A couple of things came to my attention this week that really drove home how much the world I grew up in has simply vanished. First, an odd little site called Syracuse Nostalgia, really more about the suburbs and their malls than the city whose retail they wiped out, features a newspaper supplement from 1975, when the Shoppingtown Mall in DeWitt was re-opened as a "modern" enclosed shopping mall. (This came several years after the two big Capital District malls opened, Colonie Center and Mohawk Mall, and they were a few years after the mall trend had really blossomed). Of the 74 stores that were present when Shoppingtown Mall opened, a number were small national chains (Thom McAn Shoes, Tops 'n' Bottoms, Fanny Farmer Candies), but there was only one national anchor, J.C. Penney's, though a short-lived W.T. Grant's would open soon thereafter. The other department stores were all local or regional -- Dey Brothers, Addis Company, Flah's -- and the smaller shops, such as jewelers, record stores, clothing boutiques, were mostly owned locally. There were three fabric stores and a yarn store, plus fabric departments in at least two of the department stores; with the recent closing of Alfred's, there's now one sizeable fabric store serving the entire Capital District. Of the 74 stores that opened 33 years ago, whether local or national, I think 5 survive: Baskin-Robbins, CVS Drugs, J.C. Penney, Orange Julius, and the retailer that can survive nuclear war, Hickory Farms. And the idea that a mall might have (or even want) locally owned stores? That went out with buggy whips.
Second, and reaching further back, I came across a 1928 Polk's Directory, the precursor to phone books that listed every business and residence in a city. In this case, I found the listings for the City of Rensselaer, the northern fringes of which I live just beyond. Rensselaer was always small to be called a city, just a few thousand people, but it had some significant industry -- the Bayer aspirin plant (later Sterling Pharmaceuticals, now gone), the Huyck Felt Mill (later Albany International, now also gone), and the Grasselli Dyestuff Corp., successor to part of Bayer's operations, which later became GAF, then BASF, then (of course) nothing. In 1928, this tiny city had 40 grocery stores -- most of them no doubt tiny closets by modern standards. There were five A&Ps scattered throughout the city. Today, allowing for a convenience store and a couple of bodegas you wouldn't dare set foot in, there may be six -- but there's really only one grocery store you'd recognize as such. There were 19 places listed as "confectioners and ice cream" -- 19 ice cream stores. Nine dressmakers, four florists, 10 meat markets, and five laundries (two noted as "Chinese"). Today? None of that. All that thriving, flourishing, creation of wealth, all that community -- all those jobs and lives and families bettering themselves, all gone. There is nowhere to walk to. We have to get into a car and drive to a megastore to beg some bored cashier to take our money which gets sent off to who knows where. There is no business left to support our communities, our athletic leagues and ball fields; there are almost no local banks that have any stake or concern for how our economy is doing.
I grew up in the kind of village where you could walk anywhere and get most things you needed right in the village (and that particular village is still very much that way, almost frozen in time). I had hoped to pass some of that experience along to my children, but things didn't work out that way. Will they miss the Target when it's become something else? Will they have fond memories of the box theater whose name changes every couple of years? Will the Dunkin' Donuts (or one of the five in our little town) be their version of the Hometown Bakery? Hard to imagine. One way or another, time will tell.