MY NEIGHBOR THE MALL
I grew up next door to a mall, literally a few hundred feet away. On a recent visit back to my hometown in upstate New York, I reflected on how we had all grown up together – the mall, my hometown, and me. We all have places that have marked time in our lives, perhaps a place such as this that we return to at different intervals in our lives, or a place that evolves with us, that stays with us daily.
In 1967, my family, following a predictable pattern, fleed our somewhat grim inter city beginnings for the unbridled optimism of the suburbs. This suburb, like so many in the US, exploded after World War II, thanks to the automobile. This remarkable 1946 photo shows what would be our future subdivsion, then a farm to the left, and the future mall site, then at that time, a brand new drive-in theater. A poetic portent to the future.
After the subdivision was built, the drive-in theater was replaced with “The Plaza”. It was an L-shaped, arcaded affair, as seen all over the country. But it was home to several local department chains , as well as grocery, drug, and hardware stores. There was a barber shop owned by a neighbor, and a liquor store staffed by my uncle.
However, the “planning” at that time provided no pedestrian connection from where we lived to this center. It was a 2 mile drive out of the subdivision and back down to the mall- and that placed you back not 500 feet from our home. Eventually, a path was burrowed through the wilds of an adjacent empty lot. For us kids, this was our glorious world, – the path”, that wound past the “pond”- (a rather filthy stormwater outflow), “the field” (a vacant lot of wonders), and on to “the plaza”, or mall. So ill-conceived by today’s standards I suppose, (no play structures in site), but it seemed to have all we ever needed. The path and field- our blank and “wild” tableau of a playground, and the plaza- our entrée to the rest of the world.
There was no center to our suburban town, so this shopping center was as close as we got to a shared ‘main street’. Several times a year, a carnival came to the big parking lot (at a certain age, a big deal- rides, prizes, strange food, all offered up by exotic people from “other states”). It hosted Fourth of July fireworks. The plaza and its surroundings marked time; childhood explorations in the field and pond , adolescent adventures at the carnival , our first beers as teenagers behind the plaza loading docks, and ,finally, my first job at a local drugstore chain in the plaza- Carl’s Drugs.
And we all got older. In the early 80’s, I went away to college, and the plaza was converted to a mall. The arcade gave way to tenant service doors, blank walls, bit included a multi-plex!, and a ‘glamorous’ mall entry! The national chains moved in, replacing many of the local chains (including my old drug store). The liquor store and barber shop closed, and the carnival stopped coming . The old local one screen theater down the street closed, seen here.
And our “field” was filled in by a grim new concrete block post office. But the intrepid locals carved another path, this time between a set of apartment buildings , past a furniture store loading dock, and on to the mall. The path was less well-worn- my old neighborhood was getting older, fewer kids around. Then came a big regional mall a few miles away, and that was the beginning of the end. Our old plaza/mall gasped its last breath in the late 90’s.
Last year on a visit home, I needed some socks. So, I walked to the path- it was gone- tudor style office building now stood there. There was now no way to walk except a mile up the road, and a mile back down the other side. Here’s my route, an all too familiar development :
I walked along the busy 4-lane road leading to the new plaza, rechristened the “ Commons”- now a SuperWalmart and a Lowe’s. The Walmart sat on much of what was the old plaza, and I suppose, contained much of what used to be sold there. I found my socks- aisle 73B. I also could have bought snow tires, had an eye exam, and gotten a home loan, , and eaten a hot dog, had I been so inclined.
As I was leaving, I noticed a few photos on the wall next to the front door. They were “hometown” photos, including one of the old plaza. I smiled at the ‘Greeter’, walked outside, accidentally heading for the field, the path, and the pond.