Downtown Days Of Yore
The transformation of America's downtowns is not complete.
My wife and I, along with our two sons, spent Father's Day with my parents over in Cedartown. The old downtown area there is currently going through a makeover as set design crews transform Main Street back to the 1960's for the upcoming filming of a movie titled Jayne Mansfield's Car. This is a major production with stars including Billy Bob Thornton, Robert Patrick, Kevin Bacon, Robert Duvall, John Hurt and other familiar names.
We took dad downtown to check out the changes and walk the sidewalks of my and my dad's youth. For every child who grew up there, Cedartown was "our" town. The kids of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s walked or rode their bikes to downtown to grab a lemon sour from the soda fountain at Moore's Drugstore or buy toys at Allen's Five & Dime. We would pace frantically hoping to escape from our mothers' clothes shopping trips to Belk, JC Penney, or Stone & Allred, and perhaps sneak away to watch the Coca Cola bottles wiz by the sidewalk window at the bottling plant right there on Main Street. It was a history shared by many.
The story of Cedartown's formerly thriving, but now dead downtown, is a microcosm of how the world has changed in America over the past several decades. At age 80, dad remembers a lot of businesses that existed before I came into the world. When he was a kid, grocery stores like A&P and Kroger occupied small storefronts downtown. After World War II, these shops gave way to large freestanding grocery stores on the edge of downtown. Eventually the small full-service community grocery stores could no longer compete and they too disappeared.
By the 1960s the trend of building shopping centers anchored by general merchandise stores like Kmart and Grant's, along with major grocery and drugstore chains, was underway across small town America. One-stop shopping with wider selections of merchandise at lower prices put major pressure on old style downtown merchants. Soon some businesses like Belk and JC Penney along with barber shops and jewelers would relocate to the strip centers to take advantage of the large expanses of easy parking and high flow of customers going to the big box stores.
Within a few years, many downtowns, just like Cedartown's, were dead. As Walmart expanded across the nation during the 1980s and numerous major indoor shopping malls opened, the final nail was driven into the coffins of many of the few downtown survivors. Today, the "five and dime" is virtually extinct.
Though I reminisce about the old downtown days of my childhood, I love the big box stores and today cannot envision not having Lowe's, Home Depot, Kohl's, Staples, and the major grocery chains around. All of us have benefited from the economies of scale these merchants have introduced, with lower prices and huge selections of merchandise that we could have never imagined as kids.
Over the past decade we have witnessed another transformation with the rise of the online merchant. There are niche marketers of every conceivable product anyone can think of, again at lower prices than even many of the big box stores. Just as the major retail chains became an integral part of my life, I now find myself making a large percentage of my purchases over the Internet. Why drive from store to store trying to find a particular book or obscure product when you can find multiple merchants selling the item online at deep discounts and usually offering free shipping?
Over the past 20 to 30 years, many cities have worked hard to revitalize their downtowns with streetscaping, visitor centers and new collections of specialty merchants, restaurants and even loft living spaces. Cartersville and Rome are two examples of downtown areas that have experienced some success in keeping their downtowns alive, but it hasn't been easy for either. Unfortunately for Cedartown, its storefronts are largely vacant. The layout of the city, along with recent housing trends, will make any type of meaningful resurgence difficult, but that hasn't stopped them from trying.
Last Saturday my wife and I hogtied our sons and forced them into the SUV for a day trip up to Blue Ridge. OK, being the great sons they are they went willingly, but I'm sure it was not the way they would have preferred to have spent the day. We walked the crowded sidewalks downtown finding empty storefronts almost non-existent. This tiny north Georgia town has found its niche as an arts and crafts community, and numerous unique shops have sprung up to capitalize on it.
During our visit, I had nice lengthy conversations with several store owners. All of them indicated business was good and that the recession really hadn't impacted them much. The downtown in Blue Ridge stands in such sharp contrast to Cedartown's Main Street.
They say, as you get older you regress back into your childhood. I didn't realize I was that old yet, but I almost find myself being drawn to pack up and move to Blue Ridge with its vibrant downtown. Something magical is happening there.
However as I daydreamed a little about buying some property and building a new house there, I began to look at the big picture and analyze things. As enchanted as I was with downtown, I thought about the availability of regular everyday shopping. Yes, I could still shop online for many items, and Blue Ridge has a new Home Depot and a large Ingles grocery store, but the nearest Lowe's and Walmart are both almost 20 miles away in Ellijay. The drive to get to a Kroger, Publix or Kohl's would be even further. Shopping at Costco or Dick's Sporting Goods would take almost an entire day to get there and back.
As much as we like to look fondly back on the downtowns of our youth, they will never again be what they were back then. However, that doesn't mean they can't be something new. Some downtowns like Blue Ridge have found their calling and are thriving, while others like Cedartown are ghost towns. Lots of small towns find themselves somewhere in between.
Change is the essence of life, but where there is failure there is also opportunity. I have a feeling that a new generation of entrepreneurs and visionaries will find innovative uses for America's empty downtown storefronts, and hopefully future generations will grow up with fond memories of "their" towns.