“We had 10 million pigeons in that urban renewal area. When Purina was there, they had tons of seeds around, and people fed them. The street sweepers would throw popcorn to them. We had pigeons all over. They perched on rooftops and chimneys. Our office in the old City Hall was in the boiler room in the basement. Every once in a while, I would hear a THUNK. We’d go over and look under the flue, and there was a pigeon. It would sit up on the top of the chimney, and the gas would get him. Down he’d come. They disappeared with urban renewal. Gradually they came back and found new places to perch. You go over to Kmart now, and they’re all sitting up there.” -Wally Konopka, engineer for the City of North Adams
So where do the pigeons go now? More importantly, what about the senior citizens at the high-rise, the MCLA students, and the folks downtown who don’t have cars? Where do they go? Do they walk to Wal-Mart, which is at least a mile down Route 8? I never thought I’d be nostalgic for Kmart, but here I am wishing it were still here. So do a lot of others I have talked to.
We all have our reasons. For me, as a visiting writer and photographer, it was a convenient place to get film and batteries for a good price, use the inside pay phone when it rained, seek temporary shelter from cold winter winds, and go to the rest room.
Most of us over 50 are nostalgic for the five and dimes, such as Newberry’s, Woolworth’s, and Grant’s. Large chains such as Kmart came along and swallowed them up. But the five and dimes were chain stores, too. When they arrived in town many years ago, they took business away from the little Mom and Pop stores. They could pool their resources and buy merchandise from big suppliers who charged lower wholesale prices for large accounts. So the Mom and Pop stores began to fade. Nostalgia for those little stores is often the subject of conversations among our oldest citizens.
“When I finally decided after so many years that we couldn’t have a vacant lot there anymore, I got Kmart interested, and I also got the stores on the corner built. Otherwise, I think it would still be empty. I just felt something had to be done. As much as people would have liked to see Filene’s or some high-class outfit, it just wasn’t to be.” -the late Joseph Bianco, former mayor of North Adams
There was a lot of opposition to the idea of filling the empty urban renewal site with Kmart. A referendum on the proposal narrowly passed, and many people still regret it. William Boland, who served as president of the North Adams Redevelopment Authority in the 1970s, said:
“My opposition to Kmart was mostly due to the physical layout. I felt that what we were doing was taking a strip center and just superimposing it in our downtown. You had Main Street, then the blacktop, then the store. If we could have reversed it and had the front of the store on Main Street and the parking behind, it would have still looked like a Main Street.”
City Clerk Mary Ann Abuisi recalled: “A lot of developers were interested in the property, and each time one would come along, you would hang your hat on a new idea and get excited. It’s amazing to think we did all of that and ended up with Kmart.”
And now Kmart is gone. Everybody wants to know what is going to replace it. Will it be Target? Kohl’s? Filene’s (finally)? It may be a tough sell. Most big-box stores are located in or near a mall, off a major highway exit, and in a large metropolitan area. Subdividing the building into a variety of stores presents problems. It would still be necessary to have one big anchor store that could attract shoppers to the other smaller stores. A common space inside the main entrance would create a potential loitering problem that might require police presence.
“Every time I’m downtown, I think, ‘What a shame that we don’t have what we had that was beautiful.’ It’s cheap looking, the Kmart and the L-shaped building. That’s all quickly-built stuff with no character.” -Erika Uchman
One thing is certain. The closing of Kmart presents the city with an opportunity to reconsider the design of the south side of Main Street. Looking across the street from the Bean, it is obvious that one of the great disappointments of urban renewal is the resulting L-shaped mall, which presents a faceless, pointless façade of dysfunctional architecture. With Brooks Drugs about to go, it is time to think about marketing this site again to someone who is willing to buy it from the current owner, tear down the buildings, and put up a row of modest but architecturally appropriate two-story buildings with storefronts below and apartments above.
As a resident of Northampton, I know that part of what makes the downtown so vibrant are the hundreds of people who live above the stores. For them, Main Street is their front yard. And like the front-porch sitters we remember before air conditioners and TV, they keep watch on their community, and their visibility adds richness and comfort to summer evenings.
Whatever happens, we must be sure that there are stores and restaurants downtown that provide the products and services that meet the everyday needs of its ordinary citizens. The economic revival of the city is already attracting businesses that cater to tourists and citizens with a lot of disposable income. This is good. We want those folks to visit and spend their money, and we want them to come back. I am all for dressing up North Adams in fancier clothing. But please, let’s go easy on the jewelry.