‘Good life’ fun slowly disappearing

You’ve seen the documentary evidence of Dunkirk in its glory days — the photographs, the retrospective newspaper articles. Many readers of this paper lived through the glory days, having grown up here. They remember an abundance of manufacturers that employed people to make everything from steel to beer to clothing. They remember a vibrant downtown and an abundance of corner stores.

I arrived on the scene post-glory days, right in the middle of 1989. There were still vestiges of a good lifestyle then with all the pleasures and pastimes that word denotes: differentiated shops and restaurants, two movie theaters, an old-fashioned miniature golf course, and a downtown that had somehow retained a few home-grown retail enterprises through the ravages of urban renewal and the onset of manufacturing exodus.

In Fredonia and its environs, there was a lot to welcome someone like me — a newcomer with small children. And in that quiet way of small towns all over America, navigating the area was a quick and straightforward process.

Is it my imagination, or are there really a lot more people on local roads going — where? Traffic congestion along Route 60 and the Vineyard and Route 20 hubs seems to have intensified. At certain peak times, driving through Fredonia is like a microcosmic trip down Sheridan Drive in Amherst.

It seems to me there are fewer attractions out and about than there used to be. There can’t be more people, because supposedly, the population of Northern Chautauqua County is dwindling. Where did all these drivers come from, and even more perplexing — where are they going?

My memories of the floundering but somewhat intact “good life” I walked into 28 years ago include several home-grown stores in the D & F Plaza: a bakery, a shoe store, clothing outlets and a donut shop, among others.

The area boasted three department stores, one of which was locally owned and operated. Who doesn’t miss Sideys with its elegant aisles of genteel affordability?

Soon after my move to this area, Walmart arrived. For a while, the co-existence of three big-box stores made for fun Black Friday mornings, with wee-hours shoppers wending their way from store to store to partake in giveaways and deals, perhaps coffee and donuts, and a different experience in each store. Now, a single survivor dominates the scene, and Black Friday has encroached into Thursday. What is the opposite of “progress?” There must be a word to denote the slow death of Thanksgiving.

In my time as a local resident, I’ve seen “good life” entertainments dwindle and disappear. We are down to one theater. One department store. One restaurant behemoth with many corporate faces. Every spring, I hold my breath for that moment when I can drive down Route 60 and say, “At least we still have a miniature golf course this summer.”

Sure, there are a few locally owned and operated coffee shops and restaurants, but they struggle. They suffer diminished hours, high rents, sudden closures. In 28 years, I’ve watched them cycle through that revolving startup door, and then another one is gone. Let’s face it, corporate ambience is cookie cutter. And in my opinion, the food isn’t as good either.

So what can we do? For starters, we can be wise stewards of our powerful dollars. Our dollar may be the only power we have in communities trying to balance the encroachments of corporate entertainment and a cozy, robust small business scene.

Even in our small north-county hub with its villages, towns, and, technically, a city, corporate entertainment offers conveniences. Parking is easier, coupons are easy to come by and the service is predictable.

But let’s face it, you won’t get better home fries than in a home-grown mom and pop restaurant. Not to mention pancakes. And remember, we do have a locally owned, substantial grocery store in town. It may not have a massive parking lot, but it has the advantages of supporting a community economy while supplying local families’ grocery needs. Our powerful dollar is well spent in businesses like this.

We may not be able to re-create the past. But we have it in our minds and wallets to create an inviting future.

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com