What it’s Like Living in a Small Town


I think sometimes people get this stereotype of small towns. We’re all low middle-class farmers with seven teeth and are about 20 years behind the times in fashion, education, and technology. For example, I wonder how many of you think I have to go to the public library for internet access, or that we all have dial-up modems (Ok, DSL connections are actually fairly recent) or something here. We get real television stations, too. We even have big box stores, movie theaters, and professional sports teams in the area. It isn’t as isolated as you think. I do probably have to drive farther than you to get to any of those places, but that isn’t necessarily a design flaw, now is it?

If I told you that my town has only one part-time police officer that we share with the next town over, what would you think? That it would be a scary place to live? Let me tell you, the last time we had what you might consider a break-in around here was when somebody got drunk three New Year’s Eves ago and accidently drove into the front porch of Pastor Mike’s house. They didn’t even have to do a lot of investigating to find the culprit, as Lewis was the only one with a smashed-in front end and needed stitches above his eye.

Because it is a small town with one part-time police officer, we have to rely on each other more than other places. Which is a fancy way of saying everyone knows everybody else. But having to rely on each other is better than you realize. If your car dies on the side of the road, you can bet the next car that passes you is going to stop and help. Heaven forbid there is an illness or tragedy in your family, the neighbors start organizing meal deliveries, store runs, transportation if you need it, and prayer circles if necessary. You are never really alone, in either in your sadness or your joy. Just ask my neighbors, the Lewises. Their first baby was born six weeks premature. They had to go to a special hospital about a half hour away so the baby could be in the NICU. People mowed their lawn while they stayed with the baby, took in their mail, looked after their dog, set up the nursery, and decorated their whole house as a surprise when little Jane was finally released.

Now think about where you live. Do neighbors go out of their way to help you? Would they even notice you were gone?Do they even know your name or anything else about you? Would you like them to? If so, you can bring a little bit of that small-town mindset with you and introduce yourself to the folks on either side of you. You might be glad you did.

Historic Place Status

I am trying to put together a pitch for as many of the building and home owners as I can convince to apply for historic place status. I don’t know if everyone is going to be willing, but like my grandfather says, if you throw a rock at a greenhouse, you’re bound to break some glass. Not everyone is going to say no. Right? It would be so good for this town. We would be able to get so much help with funding for repairs, maintenance, and more tourism resources.

Before I can bring this up at a town hall meeting, though, I have to be able to answer people’s questions about what and why I want to do this. I can’t just say, “It’s for the good of the town!” even though it is. Aside from being a cliché, it doesn’t really say anything about the benefits. I’ll have to have an answer when they come back with, “But why?”

I called the State Historic Preservation Office to find out what I had to do. It is going to be a long process, true. First we have to fill out preliminary paperwork, and then we will get a determination if we meet the criteria—although the criteria is basically a) is it old b) does it still reasonably look like it did c) is it significant in some way? Since there is a whole Main Street preservation arm here in Illinois, I assume we have the significant part down. And the buildings here were mostly built in the 1950s, so they’re old enough. Not much has been done—not for lack of need, honestly—as far as renovations go, so we should be good there too.

If we’re up for consideration, they have a council meeting to discuss our applications. If we make the cut here, then everything gets forwarded to the National Park service in Washington, DC for the final review. If it happens, then we get added to the registry. Then we can get access to grants for renovations, we get access to information on how to renovate and architectural plans, and there are tax incentives depending on what type of building it is.

Plus, I don’t think people know that they still maintain control of their own building. In other words, the government doesn’t get involved if Bob wants to sell the hardware store or if he wants to remodel it in some way. Nobody has to restore their property to exactly what it looked like when the building was new, either. On the other hand, if they do decide to renovate, they can get federal money. We can get reimbursed for things like architectural plans, too. I know some people have been nervous because their buildings are not exactly up to handicapped accessible codes, and we can get special compensation to get them up to code there too.

I really can’t see a downside here.

I hope that I sound confident and informed when I go before the town in a couple of weeks. Wish me luck!

A Brick Wall

Building restoration is a hot topic in my circles, and these are starting to expand. More people are becoming knowledgeable about the destructive nature of urban decay and the importance of renovation and restoration. They care about their environment, but haven’t had the opportunity to express it. They don’t know how to help. If we close our eyes to the problem, however, it will not go away. It is one of those insidious conditions that can only get worse and start to effect the quality of life. So, I have devoted my time and energy to keeping up appearances in a sense, and helping foster my town’s preservation.

We can all do our part as small gestures can certainly add up. Any effort on the part of residents and landlords to improve conditions is more than welcome. It takes a group to make a difference, otherwise it becomes an overwhelming enterprise–way too large for one man. Let me give you an example. Many buildings have dirty exteriors, even when the inside is more than acceptable. It gives a neighborhood a dog-eared quality and affects property values. It brings down an entire community.

It is sometimes rather quick and easy to remedy the unsightly problem. If each building owner elects to use a pressure washer to clean the exterior, the job would be done in no time at all. A simple solution! Appearances would improve and certainly impact local lagging spirits. They would be newly proud of their refurbished areas. A good hose on a brick wall is a ready symbol for restoration success. We should all literally take up the project. Let’s put it on a poster!

Power washers are easy to find. You can buy or rent them and they are super effective. In capable hands, they will rid surfaces of years of build-on grime and decay. They will give luster and shine to even the oldest façade. I propose a day when the city will become alert to the cleansing activity and participate in one way or another. People can sign up for a particular building or area and those behind the scenes can promote the efforts. Onlookers are fine as they will spread the word.

This kind of organized approach can be done several times during a season until the cumulative effects are reached and the desired results apparent. I love group projects as they help to gain new adherents to the matter at hand. Regional restoration is no small goal, but it can happen if the right people get involved, particularly local politicians and business leaders.

Fundraising is also a way to get the community to kick in to the value of restoration. It can provide the power washers, for example, and even construction tools and supplies, which as you know are vast. It can build over time from modest beginnings and have a real impact long term. It is all about public participation and acknowledgement of the value of tackling a seemingly large task—one that is close to my heart.

The Beauty of Stained Glass

The Beauty of Stained Glass

Some of the stores here on Main Street have stained glass windows displaying their street address. My family owns the floral shop, and I remember being behind the counter as a kid and watching the light catch the tinted glass, and all the beautiful colors it made. It has always been one of my favorite things about the store. I am not sure, but I think all the buildings in this section did at some point. It certainly looks that way based on the old photographs I have come across and through casual conversations with some older residents. Not everybody still has theirs—the movie theater’s got phased out when they “updated” about thirty years ago, and at least one or two of the vacant buildings now have plywood where those address markers were. That’s depressing. It is yet another thing I want to restore to this area if I can get the opportunity. I am hoping everyone will get on board. Some of what they can do is so amazingly cool, and I think it adds a tremendous amount of class and style to the revitalization project.

I doubt stained glass street numbers on their own will draw tourists or customers to our town and to Main Street specifically, but it will be something people remember. I’d like to make this town really stand out. I want to get all those little details right, the ones that make a place look both unique and timeless. It will reflect the heritage of the great place I live, and showcase our sincere desire to be true to the authenticity of both the time period and the neighborhood aesthetic.

I’d like for each building to design their own color scheme but keep the font and general style uniform through all the storefronts. Clearly this would have to be a majority approved kind of thing, but I’m hopeful that when the time comes, I can have somebody from the Preservation Society there to back me up and provide more of a historical context. I’m always afraid that I’m going to present an idea and my only justification is, “because it looks cool!” Since I don’t want to sound like that, I’ve been doing some research into stained glass. Some of the designs are amazing. If you google stained glass windows, you’ll see what I mean. Shapes, patterns, pictures, and entire stories depicted through tiny fragments of glass. Technically, one thing I have discovered is that the windows are leadlight, but nobody calls it that. Leadlight glass is pretty much stained glass but not in a religious setting, and were made in a less complex style using easier techniques. Hardly anybody uses the term anymore but it is more accurate, so I thought you might like to sound well-read and interesting at your next party or something. It’s called leadlight because the pieces of glass (or maybe were, I am not really friends with anybody who makes them, so I can’t ask) are supported by lead. With the popularity of Tiffany style lamps and the popularity of Art Deco, the two terms became basically synonymous.

So there you have it. Plan 999: restore stained glass address windows.

They Don’t Build ‘em Like They Used To

Most of the buildings here on Main Street—the ones that haven’t fallen apart or been renovated to death—like the movie theater—have such amazing detail that it is hard to imagine why anybody wouldn’t want to restore them to their original glory.

For example, they’ve all got two really fantastic window display areas—one on each side of the front doors. People used to take such pride in their displays. My favorite was always at Christmastime as a kid. The store owners really went all out! I pretty much made my wishlist for Santa while standing out in front of the toy store every year. My grandfather used to put a small pine tree in the window of their florist shop, and my grandmother and mother used to decorate it together. Every year, they had a new theme and people would come by just to see what they’d done. Of course, they hardly ever walked out empty handed, which is why the display was so effective! Most stores being built now don’t even have window display areas, or they cover them up with banner ads. It makes them dark and uninviting.

The upper half of the display window is called a transom. I have no idea why. But that’s where if we had a sale, the banner went. Some places had that area painted or decorated with the store’s name or logo.

In between the display, windows were handsomely carved columns. They were usually painted in a theme that corresponded to the store. Going across the top was a lintel (I didn’t know that word, either, and came across it doing research), which is basically supports going horizontally above the columns. They all had these fancy rosettes going across them, which I thought was just decorative. I mean, they certainly make things look fancy, don’t they? Turns out they were to also secure two pieces of the lintel together. Some stores painted them in a complementary color, and others kept them the same color as the lintel. As the florist, my family always had the lintel and columns painted green, and the rosettes painted in red and pink. I always thought it looked cool.

I think the neatest thing, though, is the cornice. It’s a fancy way of saying that decorative thing up at the top of the building. They can be really ornate, or stylishly simple. Some of the buildings don’t have them at all, and I think it helps add to the variety and individuality of the street. If we are able to get on the list of historic places and get enough money to renovate, I’d really love for each business owner to really think about what kind of cornice—if any—they want to add to their building or if they’d like to renovate what they have. Plus, the finials on either end are pretty cool too.

I’ve learned all this great stuff about the architecture of the time period and what went into the construction of the main parts of my town, and many other towns across the country. These were not the cookie-cutter assembly kits that you see today. This was quality workmanship and pride.

I’d like to bring that back.

When I Think of Main Street…

I live in a small-ish town, and my family has lived here forever, basically. I remember being able to walk down Main Street with my parents and brother. We could make one trip on a Sunday afternoon and not just get everything we needed for the week, but catch up with friends and neighbors, too. My brother and I were able to go see a movie or get a haircut while my mom stopped at the butcher and my dad grabbed items off his “honey do” list from the hardware store.

You can’t really walk down Main Street anymore. Or, to be more accurate, there’s no reason to. Some of the stores are gone now. Boarded up. Some of the store owners are getting up there in age, and their kids have moved away, uninterested in inheriting a failing business and a deteriorating building. I am really concerned about what is going to happen to the area if that continues to be a trend. I don’t want to move. I want to stay here and raise a family, just like my parents and grandparents did. I think the only way that is going to happen is if we do something drastic.

That’s why I really want to get the bulk of Main Street preserved. I think with the tax incentives and some fresh renovations, people would be more interested in coming. And staying, once they see what there is to offer. I’m not saying I want a combination post office/general store/police station like when my grandparents lived here. But if we could clean up the old theater, maybe get some new owners in the grocery store, and maybe freshen up the diner, people might start shopping here again instead of going to the big box store a half hour away.

I really want to attract people who are interested in owning a business here—the kind who are also looking to settle down with a family in a great place with lots to offer. If we could attract new blood, and maybe keep some of the younger professionals from leaving the area, we’d have a great youthful community base that could really thrive here. Then we could start on the really fantastic stuff. If the Main Street area was restored and revitalized, we would have a consistent location for things like a Memorial Day Parade, or a Harvest Festival, or any number of community-based events in the square at the end of the street. Right now it is kind of an overgrown mess, but if people started taking pride in it again, I know it could be great.

If we’re listed on the National Registry, we tap into what is basically free advertising: we’re part of a searchable database that people can look through nation-wide when looking for a vacation destination. We could make this place back into that nostalgic vision of “Main Street U.S.A.” people are looking for but can’t find. A place for community and commerce, of families and family-run businesses.