Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The A&P, Living There in Allentown

Two classic American institutions - one at the tail end of its run, and one with a few more miles to go. This photo was taken on April 26, 1953 at the intersection of Hamilton and Second streets in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Five weeks later, streetcar service would end for good in Allentown, as it would in most American cities before the close of the 1950’s. The overhead wires would be torn out, the ancient cobblestones and rails paved over.

Despite their introduction of supermarkets way back in 1936, there were still scores of tiny corner A&P food stores operating in the early 50’s. Even ten years after that, they were a not uncommon sight in many Northeastern cities. But times were changing for many of A&P’s core customer base of middle class families. They’d fought the Second World War. Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore. And in the 50’s and 60’s, large numbers of them were moving to new, suburban areas – all too often shopping at the gleaming new supermarkets of A&P’s competitors.

Looking back from our nostalgic viewpoint today, it’s fascinating to ponder how these little stores co-existed with the neon-emblazoned, pyloned colossi at the other end of the supermarket spectrum. A paradox of the quaint and the cool. I’ll take both.

The photo is the work of Edward S. Miller, one of the most esteemed photographers of 20th century American railroading. Mr. Miller, now in his late eighties, specialized in photographing traction railroads (streetcar systems), and chronicled virtually all the major American city and interurban systems of the 1950’s. A truly outstanding aspect of his work was his ability to capture the surrounding cityscape in the photos. My special thanks to Mr. Miller and to Ed Philbin for helping to arrange contact with him. This photo, along with hundreds of other superb ones, appears in the book “Streetcar Scenes of the 1950’s”, an incredible look at street(car) scenes from all over the country, in color and razor-sharp clarity, with narrative and photo captions by Le Roy O. King. It is one of my most treasured books, one that I’ve owned for years. My sincere thanks also to Bob Yanosey, publisher of Morning Sun Books, for allowing the use of the photo.


  1. The "streetcar" strip was the direct ancestor of the early strip malls. Many of the first shopping centers were essentially a streetcar strip with a small parking lot in front. The 1939 Forest Hills Plaza in East Cleveland, Ohio and the even earlier Connecticut Park & Shop in the Cleveland Park section of Washington DC are two examples. Both had A&Ps. Both centers survive. The Forest Hills center outlived the surrounding streetcar strips which were damaged in a1968 riot. The Park & Shop and the nearby traditional strip survive into the present. There was a long surviving A&P corner store in Cleveland Park's main streetcar strip.

    A strip near a major cross street often included more than one grocery, as well as a hardware store, a florist and a drug store. Less major intersections might just have one grocery. This was the template for those early centers, as well.

  2. A&P survived in Allenton and the Lehigh Valley as Super Fresh until at least the mid 90's, though the streetcar strip stores were long gone by then.

    I don't know if you've the story behind the lyrics of "Allentown" or not, but Billy Joel acknowledged using Allentown rather than neighboring Bethlehem was because it was easier to fit Allentown to the lyrics and beat. Neighboring Bethlehem was troubled by the closing of the steel mills, while Allentown was the more prosperous of the two, but was affected by the layoffs of the industry as well.

    Today the area is an emerging exurb to both New York City and to a lesser extent Philadelphia. Given A&P's position in those two markets, would the Grandma of Grocery Stores be willing to return? Or would non-union Weis and Giant-PA prove to well entrenched to stage a comeback?

  3. Anonymous – Interesting point, although I would say that most of the buildings in this photo, including the one in which the A&P was located, predate the 1930’s planned “streetcar strips” by many decades, and all manner of businesses – butcher shops, furriers, jewelers, you name it – could be found on streets like these. Having said that, I definitely agree that those you mention were forerunners to the early shopping centers. Thanks for the comment!

    Didi – No question about it. You should see the other photos in this book! It’s a look into another world, yet the color and sharpness are such that it looks like they were taken last week. A real “Back to the Future” feeling. The publisher confirmed to me that an all-Chicago book is in the works!

    Ken – Thanks for the backstory on “Allentown”, which has always been one of my favorite songs. I’ve liked it since day one of its release, but I have to admit it took several years and a bit of maturing on my part before I fully realized the irony of the song’s cheery tone vs. the lyrical content!

    The area, as you say, has very much become commuter-land for many to New York City. We have friends in nearby Easton, PA, where the husband commutes to NYC several times a week. Kind of the best of both worlds (although the drive is a bit on the long side), the suburban/semi-rural, family-friendly Eastern PA life combined with all of the business and cultural opportunities “The City” has to offer.

    Weis would definitely be a factor in any comeback, and Wegmans maybe even more so. I’m not as familiar with Giant-PA’s appeal there.