It’s a trend one encounters all across the country, in large towns or small cities, of varying degrees of economic health. Almost instinctively, we know when we’re there—in the oldest part of town, usually co-located with the downtown. For the most part, it’s hard not to miss the central business district, which often amounts to little more than a main street.
In many cases it’s no more than a few blocks long, but in any city founded before 1930 (before the automobile redefined how we navigate through communities), it consistently features older commercial buildings, flush with the street and sidewalk. And whether the buildings are one floor or four, that street level offers storefronts with large windows intended to engage the eye and lure passers-by to the goods or services sold within.
But then, much subtler is that next layer in the urban transect: the oldest surviving residential quarter, right next to the main street. In the most well-preserved small cities, this may include homes that date from the founding of the municipality, or, at the very least, the dwellings of the prominent citizens whose enterprises helped the community grow to a size above and beyond that of a rural hamlet. For the sake of extending the analogy, I’ll call it the “Elm Street” (even though it may actually still be a different segment of the same main street). At any rate, these Elm Street districts rarely achieve the prominence of a downtown. Even when an old main street is ailing, blighted, vacant and lacking in any real attraction, the average person can still clearly identify it as the downtown. But the oldest adjacent neighborhood? Not so much.
While a host of different main street programs across the country have tried and often succeeded at shifting public attention back to the old commercial centers, it’s difficult to find many organizations with the same commitment to saving the adjacent residential quarter. The college town of Stroudsburg in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, seen in the above photos, illustrates why so many old neighborhoods lose their luster. In most respects, Stroudsburg’s main street is doing fairly well. Many of the storefronts are active: they offer plenty of options for the students at East Stroudsburg University nearby, but bars do not completely predominate. The shops include locally run businesses as well as national chains.
Many of the buildings look like they have undergone a recent renovation, suggesting that Main Street has re-emerged from a previous economic slump.
But the western side of town offers a different perspective.
While most of the rest of Stroudsburg’s commercial district looks good, the buildings at this far end still showed signs of neglect at the time of this visit in fall 2014. (It is important to note that, since the time of these photos, a developer has demolished the blighted corner building in the second photo above, making way for a new mixed-use building.) But just a block further to the west, one encounters the homes of what surely had to belong to Stroudsburg’s founding elite.
What happens to these homes when the downtown collapses? Through the vicissitudes of Stroudsburg’s economy manifest themselves most clearly in the commercial main street, the housing nearby has also taken a modest hit, though usually in a much subtler way. On first blush, these old homes in Stroudsburg look pretty good. Though they may not be quite at the standard of maintenance of a newly constructed McMansion, they’re generally holding up well, except for one critical detail: they aren’t really homes anymore.
The sign gives it all away: this isn’t a home office. It’s a law office. And the home next to it, with the patriotic bunting?
An insurance office. And across the street, it’s the same thing:
It’s a local branch of the YMCA. And the yellow house to the left?
I can’t recall its exact use, but the sign hanging on the far left in the porch offers the name of the business. So it isn’t a house either, nor is the building to its left. Meanwhile, the Stroud Mansion, standing on the next block to the west and dating from 1795, housed the family that founded this borough. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of it, but the Monroe County Historical Association website indicates that the Stroud Mansion now serves as a museum, library and headquarters for the nonprofit.
It’s a common occurrence. My suspicion is that it has been this way for quite some time, at least in a town the size of Stroudsburg. This shift echoes a narrative that has played itself out across the country. At the time that the prominent, wealthy families constructed these huge homes, household sizes were much larger; it was common for three or even four generations to live together in a home. After World War II, it became much more attractive for the young adults to separate themselves physically from their lineage when they were ready to marry and to start their own households. The number of occupants in these homes plunged, and all the extra space no longer seemed necessary. In the meantime, the aging structures became increasingly costly to maintain, and the income stream may not have been enough to justify the upkeep for outdated heating and ventilation, archaic kitchens or cramped old bathrooms. Concomitantly, the old commercial districts had begun to decline as well, reducing the desirability of this home’s location in the center of town. At some point, the old main street may have become so economically distressed that it no longer felt safe. The later generations no longer had interest in living on the Elm Street nearby.
By this point, these old homes had little choice but to find a new purpose, and it usually resulted in one of three options. The first one? The Stroudsburg scenario: a business conversion.
More often than not, the next tenant isn’t a resident but a small private practice, frequently offering one of the services captured in the acronym FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate). I’d be just as impelled to modify that acronym to RELIEF, with the L standing in for Law, indicated by the sign below, and the other E standing for Engineering.
Or create a creative acronym-anagram by adding an M and an A, standing in for Medicine and Accounting (or Architecture). At any rate, this conversion is common in districts where the demand for commercial uses outpaces demand for residential. It can happen in all types of settings, from pedestrian-scaled to car-oriented, urban to suburban, metropolitan and micropolitan. I blogged about an even subtler example on the south side of Indianapolis a few years ago, when I noticed that private homes built in the 1950s and 1960s along a prominent highway had become offices for small biz, complete with large parking lots in what had once been a front yard and with garages transformed into waiting rooms.
In essence, the western margin of Stroudsburg’s main street absorbed many of the borough’s largest and oldest homes into its fold. The commercial main street expanded as a milieu, and the structures that stood in the path of this expansion had to adapt. It’s a perfect example of how, when viewed through the lens of real estate, function follows form. The desirability of these homes as commercial properties, coupled with their loss of appeal as private residences, has forced the owners to find a new life for the structures, which often translates to selling them to business enterprises.
The conversion is a happy outcome for these homes. The fact that a lawyer or doctor or accountant wanted to start his or her practice as close to downtown as possible only reaffirms the importance of the main street as a center for goods and services. It’s a good fit: the physical layout of private homes is well suited for service-based businesses that do not rely on curb appeal. A fashion boutique or a shoe store would need the big windows on the first floor of a traditionally commercial building to showcase its merchandise, like these:
But a FIRE/Law/Engineering firm depends more or referrals, or advertisements, or even the Yellow Pages (and its online equivalent) to generate business, so big windows hold no advantage. In fact, these agencies might flourish equally well on the upper levels of the main street commercial buildings, right above the boutiques. They don’t need big storefront windows to promote themselves. But along Main Street Stroudsburg, where the streetscape is pretty good but far from perfect, the upper levels of the old buildings often still appear a bit distressed.
Thus, businesses choose to operate in the handsome homes nearby.
That ends the Stroudsburg story and the first of the three trajectories for aging residential buildings. What about the other two? The second option for a big home’s “next life” may be even subtler. More often than not, particularly in areas that experienced a rise in poverty around the historic town centers, the new owner of these homes punched out a new exterior door, installed a few extra walls, and effectively split them into multi-family apartments, often with a separate living unit for each floor. This solution was particularly common in areas that experienced a rapid increase in poverty (or a rapid out-migration of middle class), though it some cases, the neighborhood remained desirable but the house was simply too big. Thus, a formerly owner-occupied home for a single household became renter-occupied for multiple households. By most metrics, this is a less desirable outcome than the Stroudsburg narrative, because it indicates that a dwelling intended for an affluent family could no longer find a suitable buyer. However, the multi-family conversion hardly betokens the home’s demise: as a district’s economy improves, it’s easy to convert it to a FIRE-oriented business, or even back to a single-family residence, given enough demand.
The third and final “next life” for these aging mansions should, by this point, come as no surprise. In the most economically devastated communities, demand along Elm Street was so low that such homes couldn’t continue as either businesses or multi-family apartments. The owners no longer wanted to live in them, and they couldn’t sell them. The result? Abandonment, and, if they fell into significant disrepair, controlled demolition—or demolition by neglect. In some cases, the parcel that these homes once occupied was sufficiently close to an operating business that it might become a parking lot. Otherwise, a vacant, overgrown and trash-strewn lot was all that remained.
Historic preservation initiatives have attempted to mitigate against this worst-case scenario, with varying levels of success. After all, although local historic districts can create a layer of protection against demolition, they ultimately can only delay the action in the hope that a more preservation-minded buyer might snatch it up. Otherwise, barring municipal purchase of a home (such as the aforementioned Stroud Mansion), a private residence is the domain of its owner.
Not every old residential district has had to confront one of the three “next life” scenarios. Stable, cohesive communities may still boast a thriving mansion row, owned and occupied by a single family—sometimes even the descendents of the ones who built it. In some particularly preservation-minded towns, even the smaller homes in more modest-income older neighborhoods might remain intact. But the American standard for housing has experienced such a cataclysm over the last century that the majority of cities have seen some shift in the desirability of their oldest districts. And the changes in residential quarters have all too frequently transpired outside of the radar. Pennsylvania may be better equipped to handle it than most states, since its shrewdly-named Keystone Elm Street Program specifically applies the principles used in main street associations, but with a the adjacent residential districts as its preservation focal point. And, because an interest in historic main streets has proliferated beyond just a niche segment of the population, it’s possible that the same thing will happen to these still-threatened Elm Streets—and no one will care if the buyer is a family seeking a palatial, charming home, or a broker, realtor, accountant (lawyer, architect, dentist, etc) hoping to build a new customer base.