Easy on Main

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to participate in a Zoom book launch of Mindy Thompson Fullilove’s latest creative endeavor, Main Street. I plead guilty to a certain partisan partiality here, because I wrote its foreword. A hundred-plus kindred tuned in across global time zones, drifting in from Japan and France, the UK, onwards over both US coasts. But the real epicenter of the encounter was Orange, New Jersey, Mindy’s hometown, base camp for her political and educational exploits. If ever there were any awards for a New Jersey “organic intellectual” (in the Gramscian sense), Mindy would bag the lot each year. Friends, family, and a diverse array of people touched and influenced by her work, several New Jersey town mayors included, all joined in the party, feting Mindy.

Main Street appears as another instalment of Mindy’s attempt to ward off bad urban karma. She may hail from the East yet acts like the Good Witch of the North, knowing that behind every evil spell lies a counter-spell to undo it, one that can change the course of the hurricane. She knows that while there are plenty of evil spells fracturing US neighborhoods, counter-spells can unite them; that while evil spells create division and hate, counter-spells spread joy and love; that while evil spells turn life into a dark puzzle, counter-spells unpuzzle, make life collectively human and thrilling.

One of Mindy’s best spells is no hocus pocus. It insists that communities discover what they’re FOR, find something that might bring people together in a positive sense, affirming the creative, not merely denouncing the negative. Part of this magic is earthily unmagical; it asks communities to look within themselves, to see what they’ve already got, to reclaim their hidden assets, not just commiserate their more obvious deficits. It’s as easy, and as complex, as ABCD—Asset-Based Community Development. Find solidarity, celebrate your achievements, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

Such a spirit infuses Main Street, her companion volume to two previous hits, Root Shock and Urban Alchemy, the fulfilment of an urban trilogy pursuing the theme of what’s wrong and what’s right about urban America. Scott Fitzgerald said in The Crack-Up that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” Under the awful presidential watch of Trump, this is the agenda Mindy has now set herself.

Mindy’s text was written before Covid-19 assailed the world, killing and upending social life as we once knew it. But with its priority accorded to acts of human kindness and community solidarity, Main Street’s program is crucial during crisis. Implicit within its pages is the message that those old inequities, the short-term greed and divisions that pervade our society, that have been manufactured by our leaders, can no longer cut it; business-as-usual economic distancing must never return. As I write, not a few of Mindy’s Main Streets will see their commerce on the brink of collapse, if they haven’t collapsed already. An early victim was her beloved Irish pub, Coogan’s, in Washington Heights, shutting its doors under New York’s March lockdown, never to reopen. (A special part of Mindy’s book launch was presenting a “Love my ’Hood” award to Coogan’s former owner Peter Walsh, a man now pledging to fight for small businesses throughout the land.)

Some of the wonderful characters she introduces to us may also be no more. And yet, Mindy shows us why these Main Streets lived on so vibrantly in the first place, and why it is vital for our public health that we keep them in life. At a time when presidents and prime ministers bully and sprout lies, Main Street assembles a series of gentle voices and honest testimonies. We listen up as Mindy scours the Main Streets of a hundred and seventy eight cities in fourteen countries. Her avowed mission is nothing less than “to discern the contribution of Main Street to our collective mental health.”

Mindy’s Main Streets are full of cells and soft tissue where streets are arteries that need to flow to nourish the entire body politic. But Main Streets need independent structuring as well, a particular set of architectonics in order to function healthily. They’ll require clear demarcations, specific relationships to surrounding buildings, and definite borders—borders that are open and porous, that loop and curl into backstreets, that have walkable links and accessible transit connections all around. Main Streets need to be discrete though not too discrete: they can’t be ghettos hacked off from the rest of the city, engulfed on all sides by busy highways.

Mindy has drifted through a lot of Main Streets, walked them, observed, talked to people, ordinary people as well as professional practitioners. While she got to pace many miles of New York’s Broadway, ate French patisseries as a flâneuse in Gay Paree, sipped çay in Istanbul, and chilled in Kyoto’s dazzling Zen temples, her real concern is Main Street, USA, the more modest main stems of provincial America. There, she paints her canvas as sensitively as Edward Hopper, touching up with a few hues he left out. She has us journey to Baltimore and Brattleboro, Charlottesville and Cleveland, Memphis and Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and St. Louis. Many more of her Main Streets are closer to home, in New Jersey—in Asbury Park and Englewood, in Jersey City and Livingston, in Maplewood and Newark, in Tenafly, and, of course, in Orange.

She even pays homage to Sauk Centre, Minnesota, with its daddy Main Street of them all, the Main Street Sinclair Lewis used for Main Street, his 1920 allegory of the narrowness of small town USA. “Main Street is a frustrating book,” Mindy writes near the end of her own Main Street. Carol Kennicott, Lewis’s protagonist, “is perfectly good and perfectly inept,” she says. “But the narrator’s deeper impatience is with the status quo and its ability to suck the life out of good people who want to make things better.”

It’s hard to imagine life getting sucked out of Mindy. During her launch, she read out passages from her book, and we got a flavor of its paean to the complexity and diversity of human life, to the beauty of it, but also to the difficulties of it. While listening, I could visualize Mindy strolling through Main Street America on a sunny Sunday afternoon, looking and hearing, interrogating the cityscape with compassionate embrace. For my bit in the evening’s proceedings, I suggested that if ever she needed a theme tune for these jaunts, and for her book, I’d like to propose Thelonious Monk’s “Easy Street.” It’s a number that bobs along with the same playfulness, the same lyricism, the same dissonant chords and off-kilter rhythms of urban daily life itself, and of Mindy’s evocations of it.

Nonetheless, there’s a little dialectical twist to the jaunt: Easy Street is something of an ideal rather than a reality these days, a vision that’s economically and politically under fire. Easy Street’s sweet life won’t come about easily. None of this, of course, was lost on Monk himself. We might remember that “Easy Street” appears on his album Underground, released in 1968, a year as racially fractious and fraught as our own. Its sleeve image has become almost as famous as the music inside—Monk at an upright piano, in his beat-up subterranean lair, coming on like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, a resistance fighter and urban guerrilla glaring at the camera, telling us he’s taking no more fascist shit.

It’s quite probable, then, that for Main Street to become Easy Street, for love to trump hate, we’ll need to engage in similar combat, in some kind of struggle and resistance, battling the injustice and autocracy everywhere in our midst. And so I think Mindy leaves us with a vision of urbanism and society not only worth endorsing and cherishing, but also something to fight for, to struggle over. Thank you, Mindy, for giving us such a precious gift of hope, a tool kit for our post-pandemic future.

 

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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