CAPE MAY — Vincent Casale remembers when the main drag in this seaside town was Washington Street and being a shoe salesman along it wasn’t all that lucrative.
“The street was very narrow. It was an old, rutted road. The stores were very old,” said Casale, 82, who began selling shoes here in 1946 and opened his own store in 1957.
That all changed in 1972, when the street was transformed into the Washington Street Mall. A tourist season that had run from mid-June to Labor Day — when Casale said “we rolled the sidewalks up” — was suddenly beginning earlier and ending later.
Merchants were opening new stores. Buses were rolling in and dropping off hordes of tourists. As traffic increased, so did sales and property values.
Casale said they went from “just about making a living” to putting money in the bank.
“It brought the town alive and made millionaires out of us,” he said.
From a commerce standpoint, the move made the city’s main street very successful. The Washington Street Mall is still the hub of commerce.
But main streets in towns also serve other functions. They are a social gathering place and say something culturally about a town. The mall mostly drew tourists, and this changed the types of stores and the clientele. Casale still sells shoes here, but many other stores sell merchandise geared toward tourists.
So is Washington Street still Cape May’s main street?
“I’d say Cape May has two main streets, Beach Avenue and the Washington Street Mall,” said John Cooke, who heads the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May.
Eliza Lotozo, 23, who serves on the newly created Cape May Beautification Committee, takes the debate even further. Lotozo said the main street is one big loop that takes in the oceanfront and the mall area.
She describes it as Perry Street on the west and Ocean Street on the east. The beachfront is the southern boundary. The northern boundary could end as far away as Swain’s Hardware, which opened in 1896, and take in Collier’s Liquor Store and other shops in the area. The mall is in the middle.
“Just because ours isn’t in one straight line doesn’t mean we don’t have one. When people think of a main street, they think of that section of town with longstanding local bars and mom-and-pop stores. We have all these businesses,” Lotozo said.
Lotozo, who works as a waitress within this loop, as well as promoting events such as the city’s annual jazz festival, said the loop is the city’s main street in the summer.
“I’ve met a lot of people working in the restaurant that don’t know anything outside of the loop. Perry to Ocean in the summer is the main street. In the winter, there really isn’t one,” Lotozo said.
One reason there may be no winter main street is because the tourists disappear, and so do many of the locals who work in the industry. Mayor Ed Mahaney is trying to use the new Convention Hall and social media to extend the season.
“We’ve made major strides in the last five years with a new website (www.DiscoverCapeMayNJ.com), new technical amenities at Convention Hall, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. We negotiated a new cable franchise agreement and got our own channel for the city of Cape May,” Mahaney said.
Drawing them here is one thing, but once they arrive, a main street has to deliver. Cape May’s appears to do this. Visitors say it’s visually pleasing with picturesque Victorian homes, blue-slate sidewalks, restaurants, cafes, bars, shops and the grassy Rotary Park that features concerts all summer.
While the downtown caters to summer folk with its share of ice cream, candy and surf shops, it has some main street staples such as Casale’s shoe store, clothing stores and the Dellas 5&10 with its old-fashioned soda fountain. There also is a fish market and several art galleries.
Specialty stores include those presenting bath, kitchen and even baby products. There is a Swedish store and an Irish store. Several places rent bikes. There are a few chain stores, such as a Dairy Queen and a Ben & Jerry’s, but most are small, family-owned businesses.
The area includes plenty of seating, fountains, trees and flowers. There are public bathrooms at several locations.
“I love everything about it,” said Brenda Shinnerschietz, of Bethlehem, Pa., a regular visitor. “It’s kept nice and clean. I love the houses. I love Congress Hall with all the beautiful flowers. My friends who don’t like to walk take the trolley.”
Sophie Murray, a Delaware resident who visits on bus trips, said it is different from other shore towns. She likes the fact that there are no amusement rides.
“They have horses and carriages, and there are no neon lights, and they don’t have the carnival for children. I think that’s nice,” Murray said.
Parking is a major problem, with few spaces and meters that provide 15 minutes per quarter, but the upside is it’s a pedestrian-friendly area. Lotozo uses her bicycle to get around and said the committee is looking at ways to support those on two wheels.
“Cape May is not bike-friendly right now. There are not enough bike lanes,” Lotozo said.
There are plenty of interesting little nooks and crannies in the loop. The Congress Hall hotel, which anchors the west side of the mall, has its own indoor shops, restaurants and nightclubs. Lotozo’s personal favorite is the Brown Room, an intimate setting that has a fireplace during the winter.
There are hidden shops in several alleyways. Action in the loop does gear back in the winter, but Lotozo notes some places, such as the Mad Batter and the Ugly Mug, are great winter watering holes.
“The (Ugly) Mug is a place you go and see your high school teachers,” Lotozo said.
Restaurants such as the Pilot House and George’s Place on the beachfront stay open in winter. The Pilot House and the Mad Batter have open-mike nights. The Virginia Hotel stays open.
In summer, some locals argue main street moves closer to the beach as people come off the strand and frequent bars and restaurants.
“There’s a lot of action going on. I think that meets the bill of a main street,” said Peter Karapanagiotis, who owns the restaurant the Y.B. on the beachfront.
“For me in the summer, this is the main street. You go to the beach, eat at George’s Place or the Y.B., go to Cabanas or Martini Beach, or Congress Hall to the Brown Room or the Boiler Room,” Lotozo said.
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