Success on Main Street starts with you and me

So I have been attending some recent workshops sponsored by the CEO Roundtable about how to revitalize Main Street. It is an interesting dilemma for our local cities, having these perfect little gems of public space, without having one iota of awareness of how to make them work.

Main Streets are a tough nut to crack simply because there is rarely one controlling force or prevailing vision. Our Main Streets are woven into every level of our cultural fabric. The threads are economic, social, architectural, spatial, residential, mobile, political, legal, personal, etc. Jeeze, is it any wonder we can’t seem to get these places to work for us?

Many valid points of discussion have come up at the workshops, which, by the way, are a hugely important opportunity for public dialogue about our cities; if you haven’t yet attended, you really should. They really are the emergent essence of a planning process that is ripe with opportunity for Johnstown, Gloversville and Amsterdam.

Amongst all the ideas, some common themes are starting to float to the top:? What comes first to start the road to prosperity? Who is responsible? Where will the money come from? What does success look like?

Everyone seems to be looking for this magic bullet that will slay the dragon and free the oppressed so that we may live in an eternity of sunshine and roses. We look longingly at our cousin to the east, Saratoga Springs, often with envy and a touch of remorse as if to ask ourselves, “Why did I choose here instead of there?” If I am being honest, I must confess that I ask myself that question weekly.

The truth can be a hard reality to face. We see the advantages Saratoga has and we hold it in such high regard while simultaneously resenting what they have because we just cannot possibly compete with such resources. Hey, let’s face it, they do have things we don’t have: horse racing, more personal wealth, a strong architectural heritage, more young people with disposable income, etc. But why should that hold us back? After all, we have some of the same advantages they have and a few they don’t: Urban density, walkable residential neighborhoods, intact Main Streets, green spaces, geographic proximity to the Adirondacks and 44 lakes, to name but a few.

It is important to remember that Saratoga was not always the shining beacon it is today. There was a time when Broadway was filled with boarded-up storefronts, blighted buildings, and low-rent flats. Do you want to know what started the city’s climb out of oblivion? All it took was a few concerned residents and business leaders to advocate for its true value and demonstrate how to invest in the changes we see today. The investments started small and focused.

They pushed building owners to open their storefronts, pick up trash and maybe paint the storefront. They pushed for improved street lighting and amenities. They pushed for changes to the zoning ordinances to preserve the city’s essential cultural character. They pushed for stronger business and merchant associations. They sought financial investment. They demanded that government re-organize policies to support investment.

The amazing thing is each step served to create value where there was none previously. It was an accumulation of acts by a bold few that taught people how to care for themselves by caring for their city. It was a reminder to us all that you are how you live.

But here is the thing – it took the better part of 30 years to accomplish what they have now. It did not happen overnight. Saratoga arose from the ashes not on the backs of horses, springs of mineral water or history alone. It happened with sweat equity, sacrifices, pitched policy battles and grassroots leadership.

No one got everything they wanted. Some might even say that this Saratoga is not their Saratoga. But, over time, the voice of a few became the voice of many. Improved collective self-worth has a way of helping us stand taller, be more daring and less afraid to stare down adversity.

So by now you may be asking yourself when I am going to get around to writing about architecture and design and use fancy words like fenestration, cornice and decorative motifs. Well, actually, I already am talking about architecture. Architecture is meaningless unless it is valued. And it will only be valued when we learn how to value ourselves as a community. Architecture is nothing without the people that occupy it. What is the sense of talking about design styles when the most basic value proposition – cleaning and maintenance- is ignored?

Do you want to know the answer to the four theme questions above? It’s simple. You. The answer is you. And by you, I mean all of us. If we want prosperity, it is on each one of us to do something. Some of us have already started.

Do you want to know what success looks like? Look at the Schine Building in Gloversville and its prime tenant, Mohawk Harvest Co-op. Look at the Janney Montgomery Scott building in Johnstown, where I?have my office.

In the case of the Schine Building, it took a group of 54 investors to form a for-profit corporation to purchase the structure and start to manage it with care. The JMS building is the result of Jonathan and Tara Sweet’s personal investment and sweat equity. There are others. But there are also plenty that are doing nothing, or what they are doing is a hot mess.

So for those who are wondering, the process is already begun. But there is much work yet to do. I, for one, am anxious to see where it takes us. To see who is ready to look in the mirror and stand tall for Main Street.

David D’Amore is a member of the American Institute of Architects and owner of AND Architecture and Design, based in Johnstown (