I have vague childhood memories of my father taking my late brother and me to go shopping at Woolworth, or to see Santa Claus at AM&A’s during the holidays. I am of the millennial generation who never experienced Buffalo in its glory years. Illuminated more clearly through historic books, photos, and oral history, I only saw that prosperity draw its final breath when AM&A’s and Woolworth both closed during the 1990’s.
My parents and grandparents are of the generations where there was still major retail in the central part of the city. Each Buffalo neighborhood had endless streams of mom-and-pop shops, anchored by major department stores. These stores originated in the late 19th Century, and had multiple locations across New York State throughout the 20th Century, making Buffalo a national competitor for retail development. The city’s biggest department stores were located downtown in a commercial corridor known as Shelton Square. It was there where AM&A’s, LL Berger, and Woolworth were located, just a few names from a time when “Main Streets” were the life blood of local neighborhoods.
Few people today would recall these department stores, or would even know of Shelton Square’s existence. This beacon of prosperity was once compared to New York City’s Times Square, housing dozens of iconic hotels, banks, theatres, and department stores. The entire corridor was destroyed in the late 1960’s in yet another example of a city too eager to erase its own history. The siren of “progress” at the time drowned out calls for reconsideration, thus wiping out Shelton Square’s 70-year legacy in only three short years.
The resulting Main Place Mall opened with 50 stores, but was quickly overtaken by its suburban rivals: Boulevard, Eastern Hills, McKinley, and the Walden Galleria. The mall today barely has enough open shops to justify its place in the retail market. The food court has become antiquated by the number of “hot-spot” restaurants that are sprouting in the downtown area.
From the time I began to study Buffalo’s rich history, the deliberate disinvestment in central retail development has been a deep puzzle to me. What happened to the times my parents described so vividly when local merchants were integral to the Western New York economy? Today’s local economy has long-favored sprawl development as the accepted norm, yet due to apathy from city, county, and state legislature, we lack such resources as a viable transit system to justify it. This principle is self-evident in the ongoing struggles of WNY, compared to the self-sufficiency of New York City.
Studying the hustle and bustle of Downtown Buffalo’s Main Street from the early 20th Century would give an outsider the impression that this was a different city. Among a generation that has only known a city barely treading 250,000 residents, and in an era where the nearest Wal-Mart determines the future of a local economy, the Buffalo that once boasted a population of over 600,000 evokes a strong sense of mythology.
In stark contrast to the legacy of Shelton Square, today’s Main Place Mall sits idle upon the original axis of Niagara, West Eagle, and Main Streets. 50 years after first opening, it continues to operate with no plans for the future. The building’s dark, monolithic appearance is a haunting symbol of Buffalo’s current retail market. If you’re out holiday shopping, you would barely be able to spend a day downtown, if it were not for The Market Arcade, and a few of the successful Queen City Pop Up businesses that found permanent homes.
Detailed suggestions on how we can do our part to improve Buffalo’s economy will be covered in Part III.