Soon after Virginia Wright moved to Corning in 1958, when her husband, Jerry Wright, took a job at Corning Glass Works, she went downtown with her six-month- old baby to look around, and "I came home and cried. There were basically only bars and men's shoe stores. I thought, 'I can't raise a family here.'"
The downtown catered to the men who worked at Corning Glass Works—not their families. Virginia wasn't the only one who noticed that there were problems on Market Street. Vacant storefronts plagued the street. The buildings sported an odd assortment of neon signs and aluminum siding. The street had lost the foot traffic and vitality of earlier generations, and it was happening across America. Businesses were disappearing to the mall or suburban shopping centers. The hardware stores, bakers and grocers, diners, and candlestick makers that energized Main Street were gone, and with them the soul of the town.
Virginia and a friend, Jean Wosinski, the wife of a Corning Glass Works scientist, wanted it back, and during the 1960s and '70s, they, along with city leaders, business owners, and others, helped spark a movement that reinvigorated Corning's historic Market Street, and offered a model for renewing main streets across the country.
The pair created a presentation, complete with a slideshow and accompanied by Petula Clark's song "Downtown," detailing the neglected beauty along Market Street's 125 buildings, richly adorned with Nineteenth Century moldings, ornamentation, and ironwork—a beauty the women said needed to be restored and preserved to lure businesses and shoppers back to the main street.
The idea took root. In the early 1970s, resisting "urban renewal" plans that would have demolished 175 downtown Corning buildings, Market Street began to look backward. Grants funded professional recommendations from architects and preservationists, public exhibitions, and a pilot program to improve building façades. Corning executives traveled to other cities to see their restoration projects, like San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square and New Orleans' Vieux Carré. Tom Buechner, founding director of the Corning Glass Museum, returned from New York City, and led the charge.
In March 1972, the Corning Foundation gave $72,000 to establish a Market Street Restoration Plan. The subsequent 1972 disaster of Hurricane Agnes was a counter-clockwise storm cloud with a silver lining—the rebuilding community went back to the future.
When federal relief funds came in, the community built brick sidewalks, created a park, and planted more than 100 honey locust trees.
Norman Mintz, a former antique shop owner and graduate student at Columbia University with a master's degree in historic preservation, arrived in 1974 to lead the new nonprofit Market Street Restoration Agency (MSRA). As a full-time "main street manager," Mintz and Corning became a model that inspired the National Main Street Program, which has thus far assisted 1,200 towns in the U.S. and Canada to get back to the future. Now the MSRA is part of Corning's Gaffer District, which leads the way, and in 2013 reported $5 million invested in building rehabilitation, storefront vacancy at 8 percent, and the triumph of Corning voted the most fun small town in America, with a downtown Virginia Wright could now proudly enjoy. "It's just thrilling," she said.