Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

On Main Street America, It's Charm versus Chains

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

On Main Street America, It's Charm versus Chains

Article excerpt

There are times - when the moist Mississippi River breeze blows in over endless fields of cotton - that people here can swear Ernest Hemingway still calls at his in-laws' house down the road.

In truth, the great writer last came here in the 1930s, back when he was writing "A Farewell to Arms." Yet the never-too-distant scent of fecund earth still fills the town streets as it did then, and couples still gossip over ice cream sundaes at Seals Pharmacy's marble soda fountain.

Yes, the Packards may have been replaced by pickups, but there's not a single Wal-Mart or Walgreen's. And the people of Piggott intend to keep it that way.

Piggott is one of hundreds of towns across America that are increasingly having to weigh business growth against preservation. As Main Streets have lured back shoppers after years of revitalizing efforts, they have also attracted business chains - especially drugstores - and their sometimes prefab-looking stores.

So far, Piggott has managed to keep its charm, but other towns have not been as successful, and some residents worry that neighborhoods across the US are losing their heritage.

"As a result of this push to locate new stores in the hearts of historic neighborhoods, architecturally significant buildings - sometimes entire blocks - are demolished for ... big-box type stores," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

As a result of this concern, the National Trust has placed the generic "corner of Main and Main" at the top of its Most Endangered Historic Places list. And it has met with drug-store executives from Walgreen Drug Stores, CVS, and Rite Aid to talk about the problem.

"We try to recognize their economic goals, and we hope they will recognize our ... preservation goals," says Mr. Moe.

Sometimes, Moe says, businesses have adapted older buildings in downtown areas to create a popular image, blending new with old. He points to Starbucks and Banana Republic as good examples and notes that Rite Aid converted an old Beaux-Arts bank in New York into a store.

But companies counter that they are under no obligation to keep or resuscitate old, sometimes derelict buildings. …

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