Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Some Thoughts on The Gallery

On average three days a week for the past 20 years I have walked through the Gallery, as one of the estimated 13,000 commuters who use Market East / Jefferson Station.  It’s a quick and easy way to get from the train station to the next point of my journey.  I have been reading the articles in the paper about the future of the Gallery, which has been slowly closing stores and clearing out the kiosks.  Without the ambient lighting from the stores and kiosks the walkways are fairly dark and dreary now.

I’ve gone through several stages of thought since the news broke that the Gallery would be closing.  At first I was concerned about public safety – after all, you can’t move 13,000 people from the underground walkway to the city streets unless you widen the sidewalks.  There just wouldn’t be room.  But then the number of people in the Gallery started to decrease.  These days the former streams of people walking through has slowed to a trickle.  There is room enough now for people to charge up their cell phones at the outlets along the wall.  In busier times there wouldn’t have been space for them to do that.  Either there are more high school students loitering around or they are easier to see now that there are fewer commuters there.  The train people I know well enough to ask tell me they have found other ways to get from Jefferson Station to wherever they go next.  They are unlikely to return.

Just the loss of the stores has taken a toll.  For me personally, the Gallery was the second most frequent place I shopped.  I bought something there once or twice a week.  The grocery store is the only place I spend money more frequently.  Granted some of my Gallery purchases were just snacks or cards but others were expensive (clothes, shoes, books, gifts, etc.).  I remember when there was a CVS along the way.  It often opened up early enough to catch the morning commuting crowd and I took advantage of that.   Several of the merchants saved me from disaster – a fruit tray for a work party when I left the one I intended to bring at home, flowers for a new colleague, gifts for the holiday toy drive, safety pins when a wardrobe disaster happened, and so on.  I will miss this quick fix to daily problems, and the convenience of being able to shop going to and from work. 

Mostly I will miss the camaraderie of my fellow commuters.  People were busy and in a hurry so there wasn’t a lot of conversation but if you dropped something someone would tell you or pick it up for you.  On a regular basis a group of deaf people met in the food court and watching their sign language conversations which, for all their silence, could get loud (at least judging by the large and adamant gestures), reminded me that the deaf have a vibrant community of their own.  For awhile a sharply dressed older man would sit facing the foot traffic and insist on making eye contact with the ladies.  I think he just wanted some attention.  One day I was going slower than usual because a toddler was wandering around and I wanted to make sure an adult was with him.  A man behind me was so close he nearly stepped on my heels.  I apologized and said I was just making sure the little boy was okay.  The man stared at me intently and asked “Well, is he?”  My interpretation of this is that he had noticed the boy, too, but did not feel comfortable pausing himself.  He had zeroed in on me as a “safe” women who was also concerned.  One day recently a group of high school kids was loitering in the area and two of the boys started circling each other, fists up.  I used the lowest voice register possible and yelled for them to cut it out.  They mocked me but scattered and I went off in search of a guard.  I helped police my corner of the universe and I saw others doing the same. A few years ago a middle aged man would hang around and try to chat up the teenage girls in school uniforms.  I was not the only woman walking by who told him to buzz off (or some similar to that).

Daily courtesies like friendly smiles, doors held, and so on, gave me a sense of community.  This is pretty much gone now, leaving with most of my fellow commuters.  If the renovation plans were public or if there were a published timeline I would view this as more of a temporary blip.  But all we have heard is that the real estate company that owns the Gallery seems to be in pursuit of the corporate retail unicorn – wealthy shoppers who will stop by every day and spend large sums of money.  There is talk of “upscale” stores and restaurants.  That excludes me and most of my fellow commuters as customers.  We can only provide regular reliable sales of a middling nature.  I do not think upscale stores (whatever that means) will find the location appealing enough, no matter how spruced up the walls and floors are.  Certainly they would not view my level of shopper as sufficient to move in. 

Personally I don’t see how you can do much better than having 13,000 people walk past your store front every day but I’m not a retail specialist.  I do mourn the loss of this pleasant way to begin and end my regular work routine.  Most of the commuters are gone.  I’ll stick around until the rest of the lights go out, but at some point I’ll have to find another way from point A to point B, probably up on the sidewalks or using another train station altogether.  Like the other train people I’ve talked to, I probably won’t return either.  For me, this is a shame.  I’ve enjoyed my walks through the Gallery.  They’ve been an important part of my life for two decades.

So, farewell to a much-loved place and to my fellow travelers, and to the merchants who sold us what we wanted or needed.  The walls and ceiling kept me safe and warm regardless of the weather.  I’m really going to miss this daily ritual.

Statistic on the number of commuters is from “Gallery Mall stores close for planned renovations,” by Valerie Russ, Philadelphia Inquirer 1/22/2105

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