This piece was originally published on the excellent Stand in the Place Where U Live website published by Dr. Sharon Holland’s students in American Studies 701 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is republished with permission of the author, Josh Parshall, who is now the Director of History at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
While walking from my apartment on the 100 block of W. Main St. to the farmer’s market last Saturday, I took a different route than usual. Instead of turning with Main Street and approaching the market from the east, I continued straight onto Jones Ferry Road and walked up Laurel Avenue from the south. Although the second route was new to me as a pedestrian, it actually reflects a much older history of the roads, as current-day Main Street from a block west of Greensboro Street almost to Chapel Hill was once part of Jones Ferry Road. My regular walk, by contrast, follows Main Street as it veers to the north, so that I make a right turn while remaining on the same road.
Until recently, I had not thought much about Main Street, the turn at the beginning of the 200 West Main block, or how much of the street runs on the former path of Jones Ferry Road. In daily life, the naming, marking and mapping of streets is a straightforward process, seemingly a matter of representing what is already there. For the curious student of people, roads and cities, however, it might be worth thinking about how and why a stretch of continuous road is renamed and linked to another, leading in turn to questions of what a road is and how it is made. This essay will consider the historical and present-day processes that, in the language of the Dutch scholar of science and medicine Annemarie Mol, enact Carrboro’s Main Street as a (relatively) stable object through a variety of material-semiotic practices, while also attending to how these practices do or do not manage the multiplicity that results from differing enactments of the street.1
I have chosen to take up Mol’s terminology for several reasons, but for now I will address “enactment.” By describing things—all kinds of things—as enacted, we emphasize that they exist through process and in practice, and that they are not already “waiting out there” to be described.2 In other words, so-called natural or material worlds do not precede our investigations of them, but emerge and change through continual interactions between human and non-human things. This is not to say, however, that matter or nature are merely blank surfaces onto which humans project meaning, as in (admittedly simplified) accounts of social construction. “Enactment” is not merely the prerogative of knowing minds, but occurs through the interplay of living and nonliving things alike. As Mol argues, the term avoids performance’s slippery relation to reality, construction’s eventual stability, and the theoretical baggage of both.3
Much of Main Street’s current route predates Carrboro by decades. Jones Ferry Road existed, at least in some sense, by 1867, when it was referred to as “the road from Chapel Hill to Jones Ford on the Haw River.”4 In the early 1900s, Jones Ferry Road was known by its current name and stretched from the western edge of the new mill town to Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill.
As shown on the above map, what became Main Street was known as Jones Ferry Road as late as 1915, and there was no road connecting the current Main Street/Rosemary Street intersection to Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.5 Another map from the series reflects the development of a small business district along this corridor on what would now be the 100 and 200 blocks of East Main Street.6 Following a 1924 fire, several frame buildings on the 100 block were replaced with “good examples of modest early-twentieth century brick commercial buildings.”7
The establishment of these businesses—mostly grocery and dry goods stores—indicates that the future Main Street had already begun to distinguish itself from the rest of Jones Ferry Road well before its name was changed, probably in the 1920s. To put it another way, the construction of commercial buildings and the business practices carried out within them enacted a particular section of Jones Ferry Road in a way that differed from other parts of the road. By attending to the role of things like buildings, automobiles and consumer goods in such a process, we might tell a story that more clearly accounts for the persistent and unpredictable effects of human-made objects (among other things).
By 1932, the name Main Street had been applied both to the downtown blocks of the former Jones Ferry Road and to the street that continues to the northwest, and at the eastern end of the street an extension had been built to meet Franklin Street at the western edge of Chapel Hill (see the above map).8 These sections were paved in 1927.9
It might but be tempting to refer to this as an act of naming or renaming, but enacting Main Street was not merely a matter of installing new signs and updating maps. On the 1932 Sanborn map of West Main Street, a series of businesses mark the continuation of commercial activities on the road as it turns to the northwest, while the route out of town on the now truncated Jones Ferry Road features only a few residences. Thus, a restaurant, an auto repair shop, a building supply store and a filling station worked in tandem with the materially embedded discourse of street signs and maps to smooth over the unification of one road and the shortening of another.10 Even in this partial account of Main Street’s creation, then, it is apparent that the process included not only material and semiotic practices, but also practices in which matter and meaning were enmeshed.
So far, this history of Main Street Carrboro has emphasized the ways that different enactments of the street have produced a stable and unified thing: a paved road with an accepted name. If we accept that the street comes to exist through enactment, however, we must conclude that it will exist differently in various cases—that how, when and where it is enacted, as well as what things it is enacted in relation to, will all determine what kind of street comes to be. Although there might be one street, its existence is multiple.11
In the present account, we have already had at least two significant enactments of Main Street. In relation to transportation, the street is a relatively smooth and even surface that leads traffic in two directions. Wheeled vehicles (generally) travel on the right side of the road, and painted lines, stop lights, bike lanes, and signs all help to regulate the flow of traffic. The street also exists as a civic space, however, with sidewalks and storefronts that encourage pedestrian shopping and a variety of face-to-face encounters with fellow citizens. While these and other enactments of Main Street are often managed in such a way that they do not disrupt one another, it is worth attending to some of their differences in order to track the multiplicity of this single road.
Even though the street in which I drive is differently enacted than the street on which I shop, these enactments are coordinated to the extent that the practices of each support or, at least, do not interfere with one another.12 As mentioned above, the commercial and civic practices that take place “on” a street can help to enact the street as a continuous route.
Of course, multiplicity on Main Street is not just about distinctions between transit and commerce; each mode of transportation enacts a different street. Under normal circumstances, cars and trucks enter and exit the street only at well marked points—intersections and driveways. In automobile practice, the street’s edges are only permeable in defined regions. Pedestrians behave very differently, though, especially in downtown Carrboro. Not only do they (we) tend to disregard traffic lights, but they (I) also cross the street outside of sanctioned paths. The street works differently for humans-on-foot and humans-in-cars, and sometimes the needs of the two come into conflict. When a group of jaywalkers slow down a column of traffic, the street as a pedestrian space takes precedent, but when a car fails to yield to someone at a mid-block crosswalk, the street is enacted primarily as an automotive route.
In addition to the street’s existence as a social/commercial space and transportation route, it also serves as an infrastructure corridor. The 1915 Sanborn map shows pipes carrying water and sewage to and from the textile mills north of the future Main Street, as well as train tracks crossing the road at the site of the depot.13 Currently, the street is also flanked by electric and telephone wires, an arrangement that makes these lines accessible for repairs but also restricts traffic when large trucks are needed.
So, I’ve given a partial description of the historical enactment of Main Street Carrboro and provided a quick survey of the ways in which its current existence is multiplied by differing practices, but what do we gain from this? As I have suggested above, this type of account tries to overcome a pervasive duality between social/human and material/non-human actions and actors. We can describe a street as human-made, or we can describe it as the product of humans, cars, signs, trees, and all sorts of other things. Through the second version, we can avoid the unnecessary and misleading work of extracting processes of discourse and meaning from the other workings of the world. “Main Street” is certainly loaded with symbolic value; the name itself recurs ad nauseum in conversations about national politics, even as the relations between specific Main Streets, (trans)national networks of goods and capital, and “Main Street” as a cultural-political cliche remain woefully unexamined. While a humanities scholar might be drawn to focus solely on the systems of meaning that make “Main Street” so ubiquitous in American discourse, we would do well to remember that its symbolic value remains inseparable from the varied functions of specific Main Streets, past and present.
By asking scholars to generate more robust descriptions of process and relation among humans and other things, enactment allows us to better understand all the ways that human agency is distributed through complex relations. While many humanities scholars (and some social scientists) have developed sophisticated critical tools for addressing “social” phenomena, successful interventions—whatever form they take—may need to engage the things around us—whatever forms they take—to enact “better shared worlds.”14 As Mol suggests, this might lead us away from a “politics of who” and toward a “politics of what,” through which we address the conflicts and contradictions of multiply enacted buildings, streets and cities, rather than limiting ourselves to the human categories that are so often co-enacted with such mundane things.15
1 Annemarie Mol, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice, (Durham, North Carolina: 2003). On Actory-Network Theory and “material-semiotics” see John Law, “Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics,” in The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, Bryan S. Turner, ed., (Oxford, 2009).
2 Mol, The Body Multiple, 32.
3 Ibid., 32, 40-43.
4 Orange County Deed Book, Vol. 39, pg. 312, cited by Mark Chilton in “Carrboro: From Forest to Mill Village and Beyond – Historical Geography, City Planning and Sense of Place,” blogpost on Wandering Through the NC Piedmont (23 January, 2010), http://piedmontwanderings.blogspot.com/2010/01/i-would-like-to-begin-by-saying-that-i.html. Accessed 5 May, 2014.
5 Sanborn Map Company, “Chapel Hill, Orange County, North Carolina, December 1915,” (New York: 1915), pg. 6. Available online: http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ncmaps/id/7011. Accessed May 5, 2014.