intersection it does, however, have some of the feeling of what the English call a high street, namely a road where everyone goes to get everything. Main Streets exist in some English towns, but the term belongs to the New World, where the founders of new towns had to lay down cartographic clues to let people know where downtown was supposed to be. It is the only common street name that declares the ambitions of the dead.
Main Street is both an address and a mythology, especially in America. In his 1920 novel Main Street, Sinclair Lewis associated it with everything that was narrow and dull and grasping about small-town life. After Lewis, “Main Street” became a put-down.
Norman Rockwell led the resistance, with an idealized cast of paunchy barbers, scrawny schoolmarms and freckle-faced shoeshine boys. Rockwell’s Main Street was a showplace of humble American virtues. In the last few decades, Main Street has become code in America for traditional values and political conservatism. It’s also a copyrighted attraction at Disneyland. Main Street USA is a civic-centre theme park where you can see Model A’s running past the Palladian town hall and buy monogrammed Mickey ears. It opened in 1955, when many Americans were moving into new suburbs built around no principal street. Exact replicas of Main Street USA have been built at Disney parks in Paris and Hong Kong, in keeping with the idea that the district represents “everybody’s hometown.”
Canada’s most ornamental Main Street is in Whistler, B.C., a resort town and pedestrian mall modelled after a Swiss alpine village. Whistler’s Main Street is a short horseshoe-shaped road that is the centre of nothing and leads you nowhere. The name is a bit of urban residue that has been sucked into a crescent-filled, suburban-style street plan.
Winnipeg’s Main subverts the name’s ambition in a more traditional way, by demonstrating how the centre of urban activity refused to obey the signs and stay put. A few blocks north of its famous meeting with Portage, the street shows the boarded exteriors and rundown building fronts of urban desertification. Beyond the tracks, Main revives into a series of stubby apartment blocks and short strip malls anchored by Liquor Marts, IGA and A&Ws offering a teen and float for five bucks. Then you get to a bunch of cheap old hotels, alternating with pawnshops, which support the residents of the hotels, who support them: most pawnbrokers rely on a group of local regular customers who pawn the same things again and again. Imagine a trickle of assets going from hotel to pawnshop, and a trickle of cash going the other way, until an infusion from some outside source temporarily reverses the flow. Pawnbrokers estimate the value of a second-hand object as the amount it would fetch if it had to be sold at the worst of times, then offer half to one-third of that for a thirty-day loan, with interest. For most things, the sum inches down with each successive pledge. Every day on this stretch of Winnipeg’s Main, someone is reckoning the fire-sale value, for the umpteenth time, of some object that time and poverty have not yet snatched away entirely.
These are the calculations of a part of Main Street that has become a centre only of marginality. What is half or one-third the worth of a degraded ambition, at the worst of times? The very worst of times is death, and for that cosmic failure to stay put, a further stretch of Winnipeg’s Main Street has the Shaarey Zedek cemetery. Beyond that and across the street is the Kildonan Golf Course. The sequence seems right somehow: first precarious life (the hotels and pawnshops); then death; then golf. Fore!