While I was lightly napping today (13 February 2005), I had recurring thoughts of a field overgrown with weeds next to pavement. Then I thought of a store with an outside display, possibly of baked goods, and an unmanned cash register. In my mind, I started walking up a hill that I knew well. As in all my dreams, it all seemed surreal.
I’ve had this dream thought before, and it surely relates to the South Shore Plaza across from the trailer park where I grew up. Rte. 20 was on one side; Rogers Rd. was on another. A third side bordered an overgrown area next to a house’s backyard, while the back parking lot/delivery area faced an overgrown area that buffered the plaza from modern apartment buildings. (Even Hamburg was becoming 70s urbanised.)
It seems odd that I would have some deep emotional attachment to a piece of suburban blight like South Shore Plaza. I’m not sure when it opened — probably in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Most likely, my parents went to the grand opening. The plaza was anchored by three major stores: a grocery store (Loblaw, A&P, perhaps some others later I don’t remember); Hens & Kelly, a somewhat upscale department store that gave out Green Stamps and where I got my ears pierced; and a discount chain store (Neisner, Big N, K-mart, perhaps others).
Among the other stores were a Your Host restaurant (diner-style chain, with counters and tables), Carvel Ice Cream (the chain is still around!), Edie Adams’ Cut & Curl salon, a drugstore whose name I’ve forgotten, and other specialised stores.
The plaza was catty cornered and downhill from the trailer park, so we did a lot of shopping there. The first grocery store had a tiled lobby area with gumball and toy machines; I remember seeing the elderly Mrs. Clarke and her chihuahua Tiny there one evening as she waited for her family. Apparently, Tiny was a one-woman dog and didn’t even like Mrs. Clarke’s daughter and son-in-law, with whom she lived. But Tiny was always happy to see me; whenever we visited them, on Abbott Rd. off Rte. 20, he would spend the evening blissfully cuddling with me. When Tiny died, Mrs. Clarke told everyone that I was the only other person he had ever loved.
The plaza was across the Bethlehem Management Club on Rogers Rd. (now privately owned as Brierwood Country Club). On July 4, we, along with many others, would arrive at the plaza parking lot to watch the club’s fireworks from our car (later, our van). It was one of those traditions that children look forward to and teenagers disdain. (I do think I always looked forward to it to a lessening degree as a change in routine.)
Within 10 years or perhaps less, the plaza was already in decline. The local economy, built on Bethlehem Steel and Ford Motor Company, was poor, and the energy/fuel crisis of the early 1970s was probably a factor. Even Hens & Kelly, which I think was sold, eventually closed, with the once-upscale space being taken over by a discount warehouse-type store.The anchor stores kept closing and then re-opening months or even years later under another brand, only to close again. Then the smaller specialty stores became things like a dollar store and a secondhand bookstore. Everyone in Hamburg who still had jobs and money was flocking to the new, more respectable malls in other suburbs like Cheektowaga. The death blow came when a mall with all the popular chain stores opened in Hamburg itself.
I have an aerial photo from 1995 showing the plaza. The last time I saw it was in 1999, after a class reunion. It had fallen into disrepair, and there was not much left aside from a couple of random stores and a bar at the upper end. It would be a wonderful thing now just to tear it down, to rip out the massive parking lot, and to let it revert to a field and then woods, or, more likely, to make it into a housing development.
What I remember best about the plaza was a courtyard between Hens & Kelly and the next store up. It was simply raised ground with plantings, where you could sit on the cement and relax. I’m not sure why I liked it so much; it was usually shady (there may have been an overhang), quiet, and used mainly by people cutting through to the back parking lot. My childish mind found it different, even mysterious — an odd oasis connecting the very different front and back of the plaza and that still evokes a pleasant, even interesting feelings.
In my half-awake state, I think I realised why my early memories of the plaza mean so much to me. It was my town square, the center of my community, a destination, a change in routine, where we went to see and buy things and where we would run into Mrs. Clarke and Tiny or one of my dad’s Ford coworkers, where my mother would go faithfully to Edie Adams’ Cut & Curl for her monthly perm — all within walking distance, if we were so inclined, or a hop in the van away. That the plaza was in its prime and served as this center for only a few years and that it is now a blight and has been one for 35 years doesn’t matter; the memories, the good feelings, and the sense of timelessness I felt in that courtyard do.
Link added 17 March 2006: Hens and Kelly in Wikipedia