Monday, July 18, 2011

Drivable Main Streets, Part I: Quaint, picturesque sprawl.

Despite all hullabaloo raised by various talking heads on the dire state of small town America—and it is true that much of it continues to depopulate, as it has for the past fifty years—not all rural communities have fallen into ineluctable decline. And high hopes prevail for many of the others that seem as though their main streets have been massacred by Wal-Mart, or Food Land, or whatever the scapegoat appears to be for the Town of X. Most historians and social scientists persist in arguing that Wal-Mart has devastated the retail culture of rural America, and the snarky tone of my previous sentence should reveal my skepticism toward that truism. The fact remains that many small towns are populated by largely vacant old buildings, and yes, those buildings are increasingly falling into disrepair, and indeed, sometimes their deteriorated condition places them beyond the point of no return. But a town’s reinvention does not depend exclusively on the existing structures in the historic center: some have revitalized as tourist destinations despite losing a portion of the original structures to parking lots, but those parking lots prove essential to attract visitors who otherwise wouldn’t bite if they could find an easy place to stash their vehicle while they stroll the main street. Small towns are also just as amenable to infill development as gentrifying inner city neighborhoods in the big old metropolises. Relatively few have enjoyed the bounties of infill development, simply because real estate speculators see little incentive in terms of an adequate ROI in a depressed, isolated, rural community. But nothing about the existing built environment of an old downtown inherently precludes it from enjoying at least a chance of a renaissance.

I’m aware of no better proof that even the most unlikely small town can overcome the odds and revitalize than the hamlet of St. Francisville, Louisiana.

The truth is, I use the term “revitalize” hesitatingly, because I don’t really know if St. Francisville ever suffered disinvestment. It looks good: a number of impeccably maintained turn-of-the-century structures, green spaces under complete canopy by some mighty Southern live oak trees in bountiful health, fully occupied storefronts featuring art, antiques, confections, and restaurants that delicately straddle eclectic and unpretentious. The general upkeep of the town appears fantastic, except for one small problem: it doesn’t show much evidence at all that it’s a town. An unfamiliar motorist could pass through and just think that he or she stumbled across a mile-long stretch of particularly nice homes and a few mom-and-pops. I don’t want to suggest that “there is no there there” because, frankly, to many users of that phrase have corrupted it from Gertrude Stein's original intent, to apply loosely to any place that lacks “character”. And I simply don't feel that a truly characterless place exists. But St. Francisville certainly doesn't meet most of the standards of most historically significant small towns. Just try to find the center of St. Francisville through the street configuration on this map:

It looks like little more than the convergence of a few rural highways. No conventional street grid, no railway or train depot, no port along a river. And, from what it appears, no historic main street. As far as I could determine, the pictures below more or less encapsulate the downtown. The picture below features what I would presume to be the historic center of St. Francisville, at the convergence of the two primary streets, Commerce Street (State Route 3057) and Ferdinand Street:

It's hard to tell if this is a center, because a gas station and a Ford dealership hardly comprise the conventional center of a historic American town—at least not one that survived the wrecking ball. Yet one could hardly claim that the ravages of time have laid St. Francisville to waste; it has dozens of structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. How did this unusually tightly-knit rural settlement get started?

According to the town's website, the bluffs around the area attracted Spanish settlers in the late 18th century, where Capuchin monks used the high ground to build a monastery and cemetery at the site. Eventually the area developed into the district of Nueva Feliciana, the political capital of the Florida Parishes, which includes all the Louisiana parishes (counties) north of Lake Pontchartrain and east of the Mississippi River—the original westernmost reaches of the Florida territories. But it was not St. Francisville that initially flourished as the regional center; that role fell to Bayou Sara, a town resting below the bluffs along a similarly named waterway that helped it serve briefly as the most important Mississippi cotton port between New Orleans and Memphis. St. Francisville achieved greater prestige during the period in which the ownership of Florida Territories was ambiguous because British, French, Spanish, and American colonizers could not clarify the exact boundaries of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The town served as the capital of the Republic of West Florida for a brief period in 1810 when British settlers in the area overthrew Spanish rule, until Americans claimed ownership of the land under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase. Meanwhile, Bayou Sara met its demise before the Civil War, succumbing to fires, repeated flooding and the ravages of the boll weevil. Virtually nothing survives today. But the expansive plantations and estates of St. Francisville, the town “two miles long and two yards wide”, prevailed throughout the 19th century up to the present.

The configuration of buildings in St. Francisville demonstrates the appropriateness of the above nickname. The photograph below on Ferdinand Street reveals what is probably the highest density arrangement of structures in the entire town, and one of the only stretches where commercial buildings rest immediately adjacent to one another.

Step back further along that same road, and it hardly bears any evidence of a conventional small town American main street.

The buildings predominantly look more like converted private residences, rather than structures intended for commercial purposes. Most have front porches and a fenestration that promotes privacy, instead of expansive windows for the display of goods. The buildings on the other side of the street seem a bit more oriented toward retail.

It would appear that someone who has invested in St. Francisville took a Streetscape Improvements 101 course: aesthetic brick sidewalks, customized street markers, hanging wooden signs outside each storefront. More critical, though, is the general absence of setbacks; most of these buildings are built right up to the street. Scattered intermittently across this streetscape are buildings that have clearly always been oriented toward retail, in varying levels of upkeep:

I suppose the building below could have been a country inn at one time:

But next to most of these isolated structures are more buildings that clearly began as private residences. A few have most likely been retrofitted for commercial or retail use:

Still, something seems a bit fishy—something undermining the credibility of this main street. Look at the photos below, taken from a different stretch of the long artery that comprises most of the town, this time on the Commerce Street side of that one major intersection. Then compare them to some of the previous photographs.

Unlike some of the earlier streetscapes, the setbacks here are much larger. But common to both photos—virtually all the pictures so far, in fact—is the abundance of curb cuts. Gaps in the curb are essential for vehicular access, and all but a handful of the zero-setback structures have them. Curb cuts usually equate to driveways, and driveways suggest that many, if not most, of these buildings are oriented to allow for vehicles. And if the spacing between buildings is wide enough for driveways, or the setbacks allow for one or two off-street parking spaces in front, the buildings themselves almost definitely date from the 20th century. Think back on a well preserved commercial main street or town square, like, for example the one in Brazil, Indiana that I featured in this blog many moons ago. The buildings sit right next to one another. No room for cars to park between or in front of buildings, because cars either didn’t exist yet, or they weren’t ubiquitous enough to justify dedicated off-street parking.

Like any picture-perfect vintage main street, St. Francisville has on-street parking, as evidenced by the photos. But it also has enough gaps between buildings, and between the road/sidewalk and the buildings, to allow for off-street parking as well, pushing the structures apart from one another and making the entire environment less conducive for walking as a means of getting around. These photos offer a reasonable amount of proof: they come from early evening on a Thursday night, and not a soul is outside. Sure, the antique stores would have closed, but not the cafes and restaurants. But here’s what the ostensible restaurant district of St. Francisville looks like:

The restaurants are doing fine. They’re open for business. They just have their own dedicated off-street parking and don’t require anyone to walk along St. Francisville’s sidewalks to get there. Nobody really needs to be outside. The handsome town park sits just as empty:

The real attraction of the town—the essence of its historic credentials and the bulk of the National Register properties—are the stately plantations and private residences that dot the outskirts of the town on Royal Street and Prosperity Street, sometimes almost a mile from the main intersection captured in so many of the above photos. These plantations and stately homes bring regional weekend visitors, which are most likely the real lifeblood of the town’s retail.

Most of these homes have signs indicating their age:

Yes, the sign to the right references Sotheby’s, the international realty company. Apparently the sellers of this house believe that they might be able to attract a foreign buyer.

Some of the structures appear to be old commercial buildings that have since been retrofitted to private residences, an inverse of what the earlier photographs on Ferdinand Street depicted.

An unusually large building to house a church office:

And this final building defies all conventions:

In terms of square footage, it is probably the single largest commercial structure in all of St. Francisville. Yet it sits far removed from the center of town, on what is otherwise a residential street. And most of these residential streets, while reasonably walkable, are hardly compact. (They have curb cuts too.)

Other residential nooks in St. Francisville reveal family-run businesses have wooden signs (advertising a bed and breakfast, in this case, I believe) but no sidewalks.

This is a city far easier explored by car than by foot. And, more importantly, it is one of the most unusual pastiches of antique, pseudo-antique, and conventional twentieth century. My own suspicions, judging from the unusual scattering of commercial structures from widely different time periods of construction, is that the town did go through periods of mild booms and busts, resulting in an uneven development process that never really asserts itself through a historic core. Essentially, it enjoyed incremental infill development before such a investors' approach had any conscious attempt at revitalization. The Wikipedia article on the city suggests that some of the old remnants of the ghost town on Bayou Sara were hauled up to the bluff in the early 20th century and planted in St. Francisville. (That large brick two-story structure seems like the most likely candidate, if this story is legitimate.) Whatever the truth may be, St. Francisville is among the most rarefied small towns I’ve seen that still manages a certain cachet. My descriptions up to this point would no doubt suggest that I have a low opinion of the place, which is not true. I just find it quite surprising that it could retain a potent identity when it could easily have devolved into a humble rural intersection, barely more than Bayou Sara.

But what motivated people to let these homes survive, or to haul old buildings from Bayou Sara up the bluff so that they begin a second life? I have my suspicions as to why the residents of St. Francisville cared enough about their community to achieved what so few others have. But it is easier to explore this Francisville phenomenon in comparison to another Louisiana town not so far away, which I will do in the second half of this larger-than-expected blog post.


Anonymous said...

Just curious...when were these pictures taken? The Ford dealership is now on Highway 61 and has been there for awhile.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for writing. The pictures are dated almost exactly a year ago--late July of 2010.

Chris Barnett said...

Car dealers and gas stations were downtown fixtures until bypasses and interstates were built, mostly post WW2.

I'd speculate that maybe the two-story brick has a connection to a lodge order of some kind. The "residential conversion" looks suspiciously like a church because of the steeple-looking thing, though it could also be a former livery.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for writing, Chris. The photo fails to capture the oddity of the two-story brick structure in relation to its single-family residential surroundings. Then again, a lodge chapter HQ would be far more likely to sit tucked away in a residential district than most other potential uses for this building, especially considering that the a structure such as this predates zoning (which remains a lightly applied practice in most rural Louisiana parishes).

In light of what the Anonymous poster said, it's surprising that dealership might have remained at its prime location this late in the game, especially considering that St. Francisville is clearly not stagnating. But the place it apparently removed fits perfectly with the "bypass highway" location that you mentioned.

david duvic said...

The Ford dealership is not on Hwy. 61. It is located right where it has always been. The brick building was a bank with offices upstairs. Again, always been there.

AmericanDirt said...

David Duvic, thanks for your comments and clarifications. Not sure between you and the original Anonymous poster who might have a lock on the location of the Ford dealership. But the fundamentals of my argument still stand, regardless.