Director's Column

Learning Globally, Living Locally

Download Main Street News PDF - 2009/05-06

If you're looking for "Main Street," try taking a stroll down the aisles of your local supermarket. Depending on where that is, (and how big it is), you might see all kinds of examples. Need tissue? Pick up a roll or two of "Main Street" toilet paper! Hungry for a snack? Try Nabisco's "Main Street Originals" crackers, packaged in nostalgic imagery of cute store-fronts and taglines about the quaint tradition of knowing your local merchants. Or perhaps you just want to buy "local." Then how 'bout a bag of "Lays Local" potato chips? You can even use their in-store "Chip Tracker" to scan the barcode, and find out which "local" potato farm produced your snack!

Dupont Circle (Washington, D.C.) Farmer's Market.

Credit: Linda Glisson

What do these products have to do with real places… or local produce? Nothing really, other than savvy marketing spin. As you can see, the power of Main Street and localism has been co-opted not just by Wall Street, but by Madison Avenue as well. And while this type of advertising makes us all a bit cynical, we can also see it as a reflection of a bigger trend that bodes well for us — and the real, local places we want to preserve. Behind this trend is a growing value – borne in the realization of what we have lost in this global world – that living locally is not just good for our economy, but good for our health and well-being.

I see the mega-trend of "localism," and the philosophy of Main Street revitalization as not only compatible, but the same. But just what is localism? According to

"Localism… is a place of meaningful interaction… where neighbors and local merchants share what's happening in their community… reminiscent of an earlier day when people shopped where they lived. Localism makes the world smaller and more personal… and re-establishes the lost bonds between neighbors."

Sound like us? You bet. But this is bigger than Main Street… or even the United States. Localism is, ironically, a global phenomenon.

One example of localism is the "Slow Food movement," which uses diverse, seasonal, natural food and has become a priority for many in reaction to the multinational merchandising of "fast food" that is uniform and produced using industrial methods. The Slow Food movement actually began in Italy in 1986, triggered by the opening of a McDonald's in Rome, and since has expanded to include more than 83,000 members with chapters in 122 countries.

The Slow Food movement incorporates a series of objectives within its mission, including:

  • Preserving and promoting local and traditional food products, along with their lore and preparation;
  • Organizing celebrations of local cuisine within regions; and
  • Encouraging ethical buying in local marketplaces.

Since the early 1980s, the slow foods ethic has taken root on American soil as well. Farmers markets are an obvious example, where a virtual potpourri of these cherished values is displayed on hand-written signs ("organic," "heirloom," "free-range," etc.). But beyond our taste buds, we can sense something more important than just a seed or species being preserved here. "Slow foods" has now morphed into "slow cities." In this month's issue of Forum Journal, for example, NTHP staffer Anthony Veerkamp writes about "Slow Foods, Slow Cities, and their Lessons for Rural Preservation." (See

In his article, Veerkamp quotes Stanford economist Paul Romer's memorable comment that "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste." His point really hits home today. Rather than trying to "recover" from the economic crisis we're in by restoring our economy as it was, perhaps this is our chance to create a new economy.

By focusing on "localism" as an ethic, Main Street can join forces with other movements to bring both people and preservation together, for a better economy to be sure — and a better way of life as well.