Malls had begun to kill downtown before I was conscious of either. As I wandered through the streets and alleys of Springfield’s core as a “tween” I couldn’t see the evidence of decline because I had never seen what it had been like when it was truly healthy. In retrospect I was witness to the transition of retail dominance alternating visits to the Eastfield Mall and Baystate West but not knowing that the Woolworth’s at the former was the reason for the vacant building near the latter; I purchased my Rolling Stone
T-shirt just the same.
There may have been a toy store downtown, in later years there was one inside Johnson’s Bookstore, but I bought all my HO toy train stuff at the Kay Bee Toy and Hobby at the mall.
What did I buy downtown? Records at Belmont Records, “food” at the Orange Julius, Friendly’s, or at the deli in the food court. I enjoyed being downtown more, but I spent more of my paper route money at the mall.
By the time I was living downtown with my wife and, eventually, two daughters 10 years later I could wait for Christmas Eve to do all of my shopping at a mildly bustling, but not too busy Steiger’s and the aforementioned Johnson’s. They would both be gone before my daughters could shop in them as tweens.
I remember a glorious trip to a short lived would be replacement for those two venerable stores with my oldest, Xela: We wandered from the Classical Condominium down to whatever that pseudo-TJ/Marshalls/K-mart/ seconds shop was called and bought two arms full of art-work, pillows, lamps and assorted crap for her “new” bedroom; we were giving the girls separate rooms for the first time. On the way down we heard people speaking English, Spanish, Russian, and Vietnamese. On the way back we had a burger at a little diner in the SIS building.
The crappy, pseudo department store has since been replaced by a storefront college. The burger place is a print shop.
On Thursday 12 year old LuLu and I got a chai tea (her) and a hot chocolate at Kringle Candle as the early snow made us both feel as though we had given Thanksgiving a miss and had jumped right in to Christmas time. We bought her mom two little gifts. We saw workers just starting the job of getting the outdoor skating rink ready.
Downtown is on its umpteenth iteration of creating a new storefront paradigm. It never ends. What was a family owned furniture store becomes a Family Dollar on one side, and a little family owned department store on the other. The small building next door was razed for parking but the lot sits completely empty except for the owner’s SUV 100% of the time; anyone with a car can get to a better place to shop. I bet they regret not having more space for inventory now, especially since they wouldn’t need to pay anyone to plow their shelves of excess inventory when it snows.
Eastfield Mall is dead. I haven’t been there in years. The owners have widely published a plan to make the area which was the mall a “town center”. It’s far enough from downtown to become the center of its own pseudo neighborhood I suppose. Is there demand enough for living in that sort of place in such a slow growing region as western New England? Perhaps, it is moderately well serviced by public transit and is surrounded by healthy Springfield neighborhoods as well as other thriving towns. On the other hand Springfield’s “other Main Street”, Main Street in Indian Orchard, has great bones, a nice layout, and could be (and for my money should be) the center of that same area miles to the east of downtown Springfield. I’m not sure there’s energy enough for both of them.
Another mall just across the Connecticut line, just as close to downtown Springfield as Eastfield Mall but to the south, is all but dead; it was valued at close to 300 million dollars just over a decade ago but is up for sale for just about a penny on the dollar today.
What this all portends for downtown I don’t think anyone can say for sure; the decline of the old nemesis does not guarantee a return to health. Having witnessed so much of this one particular rivalry play out all of my financial and emotional investment is for the traditional downtown to continue to survive somehow by making itself at least somewhat useful to someone in some way at least some of the time.