The Path from Shopping Center to Town Center in Paramus - Part 2

The Path from Shopping Center to Town Center in Paramus - Part 2

Journeys into Paramus

Second Installment - The Early Vision for GS Plaza and Bergen Mall

If it's not the commuters or the shoppers, it's the construction that is likely slow you down around town these days.

It's a time of reinvention and evolution for Paramus.

From a new Stew Leonard's, the construction of a new Valley Medical Center, a new condo on Midland Avenue, multiple demolition of modern-vintage structures or a number of Town Center commercial ventures, Paramus seems to be bucking a trend of many similar communities that have been shopping center hubs.

It's an interesting story: How Paramus got to be the Paramus as we know it to day, and what Paramus is doing to make sure it continues to adapt to and evolve with the times.

A 1996 scholarly article at the Harvard DASH website entitled From Town Center to Shopping Center: The Reconfiguration of Community Marketplaces in Postwar America focuses on Paramus as it presents the story of how American commercial life was restructured in the postwar period during the suburbanization of residential life.

Our first installment of this series provided a historical overview to the factors that brought about the establishment of Garden State Plaza and Bergen Mall in the late 1950's.

This second installment looks at those who planned and executed the opening of the Garden State Plaza and Bergen Mall and the vision those developers, department store executives and local officials had. It was about commerce and but was about more - an interesting and refreshingly altruistic and optimistic perspective - especially when contrasted with what actually unfolded over the years and the dominant narrative today which to many seems to have significantly challenged, if not marginalized completely, that vision.

At first, developers had sought to legitimize the new shopping centers by arguing for their centrality to both commerce and community. Over time, however, they discovered that those two commitments could be in conflict. The rights of free speech and assembly traditionally safeguarded in the public forums of democratic communities were not always good for business, and they could conflict with the rights of private property owners-the shopping centers-to control entry to their land. Beginning in the 1960s, American courts all the way up to the Supreme Court struggled with the political consequences of having moved public life off the street and into the privately owned shopping center. Shopping centers, in turn, began to reconsider the desirable balance between commerce and community in what had become the major sites where suburbanites congregated.

But before all the consequences of that conflict became a reality, the Paramus shopping centers, and especially Bergen Mall, offered amenities  not elsewhere replicated.

For instance, in addition to the departements tores (Stwerns,Orbach's and Newberry's), there smaller retail stores, banks, supermarkets, auto service centers, theaters for foreign movies and live stage, a post office and a chapel.

The Path from Shopping Center to Town Center in Paramus - Part 2

But eventually, according to the author of the Harvard study, it became clear "that the mass consumption of postwar America created a new landscape, where public space was more commercialized, more privatized, and more feminized within the regional shopping center than it had been in the traditional downtown center. This is not to romanticize the city and its central business district. Certainly, urban commercial property owners pursued their own economic interests, political activity in public spaces was sometimes limited, and the priorities of women and men did not always peacefully coexist. Nonetheless, the legal distinction between public and private space remained significant. And still does so today, notwithstanding the advent of the "Town Square" appellation in lieu of the original Mall or Shopping Center description.

Subsequent to the initial writing of this piece, I came across a 2007 online comment reminding me that the section of the Mall to the east of Forest Avenue - now home of REI and Red Robin was initially designated that area as the “Bergen Mall Food Center”. There were two supermarkets: the squarish one was Food Fair (very visible labelscar on the brickwork as recently as a few years ago), and the other was — surprise! — one of Penn Fruit’s stores (in 1970 the store was Dale’s, PF’s discount division — may have been a “real” PF prior to that); the store was taken over by Glass Gardens Shop Rite in the early 1970s and remained a Shop Rite until that store moved to a new building nearby in (I believe) the late 1990s.

Today what was once Bergen Mall is called Bergen Town Center, but few of those amenities originally part of the Mall (post office, Broadway theater, community room, chapel and barber shop)  are to be found there today. A continues to be a meeting place but as to fit the times the vibe is a totally different one.

Photo credit:; Martha Szalay Scannell