Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"Paradise Lost"

I grew up in a small town south of Chicago Illinois.  As a post-war baby, and part of a generation that is growing older,  I find myself looking back into the past for enjoyment.  Many of us have social networking accounts, and have discovered long lost friends and neighbors through them.  Many, if not all, have moved away from the old towns and neighborhoods, and have put down roots all across the country.  But nearly everyone has paid a visit to the old haunts, and hangouts, and expressed shock at how they've changed.  Some have been re-purposed, some torn down, and others left to decay.  It's a common theme on the sites;  "I can't believe what happened to ________!"  You can pretty much fill in the blank with any place you went as a child.

Growing up post-war, we had an abundance of skilled people leaving the service ready to begin new lives.  They were confident, and ready to make their mark in society.  For many, returning to their hometown was the choice.  Working at the family business, and someday inheriting it was a rite of passage.  Locals shopped in the stores, hired local contractors for work, and kept the economy thriving.  As children, we were introduced to local shopkeepers almost like they were family.  They knew us by name, and often offered a small treat when we would visit.  Later, those same shopkeepers would give us our first job, and teach us responsibility.  Sadly, those shops are gone.

At some point in the 1950's and 1960's, Large shopping malls and strip malls came into vogue.  All the stores you would ever want, grouped together for convenience!  It was a real adventure going to a mall with more people than you'd see in a week at the local store!  Everything packaged and on display for you to buy, and then get on your busy way.  There was no small talk with the shopkeeper, no friendly greeting, just get in, buy and leave.  As the malls became more prevalent, the local shops began to close up due to lack of business.  They didn't have the selection, nor the prices the larger stores had.  One by one, they would vanish from the landscape, and more and more people were forced into the malls to buy their items.  The local grocery stores met the same fate at the hands of the large chain supermarkets.  The town I grew up in, had a population of around 2000, yet had two thriving grocery stores, yet by the time I was a teenager, both were gone.

As time went by, the thought of finding a job in a small town seemed impossible, as there wasn't much left to the business district.  Large chain stores would buy up land on the outskirts, and build their stores.  It had to be bigger and better, and higher profits for the corporate bean-counters!  With the change in business climate, came a change in the population.  More families were moving from the city, to the cheaper homes in the surrounding areas.  Their culture and lifestyles were a shock to the old timers, who moved away in droves.  Crime followed the newcomers, and became a catalyst to make even the hardiest old timer sell out.  The few hardy souls that stayed, found the value of their houses plummet as the crime rate rose, and what was once a "nice little town" become a "bad area".  It took less than a generation to undo years of pride and progress!

And now the same towns devastated by the influx of malls, are finding that the malls are failing as well!  I suppose it's poetic justice that the undoing of  Main Street,  has come full circle.  It's a pity we can't bring back the way things were....when they worked, and have to rely on memories and photos of our proud past!