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High Street (or the High Street) is a metonym for the generic name (and frequently the official name) of the primary business street of towns or cities, especially in the United Kingdom. It is usually a focal point for shops and shopkeepers in city centres, and is most often used in reference to retailing. However, in recent times the phrase "High Street banks" has been widely used to refer to the retail banking sector in the United Kingdom.
The equivalent in the United States, Canada and Ireland is Main Street, a term also used in smaller towns and villages in Scotland and parts of rural Australia. In Jamaica, North East England and some sections of Canada and the United States, the usual term is Front Street. In Cornwall, some places in Devon and some places in the north of England, the equivalent is Fore Street; in some parts of the UK Market Street is also used, although sometimes this may be a different area where street markets are currently (or historically) centred. In Canada, King Street and Queen Street are often used instead of Main Street (which is more prevalent in the United States). The Dutch equivalent is Hoogstraat, of which examples are found in cities such as Brussels, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bruges, Rotterdam and many towns.
In more recent times, especially with the introduction and growth of the Internet, High Street may also be interchangeable with the term "bricks-and-mortar business" in the United Kingdom (note the spelling with the "s", compared to the United States term "brick-and-mortar"), referring to the material used in the construction of a retail shopfront operation versus an online Internet operation.
Beginning about 1,000 years ago the word "high" evolved into a term also referring to excellence or superior rank ("high sheriff", "high society"). "High" also applied to roads as they improved; "highway" emerged during the 17th century to replace "high street", and "High Street" began to be used to describe thoroughfares with significant retail areas in villages and towns.
In recent years, although "High Street" is still used to refer to commerce shopping has begun to shift to purpose-built out-of-town shopping centres and supermarkets. However, compared to the United States town and city-centre shopping remains widespread. The town centre in many larger British towns combines a group of outdoor shopping streets (one or more of which may be pedestrianised), with an adjacent indoor shopping centre. The presence of chain stores on High Streets in settlements around the UK is part of the clone town theory, which has among its concerns the loss of "sociability" offered by traditional shopping. "The demise of the small shop would mean that people will not just be disadvantaged in their role as consumers but also as members of communities – the erosion of small shops is viewed as the erosion of the 'social glue' that binds communities together, entrenching social exclusion in the UK."
High Streets are far-less-commonly seen in Ireland. Neither of Dublin's two main shopping streets (Grafton Street and Henry Street) carry this name, nor does its main thoroughfare (O'Connell Street). While Dublin has a High Street near Christchurch, it is not a shopping street. The city of Cork's main shopping street is St. Patrick's Street;Limerick's, like Dublin, is also O'Connell Street (the name is used in a number of other Irish towns in honor of Daniel O'Connell).
Main Street is used in many smaller towns and villages. For example, the OSI North Leinster Town Maps book lists sixteen "Main Streets" and only two "High Streets" in its thirty-town index of street names. Similarly, the OSI Dublin Street Guide (covering all of Dublin City and County Dublin) lists twenty "Main Streets" and only two "High Streets". Killarney and Galway are two of the few large Irish towns in which the shopping streets are named High Street. Nonetheless, the term "high street" is often used in the Irish media to refer generically to shopping streets.
The term "High Street" is used to describe stores found on a typical high street to differentiate them from more specialised, exclusive and expensive outlets (often independent stores)—for example, "High Street banks" (instead of the less-common private or investment banks) or "High Street shops" (instead of boutiques).