Joseph F. Berenato
30 years of change, town pride and unattended teenagers
Last week, I had a bit of an epiphany.
I was making my daily trip to Wawa on 12th Street before heading into work, and was immediately struck by the fact that there were six school buses in the parking lot. When I went into the store, the place was mobbed by legions of students, so I made my purchase quickly and headed on my way to the post office, noting several more buses parked on Passmore Ave.
There were students everywhere along the route. Passmore. Front Street. Egg Harbor Road. Vine Street.
“What are all these kids doing?” I asked, out loud, to nobody in particular.
As I was crossing Second Street, I noticed several teenagers lugging around tubas, and that’s when I remembered.
It was the Teen Arts Festival.
My immediate reaction—because I am turning into a cranky old man, it seems—was to mutter about the roving packs of teenagers, but then it hit me.
“My God, what a difference,” I said, again out loud.
When I was growing up, the center of town was a much different place. It was not a nice place, and, for a while there, it was advised to lock your car doors as you drove through it.
Short of a presidential visit, there were virtually no daytime events on Bellevue Avenue unless it was the procession on the 16th of July. It was a place strictly for commerce and that was it. There were no nighttime events, either, except for the Halloween parade.
Other than that, kids had virtually no business being on Bellevue Avenue, especially unattended
Sure, sometimes we went to Tapper’s after school if we wanted to buy comic books, but even then they had a strict rule limiting the number of students to two at a time, and backpacks had to be left by the door.
Even then, you hoped nobody saw you.
I vividly remember having a hankering for some egg rolls when I was in ninth grade, so I rode my bike to what was, at the time, Hop Shing, bought some egg rolls, went to the park to eat them, then rode home.
I was greeted at the door by my unhappy father.
“What were you doing in the center of town?” he asked.
To this day, I don’t know how he knew.
I also can’t quite pinpoint when things started to change, but I believe it was shortly after that, first with the town being accepted into the Main Street New Jersey program—leading to the formation of MainStreet Hammonton —and then with the inception of Cruisin’ MainStreet.
My dad always used to talk about how different the center of town was when he was in high school, and how he and his friends would cruise up and down Bellevue Avenue before figuring out what to do with the remainder of their evening.
He was, of course, not alone, and Cruisin’ MainStreet was an attempt to recapture that magic. I remember going to that first one, and taking in all the classic cars (and, as I write this, it occurs to me that vehicles that rolled off the assembly line on the day of the first Cruisin’ MainStreet would themselves now be old enough to be considered classics).
I don’t remember much else about it, except for how strange it felt to be on Bellevue Avenue—and how that’s what it must have been like in the good old days.
I think that’s when the shift started for most of the town, and when we started to realize what a gem the downtown is.
That’s when we started to have pride in our town again.
Buildings started to get fixed up. New businesses moved in. People started to care.
Now, there are events virtually every weekend, and some weeks there are multiple events.
Take this week: May 18 is Third Thursday, Friday, May 19 is both Cruisin’ MainStreet and Cello Day and Saturday, May 20 is the Arts and Music Festival.
The building that houses El Nuevo Mariachi Loco just received a new paint job. The building on the corner of 12th Street and Railroad Avenue is currently undergoing a facelift.
Thousands of cars drive through the center of town daily, and nobody locks their doors on purpose anymore.
People come from far and wide to shop, to visit, to eat and to take part in the unending plethora of events.
And that’s exactly what all those teenagers were doing.
My God, what a difference.
Joseph F. Berenato holds a master’s degree in writing from Rowan University and has been writing for The Hammonton Gazette—to varying degrees—since 1997. He is a trustee with the Historical Society of Hammonton and a caretaker at Oak Grove Cemetery, where he also serves as board secretary. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on social media at @JFBerenato.