From Main Street to Malls and Back - Part 2

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From Main Street to Malls and Back - Part 2

Journeys into Hackensack

Second Installment: Main Street Before the Malls

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.

Part one of this series provided an overview. This second part focuses on Main Street before the Malls.

Providing background for her analysis of Paramus, essay author Lizabeth Cohen writes of Hackensack before the opening of Garden State Plaza and the Bergen Mall (1957-58):

Before the Bergen Mall and Garden State Plaza opened in 1957, Bergen County shoppers satisfied their immediate needs on the main streets of Hackensack and of smaller surrounding towns such as Ridgewood, Fair Lawn, Bergenfield, and Englewood. For more extensive shopping, people went to branches of Sears and Arnold Constable in Hackensack (Franklin Simon too).

Even before the regional shopping centers opened, the huge influx of new suburban dwellers had raised retail sales in Bergen County from $400 million in 1948 to $700 million in 1954, an increase of 79 percent; by 1958, sales had increased another 23 percent to $866 million. Nonetheless, Bergen County residents in 1954 were still spending $650 million outside the county, almost as much as inside.

According to the article, the reasons consumers routinely gave for shifting from downtown stores to shopping centers varied, but the overwhelming motivation they articulated was convenience-the ability to drive and park easily, more night hours, improved store layouts, increased self-selection, and simplified credit like the charge plate. The Pratts concluded that shoppers were not so much dissatisfied with New York and Hackensack stores as attracted to the ease and "progressiveness" of shopping center shopping. People seemed to share the developers' sense that shopping centers were "the modern way to consume".

Interestingly, though, states the study, while overall patronage of stores in surrounding downtowns declined as shopping-center patronage increased, researchers discovered that the story was not so simple; some local stores were benefiting as Bergen County residents became less dependent on New York. Small purchases that shoppers would have made alongside larger ones in New York were now handled closer to home, often in locally owned shops in small downtowns. A large town like Hackensack, however, did not benefit as much as a Ridgewood or Englewood, since it was being displaced as a major shopping site by the shopping centers, and its stores were less likely to foster the same kind of loyalty to merchants as shops in small towns. In fact, within a year of the shopping centers' opening, major shoppers used Hackensack a third less; as a consequence, 50 percent of the retail establishments on Main Street reported they had done less business than the previous year. By 1960, 10 percent of the stores on Hackensack's Main Street had closed from competition. Bergen County residents were restructuring their consumption patterns by substituting the new shopping centers for New York and for closer, large shopping towns like Hackensack, while continuing to shop-mostly for convenience goods and services-in the small town centers near their homes.