12 October 2008

Scenes of Eternal Depression

As I've stated before, I'm pretty old. Old enough to remember when people didn't shop at malls; they went to this place that was called "downtown." I remember my parents stuffing us in the car and driving to a place called Altoona, because that was the big urban center in the area (a whopping 60,000 people or so; less now) and therefore had the largest downtown. Then sometime in the mid-1970's the Logan Valley Mall became the dominant shopping area. And slowly downtown emptied out first of shoppers then of businesses.
The Kaufman's store located on the left of the photos is not related to the Kaufmann's department store chain that is now part of Macy's empire and along with Hecht's lost its individual identity to the Macy's brand. Incidentally, the Kaufman's building no longer exists; it was demolished a year ago. The large brown-brick building in the distance at center was a huge department store named Gable's, which was the centerpiece of the downtown.

Altoona's downtown is one block from the railroad tracks. In the heyday of the Pennsylvania Rail Road, Altoona was an important stop, mainly as a center for car repair and engine building shops. There's a railroad museum across the tracks from the downtown, next to the more or less moribund Station Mall, a small one-story mall that never could compete with the larger Logan Valley Mall and perhaps never intended to, as it was anchored at its high point by a grocery store and a Hills Department Store (think of a K-Mart before they launched the Super K or Giant K or whatever). As with most rail towns, Altoona has seen its high mark receding into the distant past, but it clings furiously to the memory. The downtown is plastered with murals and posters depicting the glory that was the railroad.

The one above is an older one that was done while the downtown still had some shops and shoppers roaming around in it. As the downtown has become ever more desolate, the murals have become more ambitious, compensating for the fact that the lifestyle they allude to is gone forever, if it ever existed before anyway:

The downtown is currently full of empty storefronts with great historic (and some not so historic) bones. The train still stops twice a day -- once going east, once going west -- and the station -- which also doubles as the bus terminal -- is at least more permanent than the trailer that sat next to the tracks when my family boarded the train for an Arizona vacation in 1979.


JES said...

Since I'm from S. Jersey, I'm familiar with a lot of the eastern side of PA. We had distant cousins in the Lancaster area, which takes me inland a little bit further. And my ex-wife had family in Pittsburgh, so I know that area a little too. But Altoona is a mystery to me. So I appreciate your spending some time on it.

On the map it looks like it's about 40-50 miles north of the Turnpike, which means it's out of range of even the limited commerce which a couple of interchanges would afford it. With a lot of these old towns (including the one I grew up in), thanks in large part to the automobile, they've become -- if they're lucky -- places which people pass through, but seldom go TO anymore.

(Takes a tip from the culture at large, in which destinations are everything and routes, nothing. If people could use transporter beams for vacation they'd never see anyplace but resorts.)

A childhood friend who still lives in the area sometimes sends me news clippings about buildings (especially factories) being torn down or converted to condos. When we're back in Jersey for family visits it takes me a few days to get my bearings, 'cause so many landmarks are gone or unrecognizable.

Ou sont les neiges, eh?

cuff said...

Jes: where indeed. This town sits too far north of the turnpike, too far south of I-80, and the problem with I-99 is that so far it doesn't really connect anything but I-80 and the turnpike.