Monday, June 13, 2011

My Hometown: An Essay in Support of Main Streets

"Now main street's white washed windows, and vacant stores. Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more."

It was in the mid-1980s New Jersey son Bruce Springsteen sang these words in My Hometown, but they are as relevant as ever in 2011.

One of my favorite American painters is Edward Hopper, and of his collection I always am drawn to Early Sunday Morning. I saw it recently at the Whitney in New York City. I never noticed it before, but a tall building looms on the right side of the scene, and the audio guide mentioned it was a symbol of how the great juggernaut of technology and commerce was going to steamroll the current way of life.

I want to take you on a tour of some spots in my hometown, Emerson, New Jersey, where I was born and raised. I don't live here anymore, but do live in the same county. Unlike other communities, I can't point to the loss of a specific industry here (say, the auto industry in Detroit) for how the retail landscape has changed. But what has transformed here has and is happening in towns all over this nation. The juggernaut of online retailing, mega malls and food stores have indeed steamrolled the way of life I knew just one to two decades ago.

Not much of a community feeling here anymore. Growing up, this center looked very different. It included a Grand Union supermarket, a bowling alley, a pizza parlor, a deli, a cafe, a Chinese takeout, and Wendy Drew clothing store, among some others. I still remember buying my mom a nightgown as a Christmas present as a kid at Wendy Drew, seeing a special showing of Heidi at the movie theater, and eating pizza with my sister after going to see the Breakfast Club.

Now, it's a massive Stop & Shop, a Marshall's (a discounter of home goods and clothing), a dollar store (so cheap for a reason, but we think little of the workers who toil for us for the $1 goods, or the toll on the planet), a wireless world (I increasingly think bad for our health) and a bank. Depressing.

A puppy store and a psychic have been recent additions. Millions of shelter dogs are executed each year while people pay hundreds of dollars for a puppy that came from who knows where. Out of the entire town, this store saddens me the most.

A shuttered gas station that's been here as long as I can remember. An eye soar to the community.

A strip of stores, including two for rent, which were a Subway sandwich shop and a beauty parlor. A floral shop also went out of business across the street. The strip isn't much to look at, but here is a great bagel store, a nice jewelry shop, a deli, a doll shop and a hearing aid store.

Growing up, I still remember coming into the long-closed bakery with my dad and marveling at the rainbow sprinkle cookies. Bakeries, remember when town's had those? I really miss them.

In My Hometown, Bruce Springsteen contemplates packing up his bags and heading South, and telling his son, just as his own father did at the beginning, "Son, take a good look around, this is your hometown." I can't help think of the current exodus out of Detroit, like pioneers who sought a better way of life leaving all that was familiar to them. When you look around your hometown, what do you want to see - Costcos and Targets?

In an age of budget cuts to libraries, schools, and police officers badly needed in inner cities, somehow the state of New Jersey is managing to muster funds to bailout a failed mega retail development formerly known as Xanadu which has been rechristened - how I wish I was making this part up, "The American Dream." Every time I see pictures of it I think how ridiculous - there is New York City in the background with all of its culture, and here we are in New Jersey with our behemoth mall that sits on environmentally sensitive marshland.

My American dream is not a mall. I hope it's not yours either. My American dream does include thriving main streets, and I hope yours does too. I want to take "a good look around" and see bustling local restaurants, bakeries, chocolate shops, cafes, crafts stores, movie theaters, book shops, record stores, consignment and charitable thrift shops, and so on.

Please feel free to share your story of your hometown, your favorite main street memories, and hopes and fears about the existence of them in the future in the comments section.


  1. Walmart and Monsanto destroyed my hometown. Or hometowns, rather, as I can 2 childhood towns home. In my MO hometown, Walmart built its box just outside the city limits, so that they wouldn't have to pay city taxes. Bit by bit, folks started buying their wares from the "discount" giant, and our little town square died. There used to be annual harvest festivals, a couple of clothing shops, a hardware store and later a video store. There was even a JCPenney! We managed to have Penneys and still have 2 other clothing shops. But once Walmart came, that was the end of that. It's mostly shuttered now and sad.

    In my KS hometown, which was largely a farming community, Monsanto and their ilk came in with their mega farm ways. Families who had lived on their farms for generations simply could not compete. I remember taking Sunday drives and seeing "STOP MEGA FARMS" signs on the side of the road. Then came the Walmart, the McDonalds, etc. and the place went to crap.

    In my current city, several mom and pop shops were forced out due to imminent domain "laws" to move in big box stores. Can you believe that? They were given less prime real estate so that the box crap could have center stage. Somehow, it was legal. Unbelievable.

    The homogeny of our cities drives me insane. I do not want to travel to a new area, only to see a freakin' Olive Garden. I want to taste the flavors of that region and buy the wares of folks from that community. I have no interest in sending some billionaire CEO who lives in a distant city more money. I buy local every chance I get. Most days, I feel like it’s the only vote that counts.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story. The imminent domain law story is outrageous, as is what's happening to all of our communities. Voting with your dollar is so right. What do we as a nation really value?

    I feel like putting some "STOP MEGA FARMS" signs up myself. Or "I support farmers, not chemists." Or "Apples (the fruit) before Apple (the company).

  3. "I support farmers, not chemists." Or "Apples (the fruit) before Apple (the company).

    I love that so much! I'm stealing it. :)

  4. Steal away! How about also, "Support Organics, Not Oncologists" or "Feed Your Body Blackberries, Not Your Mind With a BlackBerry."

  5. I think you just started a new t-shirt line. :)

  6. Well, my hometown is a backwater suburb of Manila that began as a dump and probably has remained a dump to this day. It is architecturally challenged unless you are attracted to rusting galvanized iron sheets and rotting wooden clapboards. But, really, I don't consider Bacood my hometown. River Edge is more like it since I have lived there for the last 27 years, from a young man to the salty, old croc that I am now.

    Anyway, there are several nail salons in town. I was hoping that quaint cafes, like Cool Beans, would take their places but no. River Edge is mostly residential, with two undulating hills framing it. Kinderkamack Road is it for business and the only mom and pop place I can think of is Mazzone's Pizza. He's been in business since the 1960s. The other place is Ideal Shell. Ok, it's a service station but it is an institution in RE. Vinnie and the boys are great, honest people. Heck, I stop by to give them a 6-pack even if there was no occasion, just appreciation. I reckon RE is about people, not places.

  7. Hi Ted. Thanks for sharing your story as well. I love cafes for a meeting house for conversation, or even reflective time alone with a paper or book. I wish we had more of them.

    People, not places, isn't that so right?

    I love that River Edge still has a good diner, and is home to the Bergen County Historical Society, which celebrates so many forgotten traditions.