One has to be at least 60 years old to remember driving Evansville’s Main Street as a two-way thoroughfare with four lanes, regular streetlights, and lighted department store windows lining the wide street. Main between Second Street and what was known as Seventh (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) was officially closed to traffic in 1971.
The walkway was completely renovated in 1986 with brick pavers and new décor plus the introduction of the gas powered “trolley” buses we still see today, an outcome of the 1984 Downtown Master Plan. In 2002, one-way traffic was again permitted, in an effort to assist new businesses and increased economic activity in a moribund commercial area.
Evansville’s Downtown in 1956 was the retail and commercial hub of the city. Almost all department stores including Sears, Schears, Salms, and J.C. Penney, among others, were located on or near Main Street. Dozens of restaurants, service establishments, and small retailers were Downtown, too. As with most other American cities at the time, large-scale population shifts had occurred in Evansville with exponential growth to the eastern suburban areas, and north of Pigeon Creek along First Avenue. With this explosion in housing, savvy developers built large shopping centers (Lawndale and North Park in the late 1950s) and even Indiana’s first enclosed mall, Washington Square in 1963.
Downtown merchants — many who opened other locations in these new areas — began to see a serious degradation in their profits at the Downtown stores. Then, in the mid-1960s, Evansville began its urban renewal program, resulting in the demolition of many buildings in the city core.
In 1959, Mayor Bill Davidson had attended a conference in Toledo, Ohio, where he witnessed an interesting phenomenon then popular with urban planners: a Downtown pedestrian mall created from a closed Main Street. He brought this idea back to city planners, and they convinced the Downtown Merchants Association to try an experiment. From Oct.11 until Dec. 31, 1959, three blocks of the then bustling Main Street were closed to traffic.
It was popular at first and the talk of the town. As the last month dragged on, however, merchants were getting tired of complaints about parking issues (no large parking garages existed then) and after the promised date, the experiment ended. However, by 1970, retail Downtown had shrunk considerably, and the area had become mostly parking lots surrounding a desolated Main Street.
Mayor Frank McDonald Sr. and his planners decided to resurrect the old idea of the pedestrian mall. A sum of $800,000 was left over from the newly-constructed Civic Center (which cut off Main at Seventh), and the decision was made to use funds to completely reinvent Main with a walkway. Construction kicked off in April 1971 and the walkway debuted in October, 12 years after Davidson’s experiment.