McMain Streets, Gentrification, and the Futility of Authenticity as Urbanism Becomes Mainstream

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Though the suburbs conjure idyllic images of the American dream, they don’t come without shortfalls. Take it from me: I was born and raised in the fringe suburbs of southwest Florida. The nearest stores were over a mile away from my home, and anyone who dared take the trip by foot had to be alright with crossing a major six-lane road and forgoing a sidewalk for part of the way. And, of course, there was the constant scorching heat. Effectively, getting anywhere aside from a few friends’ houses required a car.

When I moved out for college, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to live in a walkable neighborhood. So I did exactly that—and guess what? I love it. I love walking places, having the option to use transit, and being able to run downstairs for a coffee. But as urbanism grows in cultural relevance, issues with the new ways cities are constructed are beginning to stick out. As a society, we need to reckon with what modern urbanism looks like and who gets to participate in it if we hope to keep enjoying it.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon an article by Michael Huston that first got me thinking about these issues. I think we’ve all seen a certain type of new development: entire blocks of mid-rise apartment buildings, sometimes looming over a floor of commercial real estate, popping up in trending areas of our city. They often aim to emulate the character of dense American main streets from architectural eras past.

Huston calls these developments “McMain Streets,” and what a perfect epithet. The name is a nod to the architectural fad of McMansions, single-family homes infamous for their superficial opulence. McMansions attempt to bring an upper-class feel to middle-class American housing, but to the trained eye, their construction is glaringly inauthentic.

McMain Streets, just like McMansions, can be cringey to look at once you understand what’s going on. The façade of one building will jut out, vary in height, switch from brick to wood panels, and so on, often resulting in an aesthetic blunder. That’s one thing I wholly agree with Huston on: McMain Streets are ugly. In their manufactured pursuit of main street charm, they don’t tend to succeed.

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