Southern Main Streets 2003

In March 2003 I drove 4200 miles from Philadelphia, PA to Austin, TX and back, photographing American Main Streets for my next book "The Heart of Town." I recommend the following towns to any of you who would like to see some of the streets less trampled on. (The urbanist's version of the road less traveled by.) Some photographs will be available shortly on the Main Streets link of this site. First, a list of the best downtown food I found along the way. At some of these joints, you can get that unbelievably salty fried country ham; that's what I, personally, seek in a Southern cafe.

Four Corners Restaurant, Grafton, WV - unpretentious regular food, great bas-relief mural of Main Street

Cowan's Cafe, Washington, MO - for the locals and you. (Discovered by noticing where ALL the cars were parked early Monday morning)

Flat Branch Saloon, Columbia, MO - corned beef & cabbage on March 17, followed by a nice single-malt.

Cottage Cafe, Van Buren, AR - simply the best sausage ever, anywhere

Iron Works, Austin, TX - a must for ribs and everything BBQ, wooden booths & creekside porch

C&J Barbecue, Bryan, TX - not actually downtown, but downtown is under construction now - this is a BBQ cafeteria - quick, good & cheap

Lasyone's Meat Pie Kitchen - Natchitoches, LA - my breakfast wasn't all that great but the atmosphere was, and the name! Next time I'll order a Meat Pie.

Hungry Heifer, Meridian, MS - overpriced, but good creative bar food, wonderful funky decor and cheer

The Choice Restaurant, Gadsden, AL - popular for good reason; a juicy cheeseburger arrived in, oh, 4 minutes; the cute waiter sat down in my booth to rest his feet; historic b&w photographs in back room

Athen's Steak House (yes the apostrophe is there), Bristol, TN/VA - sublime steaks, doting "Grecian" owners, great prices, very noisy fish tank

Southern Kitchen, New Market, VA - deer head on wall, good cheap diner food

Random Regional Observation: They drive a lot faster on the interstate in Alabama than they do in the adjoining states.

Random Regional Observation #2: They drive 5 miles per hour slower than the speed limit in eastern Oklahoma and Texas. Fortunately the speed limit in Texas is very high -- 70 mph for two-lane country roads like the peerless Route 21, slowing to 55 mph to pass through rural hamlets. Yee-hah!

About Main Streets in general, I observed a peculiar but necessary trend whereby towns have placed signs out on the highways telling motorists which exit to use to find the good architecture. They usually say "Historic District, Use Exit whatever" and they are brown, to indicate something old and authentic. This practice started many years ago but is rampant in the new millennium. It is necessary because there are now 4 or 5 exits (for, say, Harrisonburg, VA and towns of that size) and most of them dump you onto a couple of miles of the usual garish American sprawl crap. While it is encouraging that traditional Main Streets are increasingly recognized as worth preserving, or at least exploiting, they are also increasingly fetishized as precious "Main Street museums" for the tourist trade. Unless the town has a thriving industry of some sort (e.g. Corning NY with Corning Glass) the most reliable place to find a lively, mixed-use, authentic Main Street (with a hardware store, shoe repair shop, and breakfast cafe) is in a university town. County seats, with their government duties, maintain a semblance of everyday business on their courthouse squares, but most of them barely hang on in the daytime and close tight at night.

The towns I photographed:

Cumberland, Maryland - sad story of what happens to a town when the main street is closed to traffic to create a pedestrian mall.

Frostburg, Maryland - beautifully situated narrow hilly Main Street in a university town - looks alive

Grafton, West Virginia - breathtaking river valley/railroad location, grand architecture but seriously dilapidated and dying - OK dead - Main Street

Huntington, West Virginia - perfect city grid, great buildings, university activity, spectacular courthouse, interesting traffic-calmed areas downtown, depressed economy showing

Maysville, Kentucky - seemingly effective one-way couplet main streets, varied and historic architecture, stuck-in-time ambience, Ohio River legacy

Augusta, Kentucky - Ohio River hamlet struggling to become a tourist trap

Ripley, Ohio - ditto, very handsome short Main Street and Front Street

Washington, Missouri - Main Street with a real supermarket on it, brilliant movie theatre facade, picturesque Missouri River landing, Front Street a pleasant tourist haven, horrid mall zone pressing over the hill.

Columbia, Missouri - easily the worst 1970s ruination I've ever seen of a once-handsome main street (Broadway) by modernist concrete canopies.

Van Buren, Arkansas - epitome of the "Main Street Museum" fetish, but exceedingly well done as such. Exceptional buildings, thankfully not tarted up with banners or cute olde signs. A must-see for lovers of traditional architecture.

Dime Box, Texas - tiny off-highway rural town, chickens are crossing the road, tumbleweeds would blow through if it were farther west, stuck in time. Fans of the book "Blue Highways" will recognize this town name and barbershop.

Bryan, Texas - Main Street currently completely torn up, a sea of mud when I was there, a vision of change in progress, corner brick sidewalks completed, odd mix of perfect restorations and decrepitude - must see again in two years.

Natchitoches, Louisiana - not a real main street. Front Street is for tourists. Neverthless beautiful; brick street itself and wrought-iron benches are charming.

Meridian, Mississippi - currently undergoing New Urbanist master planning. Diagonal parking everywhere downtown, buildings under restoration, a live-work block being gentrified, 5 shootings in last two weeks.

Gadsden, Alabama - a real & substantial Main Street. Impressive persistence of old, somewhat shabby stores and cafes, lively local patronage at noon on a weekday, severe banneritis mars overall visual effect, street too wide, needs pedestrian traffic signals.

Jonesborough, Tennessee - handsome well-preserved architecture, perfect town center in pretty valley, now a tourist haven with Storytelling industry, very few quotidian businesses on Main, sprawl lurking close by.

Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia - sad downtown with alluring potential, fascinating example of two governments sharing a Central Business District (State Street is divided lengthwise between Virginia and Tennessee). Not one single car on the whole six-block downtown stretch at 7 AM Sunday morning, except mine.

Staunton, Virginia - closest thing I saw on this trip to a successful mix of tourism, historic preservation, and everyday downtown functioning. Wonderfully proportioned streets in dramatic valley. Surrounded by the usual sprawl zones.

Luray, Virginia - quiet in the off-season, sometimes crawling with cave tourists and Shenandoah visitors. Interesting example of rural main street, casually spread out, unpretentious. Very alert & punitive state trooper.

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©2006 Sandy Sorlien.