For those who don’t understand the cultural reference, the idiom “jumping the shark” is used to denote the moment when something has surpassed its relevance—when it has become irreversibly bad; irredeemable. The phrase comes from the climactic scene in a 1977 episode of the show Happy Days, when the gang visits Los Angeles and The Fonz, answering a challenge to demonstrate his coolness, water-skis up a ramp and jumps over a confined shark.
To be sure, by then—shark or no shark—the show had become a shadow of its former self. Two years earlier, when Happy Days was at its peak, Fonzie executed a motorcycle jump over a “record” 14 garbage cans in the parking lot of Arnold’s Drive-In. It was ambitious for a sitcom, it was during the height of the Evel Knievel craze, and it was fun. But after he jumped the shark, many viewers—including yours truly—knew that the show was past its peak and clearly going downhill. For example, Fonzie ridiculously wears his leather jacket for the jump. The Fonz, the ultimate in cool, became very un-cool. Happy Days went on for another seven painful years after that, bringing in such characters as Chachi and the alien visitor Mork from the planet Ork.
What does this have to do with downtown Springfield? Simply put, at some point (Do we know exactly when?), downtown officially ceased being a shopping destination for both Springfield residents and suburbanites and, on the whole, became a place to avoid.
Below: Foot Locker in 1986
In some ways, this is a difficult blog post to write, because I had defended downtown for decades. “It’s all overblown,” I said about the crime. And, truth be told, downtown Springfield is mostly safe. If you’re not wandering around there drunk at 2:00 a.m., chances are that you’re not going to get beaten, stabbed, or shot.
That being said, some serious shit does happen at ALL hours of the day and night downtown. Just ask any cop: it’s not the O.K. Corral, but you just have to keep your wits about you, as you would in ANY urban center. “You’re safe,” I insist to people. You might have to ignore the junkies and alcoholics, and politely brush off the panhandlers, but this is a necessary evil in all cities, right? Hell, I did it in Boston for 21 years.
However, perception is everything, and from a public relations point of view—from a shoppers’ standpoint—downtown Springfield jumped the shark long, long ago. But when? Can we pinpoint the exact moment? I believe I can. It happened on December 12, 1980, when hoards of assholes beat and horrified holiday shoppers in front of the Baystate West shops. This was the Associated Press story:
FIVE TEENAGERS CHARGED
WITH ASSAULTS ON SHOPPERS
SPRINGFIELD, MA (AP)—After a gang of between 50 and 100 youths allegedly marched through downtown Springfield Friday, police say they arrested five teenagers on charges of assaulting Christmas shoppers and pedestrians. Police say plainclothesmen had to disperse the gang outside the Baystate West shopping center after they walked down Main Street sidewalks, forcing shoppers and pedestrians to walk in the street. Extra police have been patrolling the downtown area all week in response to rising reports of assaults by juveniles on shoppers. The increasing assaults have occurred during the afternoons, when the city's high school students get out of school.
Before you think that this article smacks of sensationalism, it was confirmed by a Springfield Daily News account, which revealed even more disturbing details. There was no exaggeration in this story—and it was far more serious than simply kids beating up kids. A 33-year-old man was simply walking down Main Street in front of Richard Stevens clothing store at 12:30 p.m. when he was jumped at Hampden Street and kicked and punched to the ground. Police arrested two 17-year-olds in that incident. Two hours later, during the main disturbances after school let out, a 16-year-old was charged with disorderly conduct following an assault on an elderly woman in Baystate West.
One has to realize that the Baystate West Shops comprised a mall that was fighting for its life in 1980. The shopping complex opened in 1970 in an attempt to revive what was left of a Main Street retail area, which was hurting after the Eastfield Mall opened in 1968. When Holyoke Mall opened in 1979, the doomsday was ticking down on Baystate West. Reports of this kind of wolfpack mentality, especially with an elderly victim—maniacs extending a season’s beating to her while she was doing her holiday shopping—hastened Baystate West’s decline in a big way.
In 1997, MassMutual spent $10 million renovating the Baystate West office and retail space and renamed it Tower Square. Today the smattering of establishments cater mostly to area office workers. Some blame the recessions of the 1980s (starting with the 1982 recession), 1990s, and 2001 for the mall’s, um…demise. (According to deadmalls.com, the complex isn’t exactly dead, but it may be “on life support.”) Still, nothing will kill a commercial area like violent crime.
Okay. You can play the devil’s advocate and say that the roving mob’s show of force that day in 1980 was an isolated incident. Surely, you insist, that kind of event was rare. You are correct. But there were plenty of other occurrences—many of which did not make the newspapers…
…such as one October evening in 1980 when my brother Dan, my friend Dave O’Brien, and I were waiting for the Wilbraham Road bus in front of Baystate West. We had just taken the bus from the Big E in West Springfield and were dropped off on Main Street, which, as usual, resembled a ghost town late in the day. The sun was setting, and we were the only people waiting for the bus. Not a soul in sight. But we weren’t nervous, because we were minding our own business, and there’s never any blatant criminal activity right on Main Street, in the epicenter of downtown’s shopping area—at least while there was still some daylight. Right?
We were just waiting for the bus, as we had done a million times before. Then the boredom was broken by a car full of guys bombing around the corner on Gridiron Street and zooming down Main. It flew by us and took a right down Vernon Street (now Boland Way). Five seconds later, another car, packed with a gang, apparently chasing the first car, followed the same path. I don’t remember the models of the cars, but I can generally describe their occupants. First car: Hispanic and scared shitless. Second car: Hispanic and pissed off.
We couldn’t see what was happening around the corner, but we heard a screech of tires as the second car stopped on Vernon Street. This was immediately followed by the sound several men yelling in Spanish. The only English I could pick up from the argument was something like “fucking Whops!” or “Don’t fuck with the Whops!” And then:
Pop! Pop!...Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
Nope, those weren’t firecrackers. No pops from a pop-gun were these sounds either. A half-a-dozen gunshots echoed through the streets. Both cars burned rubber and drove away. We looked at each other in bug-eyed shock. Would they be back? Would another car come? We weren’t going to wait near the curb to find out. Adrenaline pulsed through me like a surge in a high-voltage line. We walked into the recess of the Baystate West entrance. We didn’t go inside, because we didn’t want to miss the bus, but believe me, we were prepared to move damn quickly into the mall if we had to.
“What’s with the ‘Wops’ shit they were sayin’?” asked Dave. “There weren’t any Italians mixed up in that shit, were there? Did you guys see any guys from the South End?”
No, I explained, I believe that one car was filled with the Whops, a gang that hung out in the North End’s Kenefick Park. They were also called the Last Survivors, but their new nickname was Whop City, or simply the Whops. They were the sworn enemies of the Demon Straighters, whose turf was Calhoun Park in the North End. Their battles were legendary, but I had never heard of their feud involving weapons more serious than knives and bats—until then. What we heard was no doubt the Whops vs. the Demon Straighters, or the Whops vs. one of the allies of the latter. Or maybe the Spanish Lords or the Midnight Glowers or the Latin Destroyers or the Crazy Bunch were involved. God, ya gotta love the names of these gangs. And imagine that, we were privileged enough to hear the gunfire.
“How do you know all this shit?” asked Dave.
“Because I read the papers, ” I replied.
What the papers didn't tell us, though, was that these beefs were spilling into downtown and that guns were now being used. Great.
The gang fighting was becoming such a problem in the North End that the Guardian Angels started patrolling the streets in 1981. Springfield could have used these guys downtown as well, because things were getting out of hand there too.
The shooting incident made for some interesting conversation on the bus ride home and later with our friends in The Acres, but we didn’t tell our parents. They wouldn’t have been happy about it. “Downtown is getting too dangerous,” they would have said. “We don’t want you going down there unless you have to.”
But the event didn’t dissuade us from going downtown afterward. Downtown had yet to jump the shark in our minds. But we knew we had to watch our backs whenever we went there from then on. Although the Fonz wasn’t quite airborne, he was water-skiing toward the ramp, and a flying Fonzie was an inevitability.
No, we weren’t giving up on downtown yet. Because we liked to go to the record store in Baystate West and then hit Main Music and check out the discount rack. Because we liked to play pinball at Playtown. Because we liked to thumb through magazines in Johnson’s bookstore and read an entire National Lampoon without getting hassled by the clerk, which is what happened to us at Parker Drug. Because we could take the elevator up to the top of City Hall’s campanile tower and take in the view of the city. Because sometimes they had rock laser shows at the planetarium in the Museum of Natural History, even though they had pretty lame ones compared to the shows at the Big E. Because we wanted to continue to blow our money on old baseball cards at The Rebel Peddler. Because we got a chance to gawk at bums, even though making fun of bums (I mean, the homeless) was cruel and the proliferation of bums (uh, the homeless) was another sign of a city in decline. Because, because, because, because, becaaaauuuuse. Because of the wonderful things that we did down there. Because it was OUR DOWNTOWN, dammit, and we weren’t about to hand it over to the punks. Not yet. It wasn't Oz, but it was ours.
So let’s go back to a time when we used to take the bus downtown to shop or simply hang around. I don’t think this is much of an option for today’s youth, and that’s a shame.
Take, for instance, Forbes & Wallace, one of the main reasons for going downtown—until the store closed in 1976. Below are photos of the front of the building taken from several angles, minus the main canopy above the front doors, because these shots were from 1981, a year before the structure was torn down. You know a city’s downtown is in trouble when an eight-story building, formerly home to the city’s largest department store, sits vacant for six long years—and then is replaced by a large hole in the ground for five more years. The city planted grass in this pit, installed benches around it, and called the crater a “park,” waiting for a developer to claim the site. I remember doing professional wrestling in the hole once with my brother, and, to accentuate the point that downtown was getting too violent, I gave him an eye gouge and maliciously body-slammed him to the bottom of the crevice in our “pit match.” Just think, this happened right where the basement Meridian Restaurant used to be. Monarch Place was built on the site in 1987—more than a decade after Forbes closed.
You knew Forbes & Wallace was a living museum as soon as you got on the elevator and there was a real elevator operator wearing a uniform and white glove pulling a large lever attached to the floor. You could see the floors moving past you through the elevator door. I should say “doors” because there was that collapsible metal mesh first door that had to be opened before the real door.
It’s easy to forget how much Forbes was a part of the Springfield skyline.
Now all that’s left is one of the building’s facades as a tribute. Some say it’s a replica:
Does the FW stand for “Forbes & Wallace” or “fucking wasteland?”
Yes, you can definitely make the case that downtown jumped the shark when Forbes & Wallace closed in 1976. When they tore it down, there was a Springfield Union story on the demolition that included the building’s actual resistance to the wrecking ball. At one point, the demolitionists wondered if they could actually dismantle the place because it had been built so solidly. I remember reading the account back then, but I’m disinclined to surface it now, because, frankly, it would be a damn bummer to re-read the story about Forbes, defiant until the end, finally falling into rubble.
In hindsight, maybe Dan and I were wrestling in ANOTHER hole in the ground downtown when we were younger—we MUST have been younger to create such a ruckus. It could have happened a bit earlier than between ’82 and ’87—unless we were college-age and drunk, which was a distinct possibility. Dan, help me out in the “comments” section here. Yeah, I know that isn’t your name, shithead. Just answer me one question: in what year did I body slam you in the pit?
Above is a ’70s holiday season photo of Baystate West and Forbes (left). Baystate West was linked to Steiger’s through an overpass across Main Street. Click on the photo to see the details: the Wilbraham Road bus (our bus) at a time when it picked up passengers in front of Forbes. (Notice the Friendly’s sign to the right of the buses, along with the Steiger’s neon sign on the far right.) When the PVTA moved the bus stop to the front of Baystate West after Forbes closed, the exhaust smoke that hung beneath the overpass were toxic enough to kill an elephant.
I always thought that Steiger’s wasted this walkway on various displays (in the photo you can even see the mannequin in the window). This place would have been a great vantage point to look down Main Street and check out the people waiting at the bus stop. But no. Whenever we tried to look out the window, and Steiger’s personnel always asked us to “move along.”
Remember that colorful “city scene” mural in the old SIS building across from Baystate West in the early 1970s (above)? I always thought that the city had it painted in a bizarre burst of municipal funkadelia. But now my sources tell me that it was painted for a scene in the 1974 movie The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. If my memory serves me correctly, to the right of the bell-bottomed characters were (hidden behind the building) silhouettes of a woman pushing a baby carriage and a stooped-over elderly woman with her hair in a bun.
Tommy Devine’s Cosmos Report, the best blog in western Massachusetts, details Springfield’s ill-fated master plan, outlined in the above 1978 publication, to revitalize downtown, including the idea to turn main street into a pedestrian mall:
Click on the photo to see good old Main Music to the right of AVCO and the ancient Poli Theatre sign to the right of the street lamp. In a sketchy move, it looks like the sketch artist covered up the Poli marquee with a fountain, and for good reason: you know a downtown is lining up to jump the shark when a theater closes in 1966 and is demolished in 1967, but its sign is still up in 1978. The city, needless to say, abandoned the pedestrian mall plan.
The Poli marquee finally came down in 1980 to beautify the Kennedy-Poli block. How did this momentous attempt at urban renewal work out? A safer, more prosperous area of Main Street? A year later two men were mugged in the Poli parking lot at 9:30 p.m. One of them handed over a dollar and fled into Theodores restaurant when the two thugs demanded his car keys, the other was kicked and robbed of three dollars.
Other schemes to revive downtown ended in political gridlock. They included: a proposed casino, voted down in 1994 (even though the pro-casino Mike Albano was elected as mayor); a proposed minor league ballpark touted by Albano (an eminent domain land-taking was rebuked by a Massachusetts Superior Court judge in 2000), and a one-way Main Street to improve traffic flow, which was tried northbound between Liberty and State Streets for several months in 1995 and then rejected.
Did downtown Springfield officially jump the shark when Steiger’s closed in 1994? The shuttering of the store certainly meant more than the loss of scores of jobs: it was one less reason to make the “scenic” trip from Sixteen Acres through Winchester Square to downtown. Steiger’s art-deco building was razed the following year and replaced with, of course, a “park,” another missing tooth showing in Main Street’s grimace. Steiger’s downtown location had been operating at a loss since 1990. It was demolished in 1995:
On the day Johnson’s Bookstore closed in 1998 there were several reports of a UFO in the sky over Springfield. The alien was described as a white male wearing a leather jacket, with spray from the water-skis raining down on downtown Springfield.
According to Tommy Devine, it was the late and loony lawyer J. Wesley Miller who might have hastened the bookstore’s demise by proclaiming that he had advised Paul Johnson, the owner of the business, to give up his store and become a religious missionary. Was there any truth to this? According to the website of the Evangelical Covenant Church on Plumtree Road, Johnson, who grew up in Sixteen Acres, was trained to became a missionary shortly after his store closed. Johnson’s Bookstore, it says, bit the dust because downtown Springfield was a victim of the local economy’s struggles. Well, whatever the cause, Johnson’s is no more. Below is a photo of the inside of the store.
While I’m raiding Tommy Devine’s blog, I might as well include his old photo and ticket from the late great Playtown, a great old hangout:
I’m not sure when Playtown closed (early 2000s?), but its sign was still up in 2008:
In 1989, an assailant grabbed the 66-year-old manager of Playtown with a choke-lock and forced to hand over cash. Three hours later, the same hood that pulled this stunt robbed Backofen’s Market on Worthington Street, hitting the owner with a can of food. Shortly afterward, the latter victim sold his store.
Yeah, I know, maybe I’m overdoing it with the repeated references to specific violent crimes. It wasn’t (and isn’t) like the movie The Warriors down there, but, as I pointed out before, perception is everything, and people read things…people hear things…
In 2002, our beloved Main Music closed—over a parking issue. Owner Fred Borrelli, who was rapidly losing business, begged the city dedicate more metered parking spaces across the street in front of the Civic Center, but was rebuffed because of potential traffic tie-ups.
Borrelli laughed at the idea that Springfield was making a comeback because of the entertainment district on Worthington Street and the riverfront development.
“I could walk down the street naked at night down here, and nobody would notice,” he told the Union-News. “The entertainment district is one street, and it’s working because business owners have hung in and created nice places. But it’s a night thing. It doesn't help daytime business. They're concerned with the riverfront, but I have news for them—if they can't take care of businesses downtown, how are they going to do it on the riverfront? People aren't going to go down there.”
Borrelli was wrong about the riverfront, because there has been some success there, with Max’s, etc. but, like the entertainment district, much of it is nighttime activity. And, in the case of Worthington Street, some of the nighttime activity is a bit scary, especially in the wee hours when the bars close.
I guess I was playing to the gallery a little bit when I pinned down the date of the 1980 Baystate West rampage as the moment downtown Springfield jumped the shark. It wasn’t one moment, but a number of incidents and factors, including:
• The July 30, 2003 shooting in the Quadrangle. No one was hit, but one gentleman pursued another near the library and fired four shots, prompting parents in Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden to grab their kids and cut their sightseeing a little short in was thought to be just about the safest place in Springfield, other than, maybe the Pearl Street Police Headquarters. Oops, I stand corrected:
• On December 30, 1994, Los Solidos and La Familia went at it in front of said police station, and then a shot was fired from a departing car at a man using a payphone. The shooter missed, and the bullet struck the building. This was a month after Los Solidos slugged it out with the Latin Kings in front of the station. In July of that year a man was shot and killed a block away from the site.
• At 2:30 a.m. on January 1, 2007, New Years’ Eve celebrating got a little to overzealous when an argument over a spilled drink in Kennedy Fried Chicken, across from the Hippodrome Night Club on Main Street, turned into a gun battle that left one man dead and five others wounded.
•On November 21, 2005, the owner of Hair Plus Beauty Supply, across Falcons Way from the newly refurbished MassMutual Center, was shot and killed during an afternoon robbery while dozens of people were on the street.
• A Springfield icon sticks out like a sore thumb: in May 2008, the city installed black aluminum safety netting along the campanile clock tower at Court Square to keep the limestone tower from popping loose. Areas around the 145-foot-tall structure were also roped off to prevent pedestrians from getting hit with debris. Permanent repairs to one of the city’s most magnificent buildings, which was built in 1913, would have cost $5 million, and the city didn’t have the money. At the time, the temporary repairs were predicted to last five years, before a complete restoration would be necessary to make the building safe again. Elevator trips to the top ceased years ago. Remember, image is important, and the image below sucks. It is symbolic of a city that can’t seem to recover. When the five years are up in 2013, is the city going to fix the tower?
Here's another iconic skyline timepiece: a photo of the old Third National Bank clock, taken by photographer Gary Tompkins in 1973. Oh, the good old days, when my dad would bring Dan and I to the Springfield Museum of Natural History on Sundays, which opened at 2:00 p.m without gunfire echoing in the background. We'd park next to the WSPR building and watch the clock, impatiently waiting to see those three magical digits: 1:59. ("One-five-nine!" my brother and I would cry.) It was time to see the stuffed animals, to be greeted by Jiggs the chimp at the entrance. Although it's a great feeling to take my five-year-old son to the same place (now the Springfield Science Museum), I can barely stomach the thought of him, 10 years from now, taking the Wilbraham Road bus downtown with his friends to hang around, which is what my friends and I used to do when we were 15. (Or, heaven forbid, ride their bikes down there, as we did a few times.) Maybe it's a similar dread that every parent has at the prospect of their offspring getting his or her driver's license. I don't know. I just wouldn't feel comfortable knowing he was walking around down there. Don't do it, Sean! When you're old enough to read Hell's Acres, know this: you can probably pull the wool over my eyes and simply say you're going to the mall, but don't do it! Don't go downtown without Daddy!
So of course some of you are still rolling your eyes and thinking that I’m ramming the crime problem down your throats. No, you’re not going to get mugged on Main Street. But you will be asked if you have spare change. Repeatedly. If you spend enough time down there, you will be asked if you want to buy drugs. It’s no big deal—you just say no—but it’s unsettling. This also happens in Boston, but I don’t have to tell you that Boston has a lot more going for it than Springfield.
You can’t downplay crime and how it affects Springfield's reputation, because when it comes down to it, that is what the city is known for: violence and political corruption. (Oh, yeah, and it's the birthplace of basketball.) In a 1995 survey by the Springfield Union News, concerns about a downtown revitalization was near the top of the list of the most pressing issues facing the city. It was ranked right behind public safety and the quality of the school system. Fast forward to 2011 in Mayor Domenic Sarno’s State of the City address: “We can speak about many grandiose development ideas for the city of Springfield. But, if our residents do not feel safe in their communities, we will not be able to capitalize on the tremendous development potential.” And if they don't feel safe downtown, why bother trying?
Downtown’s problems are not unique. Worcester also tried a downtown mall in 1971, but the Worcester Center Galleria tanked in the ’80s and was reborn as the Worcester Common Fashion Outlets in 1994. This, too, couldn’t compete with the nearby Greendale, Auburn, and Solomon Pond Malls. It was renamed the Worcester Common Outlets in 1996, but then the Wrentham Village Premium Outlets opened and Worcester’s dogged attempt to lure shoppers to its downtown finally fizzled for good. Worcester Common Outlets closed in 2006. Since then, there has been talk of CitySquare, a mix of retail, housing, and office space, but the development has been stalled.
In Hartford, the Civic Center Mall, built in 1974, faced stiff competition from suburban malls and went into freefall in the early 1990s. In 2004, a mixture of private, state, and city funding began working to redevelop the complex into Hartford21, a residential, retail, and entertainment complex. Undeniably, Hartford has also had its share of boondoggles to revitalize its downtown, from attempting to lure the New England Patriots to the half-baked idea of bringing the Whalers back. But the Hartford21 people insist they can create a dynamic urban center with residential space (262 luxury apartments) and they’re still trying to get a supermarket built down there—so far without success.
It all sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? And crime has also stifled these cities’ comeback.
Springfield has been aggressively trying to redevelop an office building on Elm Street at Court Square for several years now, firing a firm in 2008 when it couldn’t move forward with its project, which initially included plans for condos that would cost $300,000 a unit to build, but would sell for just $180,000. Gee, I wonder why THAT project keeps spinning its wheels. The building has been mostly vacant for two decades, but a new developer is expected to be announced soon.
There is also the $71 million revitalization of Union Station into an intermodal transportation center, buoyed by the federal government committing $120 million to improvements for the passenger rail line between New Haven and Springfield. If they build it, will people come?
There was $360 million in investment to the revitalization of downtown Springfield between 1979 and 1989. Is it any better off? At least there are buildings instead of holes in the ground next to Baystate West. At least the smell from Bondi's Island doesn't stink up the place anymore.
Look, I know I’m taking what can be perceived as a bunch of cheap shots at downtown Springfield—kicking a city when it’s down and perpetuating the stereotype—but believe me, I’d love to see it succeed. Maybe, because I was in Boston for more than 20 years, Springfield’s downfall to me seemed rather sudden when it was actually gradual. Despite what you’ve just read, I haven’t given up. I still go to Falcons games, and I’m glad the new ownership is keeping the team here, because the Falcons taking flight for better climes would have been the final nail in downtown’s coffin. And a couple of weeks ago my wife and I enjoyed a great dinner at 350 Grill and went to see the Springfield Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall. Last November, I took the family to the Big Balloon Parade, where I shot this video:
But downtown Springfield could be so much more. Don’t even get me going on the decline of Springfield’s concert scene, which I touched on in another post. You see, I love the band Hot Tuna. I got to see them in 1983 at the Springfield Civic Center, and then I was able to make a road trip from Boston to see the ultimate triple bill of The Band, Hot Tuna, and Springfield’s own Taj Mahal at the Paramount Theater on Main Street. I saw Hot Tuna numerous times in Boston over the years, but after I moved back to the Springfield area, I had to drive all the way over to Pittsfield to see the band last month. Why?
Why the hell can’t I see Hot Tuna in downtown Springfield? I like my Tuna served Hot, and I like it served in Springfield. When they tour again, I want to see a show at Symphony Hall or the Hippodrome (formerly the Paramount). Is that too much to ask? The Hippodrome was recently sold, and the new owner supposedly wants to bring in national music acts. I'll believe it when I hear it.
Until then, I’m sticking to my assertion that downtown Springfield jumped the shark. There, I said it. Again. I desperately want to see downtown go from "jumped shark" to Hot Tuna, but until I see and hear Tuna downtown, Springfield is shark city to me.
I know I’m long on complaints and short on solutions, but that’s where YOU come in. What will it take to make downtown a destination again? Leave a comment!
Read Part 2!