In a recent article for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Kevin Riordan writes about Daniel Nester, an author who recently wrote a memoir about growing up in Maple Shade, Burlington County. As Nester tells it, his book Shader is “mostly about growing up in a working-class Catholic family in 1970s and ’80s South Jersey – a landscape of malls, Wawas, and cemeteries” that’s immediately identifiable to anyone who grew up in the area.
But just because malls, Wawas, and cemeteries are universally recognizable parts of the South Jersey landscape, that doesn’t mean you could pick Maple Shade out of a lineup. If you grew up within a 20-mile radius of Philadelphia, it’s likely you’ve passed through Maple Shade even if you didn’t realize it. For much of the later half of the 20th century, Maple Shade’s story, like those of Pennsauken, Cherry Hill, or Marlton, was centered around roads like Routes 38, 70, or 73, those huge, fast divided highway that are today icons of suburban sprawl.
Built during the time of suburbia’s relentless outward expansion, these roads offered a quick way to bypass the towns they run near. But over time, in an era of obsession with quick and easy accessibility by car, these highways became shopping centers in their own right. As towns like Maple Shade sought to cash in on the highways within their borders, they either let their downtowns decay or branded them as “historic” and relegated them to the nostalgic past (a problem that handicaps their viability to this day) . The car and the modern suburbs were king, and no one had a need for small, cramped storefronts anymore.
Or so they thought. What seemed like the new way of American life seems more and more like somewhat of a phase. We still live with these highways, though far from being the beacon of some American dream, they’re clogged with insufferable traffic during commuting hours and alternately lined with placeless big box stores and their own version of roadside decay. They’re nuisances at best — unwalkable, unpleasant to live near, and dangerous for cars, pedestrians, and people on bikes alike — and disastrous at worst — expensive to maintain, clogged with time– and health-robbing traffic, and physically decaying as their economic promise fades but still holding the attention of town halls as nearby downtowns await their revival.
Meanwhile, the focus of a lot of young people has moved back to the historic downtowns long forgotten. Towns like Collingswood, Haddonfield, Merchantville, or Bordentown that didn’t entirely let their downtowns implode are seeing a lot of interest from people who want to live in walkable communities. The towns that did are scrambling to create the arts districts, foster the coffee shops, or improve the public transit links to Philadelphia that people are once again looking for. In short, these towns are trying to figure out how to get back what they lost to highways and cars over the past sixty years: the community that comes from a town where neighbors meet each other on Main Street, the ease and convenience of life along a train line into the jobs of the city, and the economic advantage that comes from having a thriving, living downtown.