Monday, September 1, 2014

Can the Garland we remember from 45 years ago still be revived?

The annual Labor Day Parade, like this one today, still brings people back to Downtown Garland.

Forty-five years ago this past weekend, my Garland-reared bride and I left Garland's First Baptist Church in our little 1968 VW bug (price tag new: $1,600) and headed to a life together that would take us to some of the most far-flung and fascinating cities in the United States and some 45 other countries around the world.

Still, the long tether of Garland kept pulling us back to visit family and to see the sad changes happening in Garland's historic downtown area. 

The Garland we left behind in the rearview mirror on August 30, 1969, would within a matter of decades be almost unrecognizable compared to the city we observed that day at the end of the Sixties. 

On our Saturday wedding-day the city's Square bustled with life. Mrs. Nick's variety store on the Square was thriving. Prescriptions could be picked up at nearby McKnight's, where the best chicken-salad sandwiches on the planet were served at the lunch counter. Any little odd or end anyone needed could be bought at Jones Hardware on the Square's north side. Cole & Davis on the Square's west side served as the city's department store.

Groceries—and those little incidentals that one of us would inevitably forget to pack for the trip back to Garland—could be found on Main Street in the Safeway store in the building where the boxing gym now resides. During one visit when I needed a new battery for my car White Auto at Main and South 11th Street was ready to assist me. Gasoline could be purchased a block from the Square. I even once had a flat tire repaired and an oil change performed at that nearby "full-service" gas station near the Square.

Since my in-laws preferred cafeterias to restaurants, every visit included at least one stop at Wyatt's Cafeteria on the corner diagonal to Garland High School, whose students in that day all seemed to be so well-mannered and polite.

And then there were those nightly walks with J.D., my father-in-law. Along about 8 p.m., he'd don his hat and ask expectantly, "Ready to go for a walk?" Off we would go for 30 to 45 minutes—up and down the residential streets of Travis College Hill and other sections of downtown Garland. As we walked, he always courteously inquired about my career, Kay's career, my family, our goals, our life together in Louisville, Houston, Nashville, or wherever we happened to call home at that period of our lives and eventually how everything was going with each of our children. All very pleasant memories.

We'd pass neatly-kept home after home with lights shining through the windows. J.D. would point out who lived where and would talk about what a quiet, safe place Garland was to live and how glad he was that he moved here in 1939 before the city's rapid growth began to occur.

Mayberry came to mind. I thought of Garland as the epitome of Small-Town America. Even though I knew the city's outlying cotton fields and farm land were quickly being gobbled up for new housing additions and shopping centers, I could hardly comprehend Garland as much more than the little cluster of homes and businesses bounded by Garland Avenue, Walnut, First Street, and West Avenue D that I knew in the late 1960s. After all, it contained just about everything someone living in the area needed.

Over the years we saw that things were changing dramatically in the Old City of Garland, but we had no idea how drastically.

Then on August 1, 2000, Kay and I returned to live here permanently (and we still hope for the rest of our lives). Thirty days later on our 31st wedding anniversary, the contrast between the old and current Garland leaped out at us and could not have been more vivid. At 11 a.m. (the time that our wedding had begun years ago) we made a special commemorative visit to First Baptist's sanctuary to remember those special moments and vows years earlier. Immediately we were struck by the changes. Pews with cushions had replaced the uncomfortable pull-down theater seats. The front of the church didn't look the same and neither did the windows, which I remembered so well because of the bright sunlight beaming through them on that beautiful morning in 1969. And the acoustics were oh so different—better but definitely different.

The church, of course, was a microcosm of what had happened all around the downtown area—only in reverse. The church and the other nearby churches in the area looked better and appeared more prosperous, but the city itself didn't. Mayberry was gone. In its place was something we weren't quite sure we were going to like.

We soon assessed that somebody had stolen our quaint, quiet, safe, self-suffient little historic city. Mrs. Nick's was gone; Jones Hardware was dark and vacant. White Auto had been turned into a sign-manufacturing company. Wyatt's Cafeteria was closed and mostly forgotten. One had to drive to Garland Avenue to find a grocery store or a gas station. We quickly determined that walking too far at night might not be the safest thing to do. Sidewalks were not in the best of conditions; traffic, especially in the  the 1970s "couplet" brainchild (the one-way streets ushering State Highway 78 through downtown), seemed much worse than we had remembered; friends and neighbors had grown old; and the city had a much different feel to it.

And most frustrating of all—most of those beautiful, picturesque pre-World War II homes with lights shining through their windows either were gone and their land turned into church buildings and ugly parking lots or were in a state of decay that troubled our hearts.

In recent years the city's leaders have started spending million of dollars to try and revitalize the downtown area by building mixed-use apartments and storefronts near the new DART rail station and along a couple of streets more than eight blocks from our home. And entrepreneurs like our friend Robert A. Smith and ourselves are investing heavily in trying to restore our own little segments of the Old City. Yet,  despite the arrival of a handful of nice restaurants and a few new businesses, so much more needs to be done.

Only time will tell whether these efforts will succeed and Mayberry/Garland can be brought back from the cliff of disaster and the downtown area can be truly revitalized and returned to be a special place for people to live, work, and enjoy life.