By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette — Not too many years ago when I was a kid, the joy of Christmas shopping began with the arrival of the giant Sears Christmas catalogue. My siblings and I would pour over that book until the pages faded and fell out as we pointed out the dozens of toys we wanted Santa to carry down the chimney to us.
This time of the year seemed to take forever to get here; a year was a heck of a long time to wait back then, but the older we get, the faster this season comes around probably because nowadays, Christmas starts to show up in some stores on Halloween.
I can remember when all of Niagara Falls was lit up like a huge Christmas present with beautiful wreaths and ribbons streaming from the street lights; gigantic banners stretched across the streets wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.
Most of the churches in my neighborhood back then had large congregations (there were officially 43 churches in the city in the 1950s representing 20 denominations), and many of them built life-like mangers scenes out in front of their buildings.
Most of the parochial schools celebrated the season with plays produced by the faculty, staring the youngest students, all fully costumed and completely made up for their parts by their proud parents.
I was pretty much guaranteed a role in the annual Christmas play as one of the Three Kings, a character generally accepted as mine since one of the three magi was supposedly black. I was a shoe-in as the only black boy in my school at the time.
Christmas time was a fusion of Santa Clause lore and religious observance, not just the purely commercial enterprise it is now. There was a genuine Christmas Spirit and it was genuinely reflected in the decorations not only on the city streets but throughout the neighborhoods too where most of the homes were decked out in some way that reflected the content of the neighbors hearts more than the special effects of the flashy commercial high tech decorations we see today.
A Christmas shopping spree in 1950 Niagara Falls might have taken one of the 90,000 city residents along Falls Street where a cup of hot chocolate at the Main Restaurant might have been followed by a stop at Meyers & Deckers Gifts and the Madeira Linen Gift Shop, the Cataract Cigar Store and Roxy Jewelers, the Strand Dress Shop, Harvey & Carey’s Drugstore, the Betty Ann Hat Shop, the Frontier Camera & Photo Supply Store, S.S. Kresge’s and of course, Sears.
After shopping and meeting friends and neighbors in those fine establishments, city residents and throngs of tourists would likely find a seat at a table for lunch at Walgreen’s, the Falls Luncheonette, the Colonial Restaurant, the Lido Grill, the Star Restaurant, or the Ideal Coffee Shop before they went on to spend their hard-earned Christmas Club dollars at Biers, the Cataract Song Shop, Reed’s Jewelers, Kayes Dress Shop, Betty Dixon’s Candy Shop, JN Adam’s Department Store, Nisley Shoes, Amberg & Company Men’s Clothes, Fanny Farmer’s Candy Shop, Yasen’s Jewelers, Esquire Men’s Shop, or Mack’s Men’s Shop, just to mention a few.
And Main Street also had its share of wonders garnished with Season’s Greetings decorations including Thom McAnn Shoes, the Lerner Shops, Ray’s Clothes, Krausmann’s Department Store, Kinney Shoes, Woolworth’s, Belbot’s, Singer’s Drugstore, Day’s of Niagara, Silberberg’s, Grant’s, Wolke’s and of course Jenss’ among many, many others that once served our once burgeoning population.
A lot has changed since those days, not all of it for the better. Much, but not all of what has happened to Christmas in Niagara was the result of forces far beyond our control.
The best of it could be recreated by reversing the total out-flow of local investment and spending in the surrounding suburban communities, and bringing some of it back to the city where smaller retail enterprises and the spirit of entrepreneurship could once again flourish if we can find a way, like so many other similar communities have, to recreate the excitement of unique “downtown” shopping experiences.
We need to find a way to focus more of our public and private sector resources on the development of our small, family owned and operated retail businesses. They were, 50 years ago, the backbone of our downtown retail commercial trade, and they are the real future if we are ever going to revive our local economy.
With a combination of good planning, some serious training by alliances and private-public partnerships with Niagara University, Niagara County Community College and the State University system and others combined with some serious relocation incentives, I’d bet many of those businesses who relocated to the suburbs (and others who’d like a chance to try) would be willing to consider coming back home to expand their business opportunities, to be a little closer to the millions of tourists and the thousands of local residents who’d be only to happy to do a little shopping with them all year round in a real downtown Niagara.
Perhaps if we can do that, we might also re-light some of the best of the good old fashioned Christmas Spirit that should go along with the commercial shopping season.
Wouldn’t THAT be nice?Contact Bill Bradberry at firstname.lastname@example.org