If a town’s Main Street is often the heart of the community, then Madison has one of the biggest hearts in the United States. Its Main Street stretches two miles and spans 90 feet. The core of Madison’s National Historic Landmark District, urban visionaries describe Main Street as one of the most iconic and magnificent historic districts in the United States. Michael Lykoudis, former Dean of the School of Architecture at Notre Dame, observed that it has “an integrity and charm found in very few places any more in North America.” A wide variety of businesses, boutiques and restaurants are housed in historic structures so well-preserved and restored that they are architectural showpieces.
Fifty years ago, the future of Madison’s Main Street did not look so bright. In the 1970s, small downtowns across the country were in trouble. The “big box” retailers had begun to dominate the retail environment. Changing work patterns meant that people were shopping primarily in the evenings and on weekends, when downtowns were largely closed. And the interstate highway system made it easy for people to travel to nearby malls and larger cities, which were glamorous and had more to offer. Downtown buildings and infrastructure were showing their age, businesses were at the mall or closing, and most downtowns looked, well, shabby and empty.
The Midwest Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Chicago took notice and began a pilot project to study these disturbing trends. Three towns were selected as “demonstration communities,” and Madison was fortunate to be one of them.
Out of a multi-year study, from 1977 through 1979, came a new downtown revitalization methodology that relied on a comprehensive approach for economic revitalization and a nationwide movement called the Main Street program. Forty years later, the national Main Street America program has helped over 2,000 communities to secure billions of dollars in grassroots investment to create hundreds of thousands of jobs and businesses and rehabilitate nearly 300,000 buildings in small and medium-sized cities in the United States. Madison serves as one example of how communities can preserve their downtowns. Tom Moriarty, a leading international economic development authority and Madison’s Main Street pilot project director, emphasized, “Everything I learned about retailers and community revitalization I learned in Madison”.
Today, the local nonprofit Main Street organization is still going strong. Many individuals, organizations, and government entities work in collaboration to support the locally-owned shops and restaurants that line the streets of Madison’s historic commercial district. The downtown enjoys a robust visitor market as well as support from local residents, and more than 200 businesses are flourishing in downtown Madison—a great place to visit, work, live, shop, dine, and play!
To see if there’s a Main Street program near you, visit the Main Street America website. The Smithsonian brings traveling exhibits to main streets across the country, which you can learn more about here.