The Orris: A Cultural Journal

American Way: A Series on Main Street America

If you don’t learn your history, it has a tendency to repeat on you like a bad roast beef sandwich. At least, this is the best simile I can come up with to describe the mix of déjà vu and indigestion I experienced while watching the debts talks in Washington this summer.  These feelings might have been heightened because I was reading H.W. Brands’ history American Colossus, which tells the story of fiscal crisis and third party interference in late 18th century America (sounds familiar, right?).  Brands uses an interesting analogy to explain the rebuilding of Chicago after The Great Fire of 1871:

“For centuries American Indians had burned the Great Plains to replenish the soil and ensure a fresh crop of grass for the buffalo; white farmers adapted the incendiary technique to their wheat fields. Chicagoans [after The Great Fire of 1871] discovered that fire had a similar revivifying effect on a capitalist cityscape. Cities accrete old buildings and infrastructure, to which individuals and firms grow attached for emotional and pecuniary reasons… Chicago sprang from the ashes of the 1871 fire more vigorous than ever.”  [1, emphasis mine.]

Postcard of Haymarket Square, Chicago, 1905

       What struck me in this analogy was how Brands pitches the destruction of certain old buildings as natural and deliberate rather than highlighting the “emotional and pecuniary reasons” individuals supported these places through patronage. This may be because the individuals and old buildings he referenced were often “dens of infamy” like gambling halls, resorts and shanties which housed the vagrant, the boisterous, and the unrespectable. Brands’ casual dismissal of these marginalized individuals in favor of respectable industry started me thinking about what counts as Main Street progress, and to whom.  There is a mythical Main Street as central and representative of a picturesque cosmos; we can find it in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit, or in the parades of Robert Frank’s America. But it has always been just that, a myth.

       But, what about our main streets now? Not Main Street, but the streets or local business centers you frequent throughout the course of a week or month. What makes a business a ‘main street business’ if not geographic location? The Tea Party has made Main Street their slogan, but I’m newly suspicious this isn’t further rhetoric shielding how money discriminately flows through some communities and business ventures and not others.

       Take Roast Beast in Allston Massachusetts at 1080 Commonwealth Ave; my own Main Street.  Now Allston might not be classy Boston, and let’s admit that “ALLSTON ROCKS” is not a slogan to inspire much respect. We have more corner packies, real estate agencies, and dives than martini bars and bookstores like you find in neighboring Cambridge and Brookline. And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.

        In some ways the business model of Roast Beast is not so different from many fast food corporations when they first got started. Specialty stores have experienced a recent vogue, especially in urban areas, despite their simultaneous recession in suburban landscapes. What is special about this specialty roast beef sandwich shop is its locale in an increasingly diverse and historically sectionalized city. Roast Beast is proof that quality products and personal service are what could define the Main Street urban business, and not necessarily its interior design or exotic and exclusive attitude.

        In our urban marginalia, Allston could easily be described as (as it was for me before I moved here) a “den of infamy.” But it is here, in the margins of Allston, where the real hero in my Main Street mythology awaits: the small business owner.

      Enter DJ, owner of Roast Beast in Allston, just next to Packard’s Corner. As a first-timer at Roast Beast, DJ made sure I tried a few of their homemade sauces before I placed my order. He enthusiastically greeted the seasoned veterans who came in after me by name. With my order of a regular sandwich on toasted onion roll (suggested by DJ) I also got a heaping side of small talk, free of charge. Topics ranged: zip-lining, buying fireworks, and shooting automatic weapons; hassles with moving on September 1st in Boston, and the sweet pleasures of dealing with Boston City Hall when you’re a first time restaurant owner. “You know,” said DJ “there’s no check list they give you to figure it all out. You’re on your own.” Well, Amen Brother, I’m glad you did, because you boys have the gift of gab and roast beef!


       The myth of Main Street is useful, but only if we recognize it as a story we tell ourselves about ourselves in the present. When we start believing this story is universal or collective, despite our varying proximity to urban, rural and suburban locales, then the story stops being instructional. That means we have to watch out for someone selling us yesterday’s story; yesterday’s roast beef, if you will. Capital helps to run community, but that doesn’t mean our individual experience with capital has to be blind consumerism and conspicuous consumption. Roast Beast is a great example of a Main Street urban business selling very traditional food with the small-town touch of customer service, but we also should consider the intersection of rural small business owners and the internet as a way to set-up shop on virtual Main Street. Although the iconography of Main Street is necessarily steeped in tradition and nostalgia for ‘simpler times,’ the central subject of small business is always moving towards innovation and creativity. This dichotomy is part of the careful balance of capitalism and democracy; the American way.  –Tabitha Clark

Roadside billboard from the thirties. F.S.A. 


[1] Brands, H.W.  American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900. New York: Doubleday, 2010. Print.

Image Credits:

Haymarket, Chicago Postcard. 1905. Pat Sabin. Web. 1 Sept 2011.

Rothstein, Arthur. American Way. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection. Web. 1 Sept 2011.



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