From Main Street to Malls and Back

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From Main Street to Malls and Back

Journeys into Hackensack

First Installment: Overview

Press releases and newspaper articles these days describe the start of a new chapter for Hackensack. The construction cranes lend support to those claims. There is a discernible buzz around town.

The present day return of a positive image to downtown Hackensack seems to be finally reversing a downward trend that started in the early 1960's. A 1996 scholarly article at the Harvard DASH website entitled "From Town Center to Shopping Center: The Reconfiguration of Community Marketplaces in Postwar America" casts 1950's-60's Main Street Hackensack as a leading character in the story of how American commercial life was restructured in the postwar period during the suburbanization of residential life.

In its introduction the essay spends a considerable amount of time laying a historical foundation. It explained that New suburbanites who had themselves grown up in urban neighborhoods walking to corner stores and taking public transportation to shop downtown were now contending with changed conditions. Most new suburban home developers made no effort to provide for residents' commercial needs. Rather, suburbanites were expected to fend for themselves by driving to the existing "market towns," which often offered the only commerce for miles, or by returning to the city to shop. Faced with slim retail offerings nearby, many new suburbanites of the 1940s and 1950s continued to depend on the city for major purchases, making do with the small, locally owned commercial outlets in neighboring towns only for minor needs.

By the early 1950s, large merchandisers were aggressively reaching out to the new suburbanites, whose buying power was even greater than their numbers.6 The 30 million people that Fortune magazine counted as suburban residents in 1953 represented 19 percent of the U.S. population but 29 percent of its income. They had higher median incomes and homeownership rates, as well as more children fourteen and under than the rest of the metropolitan population, all indicators of  high consumption.

Merchandisers also realized that postwar suburbanites were finally living the motorized existence that had been predicted for American society since the 1920s.

As consumers became dependent on, virtually inseparable from, their cars, traffic congestion and parking problems discouraged commercial expansion in central business districts of cities and smaller market towns, already hindered by a short supply of developable space. Reaching out to suburbanites where they lived, merchandisers at first built stores along the new highways, in commercial "strips" that consumers could easily reach by car. By the mid-1950s, however, commercial developers-many of whom owned department stores-were constructing a new kind of marketplace, the regional shopping center aimed at satisfying suburbanites' consumption and community needs. Strategically located at highway intersections or along the busiest thoroughfares, the regional shopping center attracted patrons living within half an hour's drive, who could come by car, park in the abundant lots provided, and then proceed on foot (although there was usually some bus service as well). Here was the "new city" of the postwar era, a vision of how community space should be constructed in an economy and society built on mass consumption.

Well-designed regional shopping centers would provide the ideal core for a settlement that grew by adding residential nodes off of major roadways rather than concentric rings from downtown, as in cities and earlier suburban communities.

The  Harvard essay being cited here analyzed the larger social and political implications of the shift in community marketplace from town center to shopping center. Its star was Paramus - and by extension Main Street Hackensack of that era.

Next Time: Life in Hackensack before the Malls