September 27, 2023 | Letter from Erin Barnes, President and CEO, Main Street America |
Dear Main Street America friends,
I figured the best way for me to introduce myself is to tell you a little bit about my neighborhood.
I love my neighborhood, and in my neighborhood, there are two streets where people spend a lot of time: Myrtle Avenue and Willoughby Avenue. I live in the Wallabout / Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn near the Navy Yard, and these two streets are how a lot of people get around.
Myrtle Avenue is a commercial street, with banks, groceries, community fridges, restaurants, delis, barbershops, hair salons, laundromats, pubs, liquor stores, fruit and vegetable stands, daycare centers, pharmacies, tailors, and clothing and gift shops. There are informal flower sellers and antique sales on the sidewalks. Myrtle Avenue also has a lovely plaza, and during the winter, the business improvement district installs holiday lighting over the street. Since the pandemic, many restaurants also have “streeteries”, or tables set up on the sidewalk or in the street. The street is filled with bicyclists, delivery trucks, food delivery people on electric bikes, buses, and cars; there is always traffic and it’s lively with noise. All the trees on Myrtle Avenue have benches around them, both to protect the trees from dogs and to provide seating around the neighborhood, so on every block, there are people relaxing, chatting or enjoying a coffee or a juice under a tree. Between the business activity that spills into the sidewalk and the tree benches, the sidewalks are filled with people weaving in and out of stores, outdoor dining areas, construction areas and crosswalks.
Willoughby Avenue is the tree-lined, adjacent, parallel street that has since the pandemic become temporarily opened for pedestrians and cyclists with car access only for locals. Both of these active streets connect to the park, Fort Greene Park, where I go almost every day, and sometimes twice a day. (I’ll tell you more about Willoughby Avenue and my neighborhood park soon.)
My favorite thing about living in this neighborhood is that every time I go to work, or run out to buy some avocados at Mr. Coco or a juice at Move With Grace, or to stroll to the park, I see someone I know. Friends are out for a jog, running a quick errand, parking their bike at the end of the workday, waiting for their kids to finish martial arts class, walking the dog, or dropping their kids off at school. I love having the chance to say hello and catch up, or give a quick wave, to the people that I care about. To me, these brief moments to share a story, give eye contact and a smile, or hold the door open, that’s what makes a cluster of buildings feel like a neighborhood, and that’s what makes a bunch of people hurrying around feel like a community.
I think this is absolutely magical. The warmth of community and the frequency of seeing faces of friends and neighbors is an absolute delight. On a basic level, it makes me feel safe knowing that so many people are around looking out for one another. It also makes the hum drum of daily life more fun! But most importantly, it makes me feel connected.
Main Streets and the buildings, sidewalks, streets, businesses, trees, and streams that are the infrastructure of them are a beautifully complex container to hold our communities and all the things we need.
In case you couldn’t tell, I love people. I started my career as a community organizer, and I have loved learning about places through the stories that people share with me. A lot of my work has focused on fishing communities, river communities and water ecosystems, and the way I understand water informs a lot about how I understand the world. The more we get to know each other, I’ll share more about how I understand main streets like rivers.
I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia. Three of my four grandparents are from Southwest Virginia, two near Covington and one near Big Stone Gap. My paternal grandfather was from Chicago. I went to school in Charlottesville, and then moved to Portland, Oregon, and later to New Haven, Connecticut for grad school. Over the last 15 years, I’ve led as CEO and cofounder, the nonprofit ioby, a partner organization of Main Street America dating back to 2014. Through my work at ioby, I spent a lot of time in a lot of communities, but probably none more than Memphis, Tennessee, and Cleveland, Ohio. If you know King Street in Alexandria, West Main Street and the Corner in Charlottesville, Ladd’s Addition in Portland, Broad Avenue, Main Street and Madison Avenue in Memphis, as well as the Buckeye Larchmere neighborhood in Cleveland, these, along with my neighborhood today, are some of the commercial districts that have shaped how I think about community.
What excites me most about coming into this leadership role at Main Street America is getting to know all of you, and learning from you about what is most important to your communities. It’s going to take me a while to see every single one of the 1,200+ designated Main Street America communities. And so, I was hoping you all could help me learn about you and your communities and neighborhoods through some short videos. Just pick up your phone and walk me around your Main Street. I’ll start on Myrtle Avenue. Check out my video here and share your Main Street by tagging the Main Street America social media accounts. You can also tag me on Instagram (@erinargyle) or LinkedIn (Erin Barnes).
Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this vibrant community. I know what we’re all working on together is vital to the physical, economic, social and civic health of neighborhoods, our towns, and to America.
Talk to you soon,
President and CEO, Main Street America
Join Erin on a walk through her neighborhood