Christmas Downtown

The Post-Standard (Syracuse, New York)

December 7, 2008 Sunday




BYLINE: By Greg Munno Civic engagement editor


LENGTH: 817 words

Harry and Mary Lewis took their three kids downtown at least once every holiday season during the 1960s, and it was never just a quick trip.

“It was a day out, for sure,” said Lewis, now 81 and living on Lancaster Avenue. “We’d do breakfast with Santa. We’d take in a movie. We’d visit at least one department store, Deys or Edwards usually. I worked at Deys. It was always packed – the stores, the streets, the sidewalks. It had the feel of a big city.”

When talking to older Central New Yorkers about downtown Syracuse, it never takes long for them to express a nostalgia for downtown during the post-war era, a time when retail boomed in the city center, when Salina Street was packed with department stores, movie theaters, bookstores and, most importantly of all, people.

The holidays inspire reflection and nostalgia, and for people looking back on Syracuse, it’s hard not to take stock of just how much has been lost.

But for people like David Mankiewicz of the Downtown Committee, who is charged with improving the business district, the more remarkable thing is that despite the losses, downtown is still a place thousands of people make a point of visiting during the holidays – to skate on the Clinton Square rink, to dance at the Holiday Magic in the Square tree lighting celebration, to go to church, to shop at hip boutiques in Armory Square or to return to retail icons that have weathered it all, like Lemp Jewelers, established downtown in 1890.

Mankiewicz said that the nostalgia we feel for downtown is a reflection of our understanding the central role downtown has, can and should play in our community.

“Downtown still gives people something they can’t get elsewhere – the small and unique shops, the public spaces,” he said. “Retail is important; don’t get me wrong. But downtown is also about community gatherings, about being the place where people come together to celebrate the season.”

His Downtown Committee colleague, Merike Treier, described the experience and the products available downtown as being “authentic.”

Mankiewicz said studies show people increasingly want that type of shopping experience. He contrasted it to malls, which he described as “single-purpose commercial retail centers designed to maximize sales.”

Mankiewicz said most downtown businesses reported good Thanksgiving weekend sales. He says people’s ties to downtown, and the sense of authenticity it offers, may help it weather the recession. He added that he expects more retail shops to open downtown, although he does not foresee department stores returning. “The big retailers are going to go to the mall,” he said.

Mankiewicz also said that he believes the Metropolitan Development Association, which he also works for, will soon announce the long-awaited redevelopment plan for the 300 block of South Salina Street, the historic center of the downtown retail core.

“We don’t want to raise expectations until we’re sure work is ready to get started, and in this credit market that’s a difficult thing to be confident about,” he said. “But, yes, I think we’ll soon be able to make an announcement.”

The Onondaga Historical Association is examining the special relationship between downtown and the holidays in an exhibit that runs through Jan. 18 and in a panel discussion at 2 p.m. today.

Tom Hunter, the curator of “Kid Stuff: Toys from Your Childhood – the Nifty Fifties” at OHA, said the Christmas season is always a poignant time to study history because it naturally inspires reflection and nostalgia.

“The throngs of shoppers downtown with their parcels; the men in hats and the women in white gloves; the Christmas trees with tinsel and the old bulbs; all the old toys,” Hunter said. “It brings you back to your childhood and is a way to share those memories with younger generations.”

Greg Munno can be reached at or 470-6084.

Share your memories

Did you ride the monorail at E.W. Edwards department store? What stores and sights were must-sees for your family when you came downtown during the holidays? Which department store did you favor for having your yearly chat with Santa?

Share your memories of downtown Syracuse during the holidays at

Historic holidays

The Onondaga Historical Association is exploring the holidays in Syracuse during the golden age of downtown retail in the 1950s and 1960s.

At 2 p.m. today, a panel discussion on downtown during that era will feature Charles A. Chappell Jr., former head of the Chappell’s Department Store chain; Robert E. Rodormer, past president of E.W. Edwards & Son; OHA Curator of History Dennis Connors; and Post-Standard columnist Sean Kirst.

Visitors can also check out “Kid Stuff: Toys from Your Childhood – the Nifty Fifties,” which features toys from the 1950s and photos from downtown during the Christmas season.

The exhibits are free and open to the public. OHA is located at 321 Montgomery St.

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