VINELAND — Visitors to the downtown business district of this 150-year-old city need only to look up to see what it is all about.
A 99-foot-long mural on the side of a building in the 600 block of Landis Avenue features its cultural diversity and heritage, displaying everything from its ethnic population mix to the dandelion and poultry industries that helped make it famous.
For Caleb DeSoto, whose Landis Avenue DeSoto Jewelry store is celebrating its 25th anniversary, that diversity still exists and is something visitors should experience.
“It is very, very much culturally rich,” he said.
On Landis Avenue, that means eateries that serve Hispanic, Thai, Jamaican, Italian and other cuisines. That also means mom-and-pop stores where, as DeSoto puts its, service is “year-round.”
“It’s all family-oriented,” DeSoto said. “You are not going to be treated like a number, like at a big-box store.”
A concerted effort by local merchants and city government has resulted in something of a comeback along Landis Avenue.
There is a fledgling restaurant row. The Landis MarketPlace, which opened two years ago, features an Amish market and other specialty vendors. The revamped Landis Theater presents everything from movies to concerts to productions of Broadway plays. McLaughlin’s News Agency is one of the last of its kind, peddling an array of newspapers and magazines and selling New Jersey lottery tickets to its regular customers every day.
The main feature of the downtown may be Landis Avenue itself. The thoroughfare, like several other downtown streets, was purposely designed by city founder Charles K. Landis to be broad and tree-lined. Some debate remains as to whether Landis wanted it to resemble the tree- and cafe-lined Champs-Elysees in Paris.
Customers at Bain’s Deli get a little touch of the cafe atmosphere that owner Armando Fraile hopes will happen more along Landis Avenue. There are tables outside his business, and he often has entertainment in his eatery’s back room.
“I’m happy because so many people who have come over here have left happy,” said Fraile, who opened his business about seven months ago.
“There is an energy now that downtown Vineland is coming back,” said Dawn Hunter, executive director of the Greater Vineland Chamber of Commerce. “I think people sense that. I think there is a new energy that people need to discover.
“Sometimes there is the opinion that too much is focused on the downtown and not enough on the rest of the business community. If you don’t have a core center, it’s really going to be hard to build anything beyond that,” she said.
The city has tried in recent years to build that core and make the business district even more customer-friendly.
There are new sidewalks and places for pedestrians to sit and relax for a few minutes. New signs point the way to free municipal parking. New bicycle lanes run along Elmer and Wood streets, which flank Landis Avenue, between East and West avenues.
The bicycle lane on Elmer Street passes another landmark that continues to document the city’s past — the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society. The organization claims to be the state’s oldest historical society, having been founded in 1864.
The downtown improvements also included upgrading business facades with the help of Urban Enterprise Zone funds.
“People who haven’t been here in 10 or 15 years are really happy with what they’re seeing,” Hunter said.
But Fraile said he thinks there is more to be done, including having a larger variety of businesses to attract more people to Landis Avenue.
“We can do something better for the street,” he said.
Residents felt something better could be done with the mural, the final version of which shows how strongly they feel about their city.
Creation of the mural two years ago involved a series of town meetings, during which residents suggested what should and should not be shown in the final product. Landis’ face became more prominent.
But shrinking in size was the likeness of Thomas Welch, because residents were still stinging years after he took the grape-juice business he started here to California.
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