Let’s go downtown

Mike StatonThis post by Mike Staton.

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Remember these lyrics?

When you’re alone, and life is making you lonely

You can always go

Downtown.

When you got worries, all the noise and the hurry

Seems to help, I know.

Downtown.

O'Neil's at ChristmasNeed a hint?

Petula Clark.

The British singer recorded Downtown way back in 1964, the year I turned 13.

The song composed by Tony Hatch has always summoned wonderful memories whenever I hear it. The tune’s words take me back to Akron, Ohio; San Bernardino, California; Wadsworth and Marietta, Ohio; and cities and towns in Florida and North Carolina. I go back to downtowns in their heyday, Christmas lights twinkling in the night, and to modern times and empty, dilapidated buildings, sad beauties missing their finery.

O'Neil's Christmas storefrontMy earliest memory of a downtown? Akron. I couldn’t have been any more than four. I’m standing in front of a department store’s Christmastime window display, ogling the animated figures. Not too long ago my cousin Candy reminded me of how our moms would take us shopping in downtown Akron and we’d eat in the Tea Room on an upper floor of O’Neil’s. Candy remembered I loved custard. More than 60 years later – and she somehow remembered. I’ve included three photos of Akron’s O’Neil’s department store – traffic in front of the store at Christmastime, the store’s first floor and a storefront window with holiday finery.

Main floor O'Neil'sWhen five, I found myself in the backseat of our 1950s Ford stationwagon traveling Route 66 to San Bernardino, California, our new home. Dad worked for B.F. Goodrich, helping to build ICBMs for the Defense Department. Mom worked part-time for the downtown J.C. Penny’s store. Again, it’s Christmastime I most remember about that Penney’s department store. The upper floor had the most wondrous toy spectacles anchored by train elaborate train displays. I’ve included a photo of the outside of San Bernardino’s Penny’s store.

By the time we moved back to Northeast Ohio in 1965, downtowns were beginning their painful decline, losing competition to suburban malls. Chains closed their downtown department stores and moved into the spiffy new malls. I was 14… easily impressible. Not until years later would I realize that city fathers all across the country had done nothing to save what had once been vibrant downtowns.

JC Penney San BernardinoBy the 1980s towns like Leesburg, Florida, were trying gimmicks to try to induce folks to return to the downtown to do shopping. I worked as a newspaper reporter in Leesburg and could see that it take more than one-way traffic and pedestrian walkways flanked by flower beds to bring shoppers back to the downtown. Retail businesses have to choose to move back to the downtown. When I left Leesburg for Wilmington, North Carolina in the late 1980s, town fathers had torn up the concrete planters that jetted into the street and returned the downtown to two-way traffic.

For the next thirty years town leaders would continue to try to find the panacea that would restore their downtowns to their former glory. It proved elusive. Towns like Wallace, North Carolina, and Lancaster, Ohio, remain plagued by vacant buildings just an indigent-discarded burning cigarette from a fire. They continue searching for the successful government/entrepreneur financial planning needed to bring boutiques, gift shops, art galleries, bakeries, ice cream shops, playhouses, and bookshops. Modern malls often resemble the downtowns of old, so I know there’s a yearning to step back into the golden age of downtown shopping.

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I’m an author with four published novels that include a sword-and-sorcery fantasy trilogy – The Emperor’s Mistress, Thief’s Coin and Assassins’ Lair. The fourth novel is a historical romance set during the Civil War. It’s called Blessed Shadows Dark and Deep. I’ve begun writing my second Civil War novel – Deepening Homefront Shadows. All my novels can be purchased via the website of my publisher, Wings ePress, as well as the websites of Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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12 thoughts on “Let’s go downtown

  1. I miss the downtowns too. They seemed more of a community than the modern shopping malls. The downtown in our city has been rejuvenated somewhat as a large western store has existed for many years while others come and go. They made an apartment building out of one huge brick building with a market and sandwich shop at street level there. Some wonderful small eateries have helped sustain the area, but many businesses have come and gone since the malls were built. We have a downtown art walk once a month to help breathe life into our downtown too. But, it seems larger cities must struggle to keep that downtown alive.

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    1. Sounds like there’s a strong effort to bring back your downtown. Last night Sharon reminded me of Town Square in Vegas, an outdoor mall designed to look like yesteryear’s downtown. Malls wrecked downtowns, now mall designers are trying to make their places look like downtowns.

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  2. I miss the Downtown. I was raised in the Country, Parlersburg, WV and sometimes Pomeroy, Oh. I loved going there any time, but especially Christmas. I remember walking the streets, Jack Frost nipping at my nose, beautiful displays and Christmas music coming from each store. Thanks for being up those lovely memories. Now I shall go listen to that song. Happy Good Friday. He is Risen. Cher’ley

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  3. I’ve seen a revival of old down towns, mostly in small towns on the fringes of big cities. As the cities grew to meet the small towns, the small towns became suburbs, and it breathed new life into the town square.

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    1. That’s fantastic. Glad to see there are some success stories you’ve come across. What’s the commercial mix downtown in those suburbs that were once small towns? What kind of businesses are locating in those downtowns? Are they using tax-rebate incentives to attract them. So many old, neglected buildings often need rehabilitated.

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  4. I keep hearing people who are sad that our mall is struggling to compete with online retailers. Makes me chuckle, because they once were sad that the mall was shutting down the downtown businesses. Now smaller boutiques can compete online. The mom-n-pops are trickling back to our downtown, with their online shops helping support the brick and mortars. It’s an interesting time! Hopefully our downtown can find its vitality again 🙂

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  5. I still love that song. I grew up in a small town about halfway between Austin and San Antonio. At Christmas, Joske’s Department Store, in San Antonio, where we went several times a year, decorated the upper floors for walk-throughs at night. (Back in the good old days when stores closed before dark.) My family went the year I was ten; I remember a tableau of Santa and elves in soft blue light–and that’s all. Everything was beautiful and magical, but specifically, nothing remains. There was a little train that circled the Joske’s parking lot. By the time we finished shopping, my feet were always killing me, so the train was my favorite part of every trip. Before Easter, we made a pilgrimage to Scarborough’s in Austin, only a few blocks from the Capitol. There was valet parking; we waited behind a glass wall and could see the car coming down a spiral ramp. Or that’s how I remember it. Funny that parking made more of an impression on me than the Christmas decorations did.

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