ORANGE AVENUE | CORONADO, CALIF. No doubt, it’s the quickest steelgirder- connected transition from urban grit to small-town, seaside charm: crossing the dramatic, boomerang-shaped San Diego–Coronado Bridge from downtown San Diego to the storied blocks of Coronado’s Orange Avenue — home to one of the country’s most successfully revived coastal resort communities.
In the late 1980s, Coronado’s Orange Avenue had a 35 percent vacancy rate, and the locals were wondering how to make this once-famous beachside community nice again. “We definitely needed help,” says Rita Sarich, executive director of Coronado MainStreet Ltd. “All of those beautiful historic buildings, frankly, looked like junk.”
That’s when a team of concerned locals put their heads together and scoured the country for a suitable revival model. “We hired a Main Street manager and began the four-point process on how to evaluate and fix up our downtown in a timely manner,” Sarich says. “The approach really turned this place around, and fairly quickly.”
Today, Orange Avenue is a pinup with rows of flower gardens lining its grassy, topiary-dotted median, drawing crowds of vacationers and window-shoppers over THE bridge from San Diego. Here, they can check out McP’s Irish Pub and Grill (an unofficial U.S. Navy SEAL hangout), Kippys (an apparel store famous for its embellished leather belts, jackets and jeans) and the Spreckels Building, a classical revival-style landmark that is home to a handful of retail shops and the Lamb’s Players Theatre. But the grand dame of this Great American Main Street Award winner is the iconic Hotel del Coronado, which has hosted generations of presidents and celebrities and sits at the end of a dozen or so blocks of resuscitated historic buildings that reach from the Pacific Ocean to the San Diego Bay. www.coronadomainstreet.com
MILWAUKEE AVENUE | LIBERTYVILLE, ILL. About 40 miles north of downtown Chicago, Libertyville is close enough to the Loop that visitors can hop on the commuter line at Union Station and, in less than an hour, be sipping a pint of handcrafted wheat ale at Mickey Finn’s Brewery. Or, they can be noshing on Kobe steaks and caviar potato chips at the Tavern. Or carving into a slab of dry-rubbed baby back ribs at the Main Street Smokehouse. It’s also far enough away to wonder where the heck Chicago is while you’re doing any of those activities.
“We’re in this giant metropolitan area, and yet there’s such a homey, small-town feel here,” says Pam Hume, executive director of MainStreet Libertyville, which just 20 years ago was dealing with 30 percent vacancy rates and boarded-up storefronts. “I think that’s really what attracts visitors to this place, not to mention a dozen new businesses which have opened up here this year.”
The epicenter of Libertyville — a town that was established in the late 1830s — is about four blocks of Milwaukee Avenue. Today, it is its own self-contained destination, lined with restored turn-of-the century buildings occupied by the kind of specialty boutiques and foodie stops where you’re chatting with the owner of the place a few minutes after entering. Some important doors along the way: Parkview Gourmet (the place for pepper jelly and other specialty foods, located just around the corner on Cook Avenue), Adrienne Clarisse Intimate Boutique (an award-winning lingerie shop) and Lovin Oven Cakery (a family-owned bakery where you can pick up fresh pies or enjoy some joe and homemade coffee cake).
Brags Hume: “We see a lot of Chicago crowds here escaping the big city on the weekends.” www.mainstreetlibertyville.org
MAIN STREET | NEW IBERIA, LA. When you think of an American city brimming with character and resilience, New Orleans may come to mind. But for a smaller, cozier little-Cajun-town-that-could atmosphere, you’ll have to drive 148 miles west, to New Iberia. Though the historic city was founded in 1779, its Main Street was a barren row of “closed” signs as recently as 2000, and its showpiece art deco theater, the Evangeline, lay in ruins. Today, its transformation is something worth applauding, preferably over a smokin’ plate of pork ribs at Freddie’s Not Yet Famous BBQ or a weekend concert at the gorgeously restored Evangeline (now known as the Sliman Theater for Performing Arts).
“I’d say we’ve been doing exceptionally well during some trying times in southern Louisiana,” says Jane Braud, New Iberia’s Department of Planning director. “Five new businesses have opened up in our downtown this year, and our community hasn’t lost an ounce of its strong-willed charm.”
Main Street’s landmark antebellum property, Shadows-on-the-Teche, which is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is open for tours, draws thousands of visitors. Other good finds along the city’s main artery include the town’s landmark indie bookstore, Books Along the Teche, where best-selling author and New Iberian James Lee Burke shows up for signings, and Accentrics, a boutique gift store fi lled with designer candles and locally made jewelry.
And the restaurants? “Let’s just say they do Louisiana’s reputation very proud,” Braud says. Favorites include Clementine Dining & Spirits, serving Cajun staples with live enter tainment on the weekends, and Pelicans on the Bayou, a swinging riverside eatery just a block away. www.cityofnewiberia.com
JORDAN RANE writes regularly for American Way and the Los Angeles Times. He lives and shops locally in the burgeoning community of Los Angeles.