The University of Chicago Press has published Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal by Gabrielle Esperdy, an associate professor in the New Jersey School of Architecture at NJIT.
Esperdy’s research and teaching focuses on urbanism--the study of the urban environment, its buildings, infrastructures, institutions, and all things that support and shape them.
“Despite what many people think,” Esperdy said, “What we could call suburban and urban today are utterly intertwined. Who can say where the city ends and the suburb begins? This is especially complicated in a state like New Jersey which has a strong urban tradition in the sense of defined, albeit small-scale, communities. In this state now the concerns of smart growth are forcing a reconsideration of conventional suburbia. Many people would like to make the state more dense and less car dependent.”
Esperdy also teaches the history of modern architecture.
Her book looks at an important part of the New Deal, the modernization credit plan. The plan helped transform urban business districts and small-town commercial strips across 1930s America, but it has since been almost completely forgotten. In Modernizing Main Street, Esperdy uncovers the cultural history of the hundreds of thousands of modernized storefronts that resulted from the little-known federal provision that made billions of dollars available to shop owners who wanted to update facades.
Esperdy argues that these updated storefronts served a range of complex purposes, such as stimulating public consumption, extending the New Deal’s influence, reviving a stagnant construction industry, and introducing European modernist design to the everyday landscape. She goes on to show that these diverse roles are inseparable, woven together not only by the crisis of the Depression, but also by the pressures of bourgeoning consumerism. As the decade’s two major cultural forces, Esperdy concludes, consumerism and the Depression transformed the storefront from a seemingly insignificant element of the built environment into a potent site for the physical and rhetorical staging of recovery and progress.
Esperdy received her doctorate in architectural history from City University of New York. Her bachelor’s degree in the same subject is from Smith College.