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Author Topic: The Decline & Fall of Main Street (D8N)(mostly text, graphs and diagrams)  (Read 40 times)

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Offline Jeffrey

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Main Street.  The iconic American urban space, the quintessential downtown street of shopping and services, has been replaced by shopping malls (a copy of the concept),  and now totally superseded by big box

Main Street isn’t necessarily called that in some cities:  In Chicago it was State Street, in Louisville 4th Street, in Sacramento K Street, in Cleveland Euclid Avenue, and so forth.

In Dayton, however, Main Street was exactly that; the primary shopping street of the city, and also the location of county government and the major local banks.   Shopping downtown did spread out beyond Main, first to the east,  to the parallel streets of Jefferson and on to the east-west cross streets. 1st to 5th, and then to west to Ludlow Street..  There could well have been more shopping, in total, on surrounding streets then on Main.

With so much shopping little sub-districts formed.  1st and 2nd  and Ludlow was a bit more fashionable, and had some of the local hotels.

The part of downtown in the vicinity of Jefferson and 4th and 5th was more marginal, and had some old theatres and furniture stores, as well as discount stores and jewelers.

So there was sort of a commercial zoning on Main, from discounters and five & dimes on the south to more upscale retail to the north, with a bit of a gap just north of 3rd around the old & new courthouses, the DP&L Building, and the big banks.  Certain types of retail also clustered, like jewelers and men’s- and women’s- wear.

So how did Main Street die?  How did the street decline to insignificance?

Analyzing street level retail based on an old 1956 downtown map, and then working with the criss-cross directories permits one to “rebuild” the Main Street retail environment through time. 

A sample of the 1956 base map, showing the density of retail downtown (this is the Arcade block, with blow ups of the northern and southern half blocks.  Main Street is to the right.

Although I am looking only at ground level, there was 2nd floor business too, and in even higher floors in some buildings.  An example is the Victory, which had cocktail lounge and beauty shops on the second floor.  The Victory is also a good example of maximizing leasable space at the ground level, as it had minimal lobby space leading in to the theatre.

(from Craig McIntosh’ Dayton Sketchbook)

(pix at Boston Stoker with apropos (for Dayton) movie on the marquee)

Starting our walk through the years down Main.….

…via a  series of color coded diagrams set 5 year intervals (more or less), showing different types of retail and services.   This does not show interior things like retail in lobbies or interior arcades.  The “Misc. retail” category includes things like barber shops, camera stores, a Singer sewing machine store, rent-a-car places, music stores, and so forth.

 By 1956 J C Penny had already left downtown for Town and Country, and Beerman’s (near 3rd & Main) was opening suburban stores.  Yet downtown was still pretty strong, with four department stores, starting with Spiegel at Main and the railroad, then moving north to Elder-Johnsons and Rays @ 4th & Main, then to Beermans and finally the big Rikes’ store at 2nd & Main. 

The northernmost reaches of Main have an airline ticket offices and a furrier in the shops at the base of the Biltmore (now all empty) and a music store and various little retail operations including a coin store in the Newcom Manor apartments, a barber, and a White Tower.

Some five & dimes and Spiegel disappear by 1960.  By this year some of the larger suburban shopping centers are opening (Forest Park, Airway, Hills and Dales).   Yet Main still seems pretty solid. On the northern reaches, 1st o 2nd block, the Metropolitan clothing store had opened (the big red circle), relocating from Ludlow and replacing a collection of smaller storefronts

Starting in the early 1960s worries began about downtown, mostly about the declining peripheral areas.  Rikes joins the suburban retail trend, opening  the first suburban stores after 1960.  Also, Elder-Johnsons department store had merged with Beermans to become Elder-Beerman.   This resulted in the large Elder-Johnson department store at 4th and Main to close, taken over in part by Rays Furniture (no longer a department store)..

The southern reaches of Main, actually the entire southeast quadrant of downtown,  was becoming problematic.  In response the Mid Town Mart urban renewal scheme for a downtown mixed use center was proposed, which would take two blocks on east side of Main between the railroad embankment and 4th.    .

In 1966  the Salem Mall opened and Dayton experienced its first urban riot of the 1960s.   A big urban design effort at investigating the revitalization of downtown came to naught, but  Mid Town Mart site was cleared, removing two bocks of the southern reaches of Main.  By 1970 Elder-Beerman (according to the directories) had closed the Main Street side of its store, leasing it out to other types of business.

Also, in 1970 the Dayton Mall opened.   Decline was about to turn into collapse.

The big change on Main north of 3rd  by 1970 was the removal of the Beaux Arts Winters Bank high rise with a very unsatisfying modern tower.

A feeble attempt to address Main, but unlike traditional downtown banks there is no real banking hall inside, just a bland lobby with escalators to a anticlimactic mezzanine of teller cages.

By the mid 1970s Main Street south of 4th was done as a retail site. Yet there were still some strong blocks, particularly the block between 3rd and 4th and the block between 1st and 2nd.  The somewhat weak retail block containing the courthouse was cleared for Courthouse Square, replacing a collection of stores, a bank, and the DP&L Building.

The Courthouse square block in the 1920s, mostly the same up to urban renewal


Replaced by a windswept plaza and late modern skyscraper.

The Main and 4th intersection, commercial blocks (housing clothing stores and a drug store) replaced by skyscraper set back from the street on a low plinth

I could have entitled this thread “Death by Modernism”.  The Courthouse Square stretch of Main was almost a textbook case of what Jane Jacobs was talking about when she discussed planners looking at blocks instead of streets.   I guess it took a few years for this news to reach Dayton as her book came out in the early 1960s and this plan was executed in the mid 1970s.  No excuse for this.

Restaurants came and went in a hole in the square (what were they thinking when they designed this?); the space closed for good by 1995.


In 1980 the last retail on the 3rd & Main block was removed by the construction of the Gem Savings building…here’s a view of the block in the early 1920s, with the outline of what is now the Keybank Building sketched in the background

…replaced the by Gem Savings, clearing out the corner skyscraper and a fairly rich collection of retail action to the north.  About five stores were closed due to this, clearing the block of nearly all retail.

Corner skyscraper  with the (now peripatetic) clock tower as an architectural acknowledgement of 3rd and Main as Dayton’s zero milestone.  Lower floors came first, upper floors later.  Paul Lawrence Dunbar was elevator operator here (for the original lower stage)

…replaced by a formally correct yet uninspired IM Pei design that ignores the corner condition.

1980 was also the year the Arcade Square shopping center opened, but it opened in an environment of declining retail between 3rd & 4th.  Elder-Beerman had relocated to Courthouse Square by this time, removing any anchor to Main Street south of 3rd.  North of 2nd,  The Biltmore has closed as a hotel, removing an anchor for the northern part of Main, as the Biltmore had a number of little street level shops.  The Kuhn’s Building had been remodeled into the Chemineer offices, removing ground level retail and demolishing an adjacent building for a new entry court.

Finally, by 1980 the some of the last older commercial blocks around 5th & Main were removed.   Though it says “furniture store” on the old pix this block held the 5 & 10 stores, including  the Kresge in the Lowe Building at the site of the houses to the far right (historically retail and commercial had moved south on Main). 

(large parking garage to the rear is a recent addition, in the past few years or so)

The Metropolitan closes between 1980 and 1985, removing an anchor for the northern part of Main.  The Arcade went bankrupt a year before, driving  an urban renewal “rescue” plan that would affect the 3rd –4th retail block south of 3rd.

Between 1975 and 1985, maybe by 1980 the last movie theatre downtown, Lowes, has been demolished for a parking lot.

.Though still active the retail block between 3rd & 4th  awaits its demise…

…which happens by 1990.  .The recent opening of I-675 (late fall 1986) and planned new suburban shopping centers along the freeway don’t contribute to the decline, though suburban trends have nailed the retail coffin shut, foreclosing downtown retail revival. 

The death blow to traditional ground level retail was substantial removal of street level retail on two key blocks, essentially destroying Main Street as a traditional shopping street :

    1st to 2nd: The Victoria renovation and the new Citizens Federal building remove the last street level retail on the east side of Main.  Walker’s menswear and a shoe store the last retail establishments here, on the west side of Main.

    3rd to 4th:  the Arcade Centre urban renewal scheme removed substantial retail on the west side of Main, leaving only McCrery’s 5 & 10.

The giant Lazarus department store remains, but is about to close

Example of how the Arcade Centre tower pretty much kills off retail on the corner of 3rd & Main, replacing a generic commercial building very open to the street with a postmodern design  that holds to the sidewalk, but is still somewhat closed off (though the W-PFCU does try to use signs to say “we’re here!”)

Main Street bottoms out in the 1990s.  By 1995. Lazarus & Walkers menswear have closed, severing the last ties to the old pre-suburban retail era.   Minor retail lingers on the 3rd to 4th block. 

Fast forward to 2007.   Main Street has reached equilibrium.  The 1st to 2nd block is now a small entertainment center with theatres (including an entrance to the new Shuster Center), three restaurants or fast food places, and two nightclubs. 

The Shuster Center pretty much destroys the street at the 2nd & Main corner with yet another uninspired (exterior) design by a famous architect (this time Cesar Pelli)

Before (and yes it was a white elephant)

After (really, does downtown Dayton need more soft corners and windy plazas?)

A considerably more successful attempt at a downtown concert hall was the nearby Aranoff Center in Cincinnati, but again this lesson was lost on the local architectural patrons.

Citilites restaurant has to resort to signage to draw people into the restaurant, buried in the building.  Unlike the restaurants around the Aranoff this was not successful and has converted to limited hours and menu.  Apparently, unlike Cincinnati, Dayton can’t really support a  substantial after-hours show/dinner/cocktails scene around its arts center.

Substantial parts of the block north of 1st , on the west side, will be removed at the end of the year for the Caresource buildings, displacing the three remaining businesses (though two will relocate elsewhere downtown)..

Courthouse Square and the banks create a bit of a barrier between this area and 3rd, though there is some small street level retail in the Keybank Building, a Quiznos and one of what the English call a “Confection/Newsstand/Tobacconist (CNT)”…a place that sells snacks, smokes, and the newspaper.

South of 3rd the RTA bus hub & ticket booth generates a lot of foot traffic on the 3rd to 4th block, thus there is some limited retail here serving the urban underclass market.  There is even more inside the RTA concourse (not shown here), which is the busiest place downtown.   

Investigating the business mix and trend lines over time, one sees how retail loses its significance and Main transforms into a convenience center for office workers and transit riders, with some entertainment/nightlife action in recent years.

Overall trend, showing some key retail events outside of downtown.

Main street business block by block

How the different blocks die out

And some key planning /urban renewal things that helped kill off the more active blocks as a retail space

Retail Mix

Looking at “mall shopping” (types of retail typically found at malls)

….and how the Dayton Mall had the greatest effect on Main, followed by later removals.  This disproves an urban legend that I-675 killed downtown shopping.  The place was already dying due to the malls, and it was urban renewal of various sorts that removed the last storefronts.

The death of 5&10/Variety/Department Stores.  A lot of this was changing concepts in retail, as 5&10s were replaced by the first generation suburban big boxes, starting with Kresge becoming K-Mart.  Kresge did maintain a traditional downtown 5 & 10 through the 60s, though.


 Looking at how retail dies out on three key blocks.   Some urban renewal actions are noted.  Some of this is not speculation as the records indicate that in some cases (particularly the 3rd to 4th block) urban renewal did displace active businesses, not empty storefronts).  The dark line graph charts “mall retail”…on can see in some blocks there are other types of business that dominate.

Finally, the trend in eating and drinking places, which seems to be the last good retail use on the street.  If Daytonians can get over their habit of avoiding contact with downtown during arts events (driving to and then quickly leaving) perhaps this can grow somewhat?

Finishing up with some rephotography on the 3rd to 4th block

One of the themes of this thread is that bad planning, urban renewal, and modern design killed Main Street as much as suburban shopping did. "We had to destroy Main Street in order to save it".

But then wouldn’t this have happened anyway?  Where not the various interventions here merely accelerating and responding to a process that was underway, with an end-state of an equally empty landscape?


Online ink

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Re: The Decline & Fall of Main Street (D8N)(mostly text, graphs and diagrams)
« Reply #1 on: November 25, 2007, 07:40:20 PM »

Offline seicer

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Re: The Decline & Fall of Main Street (D8N)(mostly text, graphs and diagrams)
« Reply #2 on: November 25, 2007, 08:16:26 PM »
Holy crap. I look forward to your investigative reports and... lots of graphs and charts.

This is such a depressing thread :(

Offline Columbusite

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Re: The Decline & Fall of Main Street (D8N)(mostly text, graphs and diagrams)
« Reply #3 on: November 25, 2007, 09:19:11 PM »
This is your job, right? Interesting stuff I must say. Dayton tends to leave you wanting nowadays. If they got their act together they could put the three Cs downtowns to shame, too bad they probably won't.

Online oakiehigh

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Re: The Decline & Fall of Main Street (D8N)(mostly text, graphs and diagrams)
« Reply #4 on: November 25, 2007, 09:56:51 PM »
Nice Work!

Online ColDayMan

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Re: The Decline & Fall of Main Street (D8N)(mostly text, graphs and diagrams)
« Reply #5 on: November 26, 2007, 12:20:36 AM »
This is your job, right? Interesting stuff I must say. Dayton tends to leave you wanting nowadays. If they got their act together they could put the three Cs downtowns to shame, too bad they probably won't.

Bah!  They already beat Columbus.

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Offline Eigth and State

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Re: The Decline & Fall of Main Street (D8N)(mostly text, graphs and diagrams)
« Reply #6 on: November 27, 2007, 09:30:48 PM »

   Thanks for another great post.

Offline Jeffrey

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Re: The Decline & Fall of Main Street (D8N)(mostly text, graphs and diagrams)
« Reply #7 on: November 30, 2007, 08:46:43 PM »
In response to seicer, no this wasn't depressing for me, just something analytical and a bit of architectural critque. 

Downtown Dayton was already pretty much a zero when I moved here, so no real sense of disappointment when Lazarus and Walkers (the last good mens store) closed.

For locals who hava been here for a long time it would be different, which is why there is such a rejection of the city, as old-timers have a memory of what the place was like so its more of shock and let down and "depressing" for them.

I think one can do this very thing for other mid-sized citys. Certainly one can do it for Lexington and Lousiville.

So it's not a story unique to Dayton.

BTW, for a really lively downtown that is still pretty active, come to Chicago and check out State Street.  I am typing from a hotel in Chicago at this minute (yes, in Chicago the hotels offer free internet terminals, not just access) and was on State this evening, fighting the crowds to get to a photography exhibition. 

Pretty amazing to see the city I diagrammed for Dayton in the 1950s and early 1960s still alive in Chicago.  There is even a little jewelry district on Wabash, just like there was one in Dayton on the lower reaches of Main.

And the crowds.  Still there are crowds on the streets in Chicago.

That's not my memory, though.

Offline seicer

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Re: The Decline & Fall of Main Street (D8N)(mostly text, graphs and diagrams)
« Reply #8 on: November 30, 2007, 09:11:26 PM »
^ You have actually given me inspiration to do a thread actually on Lexington. We just lost another long-time retailer ( a very unique hat shop ) to a developer that has bought out essentially the entire block across from my apartment tower. Many unique businesses and clubs that could be redeveloped. I should look into it more.