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Video: Batavia before 'Urban Renewal'

By Howard B. Owens

David Meyer posted a link to this video. He said his brother found it somehow. David wrote, "I wish we could go back."

Laura Russell Ricci

this video was lovely to watch, somewhat hard to believe we had such big beautiful homes...and downtown was so cool too, sad to see how it changed.

PS...actually saw the link while looking at the Yahoo! homepage! (listed under local news)

Mar 14, 2010, 2:27pm Permalink
Howard B. Owens

One of the saddest shots -- the old Richmond Mansion. What a beautiful house it was. Amazing that anybody would even give a first thought to tearing it down. For any reason. That's the best picture I've seen of it.

And of course, the north side of main ... so much more attractive and pedestrian friendly than the mall.

Mar 14, 2010, 3:05pm Permalink
Andrew Lathan

Its hard to believe they torn down all that on Main St. Those are the first pics that I have ever seen of "old" Batavia and how it should have remained.

Mar 14, 2010, 8:03pm Permalink
Bea McManis

What you saw in that video was a vibrant Main St. with all the local shops that Howard advocates. I've stated before that it wasn't the big box stores that killed that Main St., it was the greed of elected officials who saw urban renewal money as a way to line to pockets of a few at the expense of an entire community.
That Main St., in 1959, would attract people from the entire county. Friday night bustled and as you walked from store to store you were greeted by shopkeepers who were your neighbors.
We were driven to the big box stores that came after the urban renewal disaster by necessity not because we wanted them. They came in to fill the void left by the greed of a few.
Our local businesses were FORCED out. It wasn't that they were in financial trouble and had to close. That is the pity.

Mar 15, 2010, 9:56am Permalink
C. M. Barons

You are absolutely correct, Bea. Prior to the demise of Main Street, our family drove from Bergen every Saturday to shop in Batavia. Even though we were not Batavia residents, the shopkeepers knew us by name and treated us as valued customers. I was a youngster, and had my own agenda in terms of purchases. My favorite shops were the Mill Outlet (fishing tackle), The Outdoor Store (camping equipment), Salways Hardware (tools), Marshall's News (magazines- especially the latest issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland), Sleight's (books and office supplies for my budding enterprise, a basement printing business), Montgomery "Monkey" Wards (more tools), The Camera Shop, Charles Mens Shop (the Scouting Dept.) and a second hand/Antique shop that had old model trains. ...And the Dipson Theater! My list comprises only a fraction of the diverse offerings of old Batavia. And it was a bustling town- never vacant as now.

Mar 15, 2010, 12:34pm Permalink
Howard B. Owens

Bea, it may not have been the big boxes that did the actual damage in Batavia's case, but they've done a lot of damage elsewhere. If the north side of Main hadn't fallen to Urban Renewal, there is no guarantee that they could have survived the onslaught of the box retailers, not without a strong local understanding to support local businesses.

Many downtowns across America have been destroyed by big boxes, and many were destroyed by urban renewal. Some have recovered, and some haven't.

It's really immaterial to what the response should be now. What is is, so the proper thing to do is figure out how to make things better with the resources available, not just throw up your hands and say, "well, guess I gotta shop at Walmart."

The same forces that have driven the change that brought in big box stores on the outskirts of town are the same forces drove urban renewal -- a mistaken and misrepresented notion of "progress." Communities have given tax subsidies to the big boxes because they thought it represented progress. Batavia's politicians felt they had the backing of the people of Batavia for Urban Renewal because they thought it meant progress.

It didn't really, but any time somebody starts talking about progress it gets this glean of unalloyed virtue. Anybody who questions progress is derided as a retrograde nostalgic stick in the mud, because it's easier to label people than deal with the logic of their arguments.

Mar 15, 2010, 2:45pm Permalink
Charlie Mallow

People like to drive to big box stores and don’t like to stroll down city streets to shop anymore. It is too expensive to build a big box store on anything but, cheap shovel ready land. That is why those stores are prospering on the west end of town.

The west end of the city is very busy from what I can see. There is also a good amount of smaller shops and restaurants downtown. Businesses open and they fail all the time that is called capitalism. I think our area has a healthy mix of small locally owned business and big box stores. Big box stores are not a sign of decline.

Mar 15, 2010, 3:27pm Permalink
Lorie Cook

Wow, this actually brought tears to my eyes. I was pretty young when urban began so I do not have a memory of all these old stores. I do remember Newberry's and loved shopping at Carr's. So sad to see all these stores close.

Howard, you should read the book "Where The Heart Is".

Mar 15, 2010, 3:28pm Permalink
Julie Morales

My mom worked at a place called The Surprise Store and my dad worked at The Outdoor Store. I don’t remember either of those places. Not that long ago (it doesn’t seem anyway) my brother worked at Ebling Electric near Marshall’s News Store. My dad took me to Marshall’s every Sunday morning to get the paper, look at paperbacks and maybe pick up a comic book. I remember the cozy tobacco smell very well. Marshall’s was my first employer when I was 12 and had a paper route.

Unfortunately I have no first hand memories of old Main Street before it was demolished. I do remember Newberry’s and its creaky wood floor…what a great store.

Mar 15, 2010, 3:47pm Permalink
Lorie Cook

Julie--I remember The Surpise Store and I think the store next door was something like The Enterprise store. Funny I remember Newberry's creaky floors too. I thought it was so cool when Main St. Coffee was in that building they had kept the old phone booth!

Yes, Kevin, I have seen commercials for Vidler's. Just have never gotten a chance to go there.

Mar 15, 2010, 4:01pm Permalink
Bea McManis

Posted by Howard Owens on March 15, 2010 - 2:45pm
Bea, it may not have been the big boxes that did the actual damage in Batavia's case, but they've done a lot of damage elsewhere. If the north side of Main hadn't fallen to Urban Renewal, there is no guarantee that they could have survived the onslaught of the box retailers, not without a strong local understanding to support local businesses.

Sorry, we are discussing this on two threads and getting wires crossed.
There was no reason for the north Side, or the south side of Main St. to fall to the wreckers' ball. There were other models far more in tune to what Batavia was and what it could have been. Corning is one of them.
There wouldn't have been the onslaught of big box stores if Batavia had kept the locally owned, and reliable stores it had. We, the uneducated consumers, had everything we needed within a short walk from one store to the other.
It is easy for you to judge a situation from where you sit. You didn't know the pain and suffering urban renewal caused. You didn't see the heartbreak of people who lost a lifetime investment in their small business. Some relocated but it wasn't the same. They lost the intimacy of Main St.
Charlie, people would still be strolling down Main St. if there was a reason. Window shopping was a pastime enjoyed by many who used that opportunity to mentally make a wish list of things they wanted.
These people now go to the bigger malls and stroll past each shop still making those mental wish lists.
If I sound bitter, I am. I am a Batavian first and foremost. Even moving away, I always called Batavia my Bedford Falls. It drew me back.
I didn't expect the emotions that flooded when I saw that video. I saw the building where I worked during my high school years. I remembered climbing the stairs to the third floor studio. I remembered how many customers and just people who wanted to stop and chat made that trip to the third floor.
I could look across the street at Scott & Beans' and watch the seasons change by the window dressings. I could see people coming in and out of Critic's and Marine Midland Bank. I knew almost every business person who walked into Sleight's book store to get their office supplies.
It revived the anger, frustration, and bitterness that I felt those many years ago when nothing could stop the destruction of our town.

Mar 15, 2010, 4:42pm Permalink
Charlie Mallow

Bea, I like walking and shopping in a small town retail setting, like they still have in Saratoga Springs. The point I was making was not enough people do anymore. What happened to our downtown isn’t unlike most other places in the country. A majority of people have decided they would rather shop in big box stores. My guess is if all those small businesses opened again tomorrow, most would be hard pressed to stay in business. Times have changed and most people are looking for low prices and selection, there is also nothing wrong with that. It isn’t a sign of decline. Although, there is little doubt the end result has just about sent every manufacturing job we have to China.

There is also nothing wrong with looking back with fondness to simpler times.

Mar 15, 2010, 5:26pm Permalink
Howard B. Owens

Bea, Just because I wasn't in Batavia then doesn't mean that I haven't had my own similar experiences. I've written about those.


I disagree that people won't walk and shop any more. I've written about this before, but on my last trip to San Diego I went to Ocean Beach (more like Corning compared to El Cajon being more like Batavia). OB didn't tear down. They revitalized. When I was a newspaper publisher there, the main street (called Newport Avenue) was much like Main Street in Batavia today ... a couple of vacancies, not a lot of foot traffic, dedicated merchants trying to hang on. Those merchants sparked revitalization. Today, all the shops on those three blocks are thriving. The street is hugely crowded with pedestrians and parking is hard to find.

The sad part is, only about three of the original merchants who pushed for revitalization survived the transition. I imagine with success came higher rents and many of the merchants couldn't adjust their business to meet the changing mix of businesses (lots of antique stores, unique clothing stores and restaurants and bars).

There is only one chain -- Starbucks -- on Newport Ave. (Most people in OB fought hard to keep Starbucks out, and lost, but they've successfully kept Jack-in-the-Box of Newport (though there is one in OB) and several other chains.

The point being -- with the right mix of retail, bars and restaurants, you can have a community that thrives on pedestrian traffic. A lot of people still do love exactly that kind of downtown experience (and BTW: OB thrives on 20somethings, not us old geezers).

The hard part for Batavia is the north side of Main, with its mall and banks, has very little potential for pedestrian friendliness. I have some ideas to address that, but that's another issue.

Mar 15, 2010, 7:05pm Permalink
Bea McManis

Saratoga Springs is a good example of what our Main St. could be with planning.
I love walking there. Batavia never was, nor will it ever be a 'big' city. Nor are we New England, or Eastern NY quaint. But, our Main St. could be charming and inviting to our residents and visitors.
At this point, if you can't get residents to shop on Main St., what reason do visitors have to be down there?
What we lack on Main St now is what we had before and what you now find in the big box stores and city malls, something for everyone. We had high end and less expensive clothing stores. We had high end and less expensive shoe stores.
The average person, on a budget, can't shop downtown. Everything is high end. That maybe okay for the more affluent, but where do the rest of go?

Mar 15, 2010, 7:19pm Permalink
Mark Potwora

People seem to forget that alot of those buildings were in very bad shape...and needed alot of work..The city had condemned some of those properties..I miss the old Main St. also..But lets just say they never tore any of it down..What do you think you would see today..Alot of empty buildings that would need tore down..Look at the Carrs and Newberrys buildings,they are still up and sit empty....LeRoy never tore their Main Street down and they have alot of empty store fronts..

Mar 15, 2010, 8:11pm Permalink
Bea McManis

Were they condemned because of structural problems? How many were condemned to make it easier for urban renewal to take them over?
Some were fire traps, I'll agree. Yet, the amount of money spent on the mall would have gone a long way to refurbishing them.
Mark, we're talking apples and oranges. If the merchants hadn't been forced off of Main St., many of them would still be here today. Carr's and Newberry's buildings are empty because there is nothing around them to support a thriving business sector.
We might still have a green grocer; a bakery (I love Lorraine's bakery in the mall, but I'm talking about a storefront facing Main St.); a shoe store; a few dress stores; a hardware store; jewelry stores, etc.
Each business feeds into another. While you may not have one stop shopping (ala big box), you have merchants helping each other by feeding customers from one store to another.

Mar 15, 2010, 8:34pm Permalink
Howard B. Owens

Mark, the vacancies on the south side of Main are directly attributable to the lack of street-facing businesses on the north side. You can't assume that the vacancies would exist if the north side had been left standing. Obviously, I know nothing about the actual structural integretity of the buildings on the north side, but are you relying on what city fathers -- with a vested interest in saying they needed to be torn down -- said about the quality of the structures, or what actual shape they were in? I personally don't trust reports that many of these buildings werer unsounded because city inspectors had a motivation to say they needed to be torn down -- part of the process of getting the grants for "urban renewal."

We simply don't know what Batavia would be like without urban renewal. Would it be more like Corning, or more like Wellsville, Kansas (a dying town I visited a couple of years ago)? We don't know.

That said, I still maintain Batavia has a lot going for it, a lot of potential, but it's going to take more people like Kenny Mistler to invest in it and make things happen.

Mar 15, 2010, 9:23pm Permalink
Mark Potwora

Bea..I'm with you on what a bad thing urban renewal was,and how short sighted those that ran the city back then were..But was just wondering if in todays business climate if we would just be faced with alot of old empty buildings..We need some kind of draw to bring people downtown..Howard would think this was nuts but what would Main Street be like if Walmart was put up in place of the Mall..It would sure generate alot of traffic for downtown...

Mar 15, 2010, 9:26pm Permalink
C. M. Barons

I think one needs to look at another aspect of the urban renewal push. The store-fronts and the store-owners were NOT the owners of the buildings. Those buildings were three to four stories with occupancy primarily on the lower floors. Some had upstairs offices; some had upstairs rental apartments. Many of the upper floors were in very poor condition. I am not advocating that renovation wasn't the better course, but I'm sure that when the building owners balanced recouping the cost of renovating those upper floors against selling the buildings for demolition- instant gratification made too much sense. Keep in mind that the use limitations of century-old infrastructure was not a selling point to professionals such as doctors, dentists and lawyers who traditionally rented spaces above street-level. The majority of the apartments were rented to low-income families and college students. The advent of building inspection and codes presented a financial threat to landlords who had milked the properties assets without reinvesting for decades.
I speak with the authority of one who had access to those buildings immediately prior to demolition. They were in dismal shape.

Mar 16, 2010, 1:06am Permalink
Bea McManis

Posted by Mark Potwora on March 15, 2010 - 9:26pm
Bea..I'm with you on what a bad thing urban renewal was,and how short sighted those that ran the city back then were..

They weren't short sighted, they were greedy.

Look at the chosen few who moved their businesses from one phase to the next and reaped the additional urban renewal money for each move until the mall was complete.

Look at the contract signed with the city (the owners of the mall) that gave them tax breaks until the mall reached a certain capacity percentage. It never did, by the way.

Look at the deal where only ONE of each type of business was allowed in the mall.

The rest of the displaced merchants had no place left on Main St.

This wasn't a case of the city fathers encouraging and cultivating small business. The city fathers and their friends looked after themselves, the rest be damned.

This wasn't a case of 'progress'. It didn't take a crystal ball to see that their version of a thriving business sector was flawed and would never materialize.

Yes, some of those buildings should have met the wrecking ball, most likely the one in which I worked every summer and after school was one of them. C.M is right. The landlords took the easy money and ran.

Mar 16, 2010, 2:15am Permalink
John Roach

Urban renewal was over 30 years ago. Too bad, so sad, but that does not address the problem of downtown Batavia today.

And that "mall" has to be a major part of bring downtown around. Let's hope the lawsuit between the City and the Mall Association is resolved soon.

Mar 16, 2010, 7:07am Permalink
Richard Gahagan

Yeah it was over 30 years ago and ruined downtown.

And that "mall" has to be a major part of bring downtown around.

That building has made Batavia a laughing stock since it was built and a prime example of why local communities should not accept federal funding just because you can. You end up with crap.

Can someone please explain why it hasn't been torn down yet.

Mar 16, 2010, 7:51am Permalink
Howard B. Owens

It hasn't been torn down because of the complex ownership structure of the mall -- there is no one owner, and it only takes one to say "I won't sell" or hold out for an outrageous amount of money, and the whole deal falls apart. That's why we are probably likely to be stuck with the mall forever. Pete O'Brien will vote for Obama before the mall comes down.

Mar 16, 2010, 9:20am Permalink
Richard Gahagan

Howard ever hear of eminent domain. Kick out everone give em market price and knock it down, just like they did when they built the dam thing.

Mar 16, 2010, 9:50am Permalink
John Roach

Are you on record saying you will pay the higher property tax to get the money to buy out the owners and then tear down the "Mall"? That without knowing if anyone would build on it?

Mar 16, 2010, 11:06am Permalink
Richard Gahagan

I am on record demanding the mall be torn down, along with every other person in the community in addition to the people that laugh when they drive by.

You saying the mall needs to be a part of bringing Batavia back is a joke.

Mar 16, 2010, 11:47am Permalink
John Roach

Then you are for the higher taxes it would take to do it.

I agree the mall is a disaster, but I don't think the average person can afford your higher taxes idea.

The best we can hope for is that the City gets out of any future mall support payments. Then maybe the property owners will get their act together and turn the place around

Mar 16, 2010, 11:56am Permalink
Julie Morales

Hey, Lorie… The Surprise Store sold women’s and girls’ clothes, and The Enterprise sold men’s and boys’. The owners were brothers who had a falling out, apparently, and split the inventory. Interesting history I never knew. :)

My memories of Newberry’s are a bit too vague to place the phone booth, but I agree it’s very cool that Main St. Coffee kept it.

Kevin… I went to Vidler’s years ago and at that time it was worth checking out. However, Vidler’s is Vidler’s, and Newberry’s was Newberry’s. I myself can’t muster up much nostalgia for a place I’ve visited two or three times as an adult. I grew up with Newberry’s.

Mar 16, 2010, 2:08pm Permalink
Cheryl Kowalik

Thanks for video on old Batavia. I was pretty young but do remember going to Tillies Children Shop, Alexanders, Alberty Drug Store, I miss Marshall newstore where you could catch up on the local news discussion of the days and get the comic books, Grants was always exciting at Christmas time as you could go upstairs to toy land. Ah the memories. Friday nights everyone was downtown walking the streets. Don Burkel and people that work with him have done a good first step forward in bringing people downtown on Friday nights with the concerts on Friday nights in the summer time and the public market. Batavia just needs more stores for people to want to walk the streets of downtown again. What ever happened to the beautiful clock that was in front of City Hall?

Mar 17, 2010, 12:52am Permalink

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