I don't live on Main Street

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Speaking of the soon-to-be-approved bailout plan: I've frankly gotten pretty tired of the constant references to "Main Street" (generally if not exclusively as opposed to "Wall Street") in discussions of the bailout. It's not that I don't understand the metonym (and why it might have once sounded like the perfect phrase to oppose "Wall Street" with), I just don't find it very effective — that, or the relative novelty of it (for me) wore off very, very quickly and now it just sounds cliché and, quite frankly, devoid of content.

Case in point: in today's lead article of the New York Times (already cited in my quiz), I was disappointed in Speaker Nancy Pelosi for using this phrase like so:

 

"All of this was done in a way to insulate Main Street and everyday Americans from the crisis on Wall Street," Ms. Pelosi said at the news conference.

 

Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't these uses of "Main Street" have as at least part of their meaning "everyday Americans"? Either I'm right in my assertion that the phrase is (now) devoid of content, or Pelosi's remark was unnecessarily redundant. (Yes, "unnecessarily redundant" might itself be unnecessarily redundant. Sue me.)

I was also (quite uncharacteristically) proud of George W. Bush — or at least his radio address writers — for not referring to "Main Street" when he had otherwise set himself up for it perfectly:

 

"The rescue effort we’re negotiating is not aimed at Wall Street; it is aimed at your street," Mr. Bush said in his weekly radio address.

 

That's pretty damned effective, I think, and still has the sounds-perfect-as-opposed-to-Wall-Street factor.

FWIW, references to "Main Street" appear to me to be fairly balanced between the two parties; Obama and McCain each used it twice in Friday night's debate, for example.

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45 Comments »

  1. Nick Lamb said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

    Without being familiar with US street naming I would have taken from Pelosi's comment the implication that "Main street" was like "High street" in British English, where it serves as a metonym for retail companies (the quintessential example being Woolworths) and is used as a modifier to mean retail as opposed to wholesale or commercial (e.g. most people would have an account with a "High street bank" rather than an "investment bank" or a "private bank"), or else to mean local and conveniently located near residential areas as opposed to out of town (e.g. in "Save our High Street")

    I guess not huh?

  2. James said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

    @Nick:
    I took it to refer to individuals living on Main Street, Anytown, ST, 99930.

  3. Rawley Grau said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 6:49 pm

    @Nick Lamb – It also occurred to me that here the U.S. and British street metonyms pointed in different directions. I suppose one could use "Main Street" as a figure for small retail businesses and it would still work in opposition to "Wall Street," but unfortunately Anytown, USA doesn't have many small local businesses left: everyone shops at Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Staples, etc., and eats at Applebee's, Bennington's, TGIF, Friendly's, or McDonald's. The use of "Main Street" is meant to conjure up a nostalgic image of small-town life that hasn't really existed in America for at least 30 years, not since the big corporations made it impossible for family businesses to survive.

  4. Jason F. Siegel said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

    I grew up in a town without a Main Street, so forgive me if I'm off on this, but I thought Main Street was the heart of town, where government buildings and small businesses line the road (with maybe some houses, but not necessarily). So saying "Main Street and everyday Americans" isn't redundant. It's referring to small businesses (unlike those ginormous, national ones on Wall Street) and the people who depend on them.

  5. Carl said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

    Saturday Night Live made fun of the overuse of "Main Street" in their Weekend Update segment on 2008/9/27 by saying that, "As usual, Martin Luther King Blvd. is on its own."

  6. Jonathan said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

    "Main Street" is supposed to mean small businesses, while "everyday Americans" means individual people who don't necessarily own businesses.

  7. dr pepper said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

    @Nick Lamb

    In the US, the connotation of "Main Street" used to be about small towns, where most of the shops and civic offices tended to be in a small area of a few blocks. Hence sooner or later, every resident had reason to visit Main Street. Or Broadway. Our politicians still invoke this concept when they hold meetings in family restaurants, speak to supposed regulars about their local issues, and praise their sensible, regular people values.

    But of course, most american cities are too big for any significant portion of the population to be regulars in the downtown core. Not to mention many cities don't have one anymore. Here in Santa Maria, the core still exists, barely. Some of the shops and hotels within a few blocks of the intersection of Main and Broadway go back to the early 1900s, and a couple are earlier than that, albeit completely rebuilt. But none of them is significant.

    A little ways further there is the mall, the library, City Hall, and the courthouse where Michael Jackson got his ten dove salute, But that's not where we live or where most of us go regularly.

    So i think the author's instincts are correct, Main Street hasn't got the automatic connotation it used to.

  8. jag said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 7:55 pm

    Main Street still does mean something in small, rural towns (at least in New England, and probably elsewhere), and although that's not where most Americans live now, the image is pretty deeply ingrained in American mythos. Obviously, most Americans now live in McMansions situated in concrete exurban tracts off the interstate and across from a strip mall, but we like to think that we are still a nation of small towns with virtuous communities. Along with phrases like "individual responsibility" and "the American Dream" and "land of opportunity" and "all men are created equal" and "the Bill of Rights", "Main Street" denotes nothing in reality, but is an important part of the Noble Lie. This kind of language placates voters and sustains the Empire.

  9. Albatross said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 9:15 pm

    In San Antonio, Main Street is home to several lesbian and gay establishments. That certainly gives a different, regional interpretation to Pelosi's words.

  10. John McIntyre said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 1:30 am

    I suspect that there is some residual resonance from the Sinclair Lewis novel of 1920, "Main Street," about the stifling conformity of small-town America. "Main Street" is a term like "heartland," both of which are used rhetorically to suggest that Americans are all still small-town yeomen, salt-of-the-earth, down-to-earth patriotic citizens. Never mind that so many live in suburbs for which the main street is a shopping mall or, more recently, a mall in disguise as a synthetic main street of shops. "Main Street"also tunes into the nostalgia one sees at Christmas, when unrelenting broadcasts of "It's a Wonderful Life" encourage the citizenry that they are still in touch with the values and culture of the mythical Bedford Falls and therefore good people who have never veered from the solid values of the early Republic.

  11. Alissa said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 3:05 am

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed this. I sort of started ranting about it while watching the debate.

    I know this isn't the effect they are going for and it is kind of a product of my annoyance with the overuse of the phrase, but to me it feels like they are appealing to an almost stereotypical view of small town life. So few Americans now live in the sort of community with a real "Main Street" that it almost seems out of touch. For me at least, the phrase doesn't evoke the images they intend it to. It makes me think specifically of small towns, mostly with nuclear families and probably with conservative values. Every time they say it I end up thinking, "What about everyone else?"

  12. outeast said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 3:57 am

    Once again, those of us who live on Skid Row go ignored.

  13. Achim said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 4:02 am

    Looking at the content of the quotation in question here: Isn't Mrs. Pelosi quite sarcastic? If "Main Street" refers to "everyday Americans", doesn't it mean that everyday Americans are insulated from the crisis on Wall Street by making them, in their role as taxpayers, pay for the rescue plan?

    Just my old European's two pence.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 7:12 am

    As John McIntyre pointed out, there's been an odd evolution from the largely negative images represented by Sinclair Lewis's novel. Thus for main street the OED gives the gloss

    The mediocrity, parochialism, or materialism regarded as typical of small-town life (esp. after Sinclair Lewis's novel Main Street, 1920).

    The earliest citation given is

    1855 N.Y. Tribune 31 Dec. 4/4 It has risen to its present position of bloated arrogance and swaggering insolence by the liberal and unstinting patronage it has received from the full purses and free hands of Eastern men in Main street and elsewhere.

  15. Peter said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 8:43 am

    Is there anywhere a definitive list of specific street names which have wider denotations? Some immediate examples are:

    In the USA:
    - Wall St
    - Main St
    - MLK Blvd
    - Skid row
    - Madison Ave
    - Broadway

    In the UK:
    - The High Street (note the article)
    - Downing St
    - Harley St
    - Rotton Row

    In France:
    - Champs Elysee

    In Australia:
    - Macquarie St
    - Pitt St
    - Phillip St
    - Oxford St
    - Bourke St
    - Collins St

  16. greg said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 8:58 am

    I can't point to where I'd seen the phrasing first crop up in recent discussions of the bailout, but I was always under the impression that it was signaling the difference between investment banking organizations that were involved in stock trading and on Wall Street and commercial banks whose primary function was direct lending and money storage for the average person, where the Main Street appellation comes from the fact that in stereotypical American cities/towns, the primary bank is located on that thoroughfare. So it doesn't explicitly differentiated between big money investment bankers and small town America, but between the two primary forms of banks.

  17. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 9:29 am

    On the surface, I think the average American (or especially the lower-class American) might more easily understand a metaphor like Wall Street vs. Wal-Mart better. But, of course, since Wal-Mart is a huge corporation, that wouldn't be the best metaphor to use.

    And then there's Wall Street vs. Elm Street. (Because lord knows we need to help those teens stay awake!)

    I am waiting for someone to extend this street metaphor, though, to edge out those people living on Easy Street — those who make over $250,000 a year.

  18. Andrew said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 9:37 am

    Rawley Grau: I think there may be an ambiguity in 'local' at work here. 'High Street' doesn't imply 'local' in the sense of 'locally owned'; many High Street shops, and I think all High Street banks, belong to national chains. It's 'local' in the sense of 'reasonably near where people live'.

    It's also worth mentioning that 'High Street' needn't imply 'downtown'. The outlying districts of a city will often have their own High Streets.

  19. Nicholas Waller said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 9:43 am

    @Peter – I am British and hadn't heard of Rotton Row before even though (after checking Wikipedia) I see I have actually walked alongside it and seen people riding horses there. And "Downing Street" is as often as not simply "Number 10".

    There's also Savile Row (tailoring), Whitehall (government/civil service) and especially Fleet Street (press) even though no newspaper, as far as I am aware, is still based there, and New Scotland Yard (police), which is no longer on Scotland Yard.

    An "everyday Briton" – or rather, a well-rounded reasonable example of same – used not to be attached to any particular street but be passing through as the "man on the Clapham omnibus".

  20. Morten Jonsson said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 10:32 am

    Sinclair Lewis was subverting the meaning of the phrase, using it to stand for small-town vices rather than the virtues it had been associated with. But I don't think the meaning now has evolved from his usage; I think it's generally very much the same as it was. It's only for the elitists who sneer at places like Wasilla, Alaska, that "Main Street" evokes Lewis's novel.

  21. Ben Teague said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 10:38 am

    Peter wrote: Is there anywhere a definitive list of specific street names which have wider denotations? Some immediate examples are:

    In the USA:
    - Wall St [etc.]

    Yes, there are others (though you would have to ask the toponymists whether a list has been drawn up). Many American towns once had a River Road or River Street; some such have become gentrified to Riverside Drives.

    The name Your Street sometimes appears in placeholder addresses (it is often found in Anytown, U.S.A.).

    Academy-centered towns commonly boast a College Street or Avenue. A state capital probably has a State Street (Texas being the exception, with Congress Avenue in Austin).

    Pennsylvania Avenue surely ranks with Madison Ave. and perhaps even with Downing Street.

    Mildly OT, a street named for a U.S. founder (Madison, Hancock, Washington, etc.) is probably in the old core of its town. A street named for a railroad company probably lies in the old suburbs.

  22. Boris Zakharin said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

    There is an Easy Street in Cape May, NJ. We pass it every time we go to the beach. It's not particularly impressive. A small loop with a dentist's office located on it. Always thought it was interesting.

  23. Robert F said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    It seems that the purpose of this bailout is to avoid ending up on Queer Street.

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/queer%20street

  24. SDT said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

    I thought Maxine Waters's reference to Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. was witty and original, but I see from Carl's comment that she stole it from SNL. Anyway, she said:

    Bailout for Wall Street? I don't think so. I could care less about Wall Street and the high-priced schemers, their tricky products, hedge funds, short selling and insider trading. I care about Main Street. And Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. I'm voting yes on this bill.

    This was quoted this morning in DailyKos withoutout a link and two things make me wonder if it's accurate. First, it's a boulevard, not a drive, and Waters should know that. Second, she she says that she will vote yes on a bill that she opposes, which makes no sense.

  25. SDT said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 1:04 pm

    I should have pointed out in my previous post that I was talking about Los Angeles, where Waters is from

  26. Martyn Cornell said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

    I'm surprised no American has mentioned Broadway yet as a "street name with wider implications". (not least in the expression "off-Broadway")

    Slightly more to the original point, "High Street" in the UK is definitely a synonym for "retail" in general, even when the retail in question might include out-of-town malls and the like – "High Street sales fell last month" means "retail sales fell", not just "sales in stores with outlets in High Streets only". Indeed, "High Stret" is such a general expression for "the main shopping street in the town" that I have heard people refer to, for example, "Twickenham High Street", even though the main shoping strip they are referring to is officially two separate street addresses, King Street and Heath Street …

  27. dr pepper said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

    Here in the US, there's also Maple Street, which connotes stable residential neighborhoods where working class families own houses.

  28. John McIntyre said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

    Morten Jonsson said, "It's only for the elitists who sneer at places like Wasilla, Alaska, that "Main Street" evokes Lewis's novel." Let me just observe that Elizaville, Kentucky, where I grew up, had a population in the 1960s of about 100, considerably smaller than that of Wasilla, Alaska, today. And if I, having found "Main Street" liberating when I read it at the age of 15, associate the term with the stifling conventions of small-town mores, then I believe I have the right and qualifications to do so.

  29. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 3:16 pm

    Pennsylvania offers two community grant programs called Main Street and Elm Street. (The grant programs might be federal, but information about the Pennsylvania programs is at http://www.newpa.com/programDetail.aspx?id=74).

    I always thought Elm Street referred to residential areas. The commonwealth's Main Street programs are for business districts, but I've always referred to business areas as "downtowns," which would have been less ambiguous because it would have made it clear that businesses were being referred to.

  30. jag said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

    I can think of at least five New York streets that are shorthand for a cultural or economic group (Park/Fifth/Madison/Broadway/Wall). Any others? I think New York also may be the origin of "City Hall" as shorthand for municipal government.

  31. jag said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

    And then there's Christopher Street, of course, which also has an iconic status.

  32. Forrest said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 6:51 pm

    I'm glad other people are being annoyed at this! "Main Street" as the antithesis to "Wall Street" is so overused, it hasn't just lost its meaning; it's like a once great song, ruined by overplay on the radio. Many people have their own pet words they love using … Main St seems to be everybody's favorite lately.

  33. John Baker said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 7:29 pm

    In addition to its small town/retail implications, "Main Street" today is often used to refer to the real economy and operating companies, as opposed to Wall Street, which refers to the virtual economy and financial intermediaries. "Main Street" and "Wall Street" are probably more meaningful to most people than "real economy" and "virtual economy." "Main Street" does not mean "your street," so Bush was making a different (and smarter) reference with those words.

  34. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 10:53 pm

    FWIW, if any of you are curious about Canada, off the top of my head I think there's only one street name here that "means something" across the country: that would be Bay Street, which is the location of the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Toronto headquarters of several major banks, and hence in the popular imagination "Bay Street" serves as shorthand for big finance.

  35. mike said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

    I'm surprised no one has pointed out that Disneyland has a "Main Street," where a parade is held every day. While none of the analysis here is incorrect, I don't credit the politicos with the kind of subtlety that would gloss "Main Street" as anything other than "Heartland, USA," or more to the point, people other than Wall Street financial types. I think it's relatively safe to say that anyone running around comparing Wall Street and Main Street is doing so entirely for rhetorical effect — let's remember who the audience is here. (Not made up primarily of, say, readers of Sinclair Lewis.)

  36. Kevin Iga said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 4:18 am

    In reference to the original post, even if Speaker Pelosi were being redundant, there is often a point to being redundant, when you know you will be heard by several audiences with distinct sets of connotations. In this case, "Main Street and everyday Americans" could be redundant, but for those listeners who don't recognize "Main Street" as a metonym, the second phrase makes it clear who she's talking about.

    The Disneyland use of Main Street, USA evokes the image that is common for Americans, of the main social and commercial area of a small town. It should be noted that Disneyland's Main Street USA is generally decorated in an old-fashioned (1950s?) style, indicating that for us, "Main Street" is associated with the life we imagine existed then.

    I wonder if the use of the term "Main Street" evokes the connotations it does because of the phonetic similarity to "mainstream".

  37. will said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

    "Main street" reminds me of one of my least favorite cliches in politics: "Middle Americans". It should refer to average Americans, those in the middle of the political specturm. in practice it includes the far right but not even the moderate left. Another one that annoys me is "the American people think X," often used in describing opinion polls. Chances are that millions of American people think otherwise, though they may be in the minority.

  38. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

    Street names as metonyms for industries… how about "Tin Pan Alley"?

  39. Anonymous Cowherd said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

    Another U.S. one nobody's mentioned: K Street.
    Not to mention Sesame Street. :) Or people who live one side or the other of the Beltway. And I think "Mulholland Drive" may have connoted something before the movie was made, but I really have no idea what.

  40. MikeA said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 11:14 am

    Last I checked, Disneyland's Main Street was in a style a good deal older than 1950s. I'd peg it as no later than The Great War :-)

    Also, one definition of a small town in the U.S. is "where Main Street actually is the main street". Just above these are the towns where"4th" is the main street (starting with 1st at the railroad tracks or river, it takes a few blocks to get out of the warehouse and factory district).

  41. E. V. Vance said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 11:38 am

    @MikeA
    You must be talking about Petaluma CA. Having just moved here, I was delighted to learn that Petaluma Blvd used to be called Main Street, so it's easy to tell the newbies from the oldtimers.

    And to confirm your description of town development, Petaluma Blvd (Main Street) is actually 3rd Street, with 1st Street at the river.

    Re Disneyland's Main Street: According to Wikipedia, it was designed to resemble a "turn of the century" (early 1900's) American town.

  42. Virtual Linguist said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

    Other UK metonyms, albeit old-fashioned these days, are:
    Carey Street (bankruptcy); Carnaby Street (fashion); Grub Street (hack journalism); Threadneedle Street (the Bank of England); Throgmorton Street (the Stock Exchange);Wardour Street (affectedly archaic speech or text).
    Main Street is not commonly used in the UK as a street name. In the whole Greater London area there is just one Main Street and that is in Feltham, borough of Hounslow, near Heathrow airport.

  43. Daniel Barkalow said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 11:36 pm

    In my experience, Main Street consists of two chinese restaurants, two churches, an ice cream store, a candy factory, a few upscale restaurants of various sorts, a few small tech companies, several biotech companies, a city bank, two bookstores, a subway stop, a post office, a few delis, a dry cleaners, a housing development, some college buildings, and, er, Google. I sort of feel like this list fits with my idea of the connotations of the phrase. I think Main Street is the employer of ordinary Americans, not the ordinary Americans themselves.

  44. Peter said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

    British political commentator, Andrew Rawnsley, today used the Washington DC ring-road name, "beltway", in a generic sense about the UK, in his Observer column:

    "This minister did not argue with me when I put it to him that the voters were so settled in their animosity towards Gordon Brown that they 'hit the mute button' whenever he tried to speak to them. 'The crisis is a chance to be heard. People are now willing to listen to him again,' says one of the Prime Minister's senior aides.

    That does not mean they will be willing to vote for him in 20 months' time. There is a huge dislocation between how things are viewed by those inside the political beltway and how they look to the public."

    See:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/12/gordonbrown-labour

  45. Aaron Davies said,

    October 16, 2008 @ 11:42 am

    I'm vaguely reminded of the bit in Back to the Future where Marty mentions JFK Blvd., and the person he's talking to has no idea what he means. (I don't think MLK Blvd means anything in particular to anyone (tho I'm welcome to be corrected), it's just that the vast majority of towns have one. Speaking of which, 125th St.–anyone remember History of the World Part I?)

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