After crossing the Thames River along Interstate 95, speeding westward past the compact, archetypically New England central business district to New London, Connecticut, a visitor will encounter an exit ramp leading directly to the city’s economically recovering downtown. Generally speaking, this should be the preferred trajectory for those of us obsessed with old town centers. But sometimes, it’s equally interesting to go the opposite direction when disembarking from that freeway—away from the downtown. In New London, taking the road less traveled leads right to a building with a huge label: The sign isn’t particularly distinctive on its own terms: bland, all-caps lettering near the cornice line. It’s the greater context that makes this a real oddity. Could it be the architecture?Not really—it’s nothing too remarkable from an architectural standpoint either. Still don’t get what’s so strange about it?
Whether consciously or not, we don’t usually associate buildings like this with a term like “shopping center”. It just doesn’t fit. First of all, the label is an anachronism, at least when applied to an edifice like this. It goes without saying that it’s an old building—possibly close to a century old. While it might not predate the automobile, it certainly comes from a time when low levels of vehicle ownership made it practical to house businesses and residences under the same roof, with shops on the ground floor and apartments above—long before the automobile completely transformed consumerism. Second of all, a humble little cluster of buildings does not usually constitute a “center”, let alone a place for shopping. The photos below capture the entirety of Hodges Square. Here’s the one side of our most prominent building:And here’s the other:That’s it. At this point in time, we see a liquor store, a Chinese restaurant, a deli and mini-grocer, a beauty supply store, and an institute of culinary arts. Even the tenants themselves would have a hard time arguing that this is some sort of major retail destination. Therefore, measuring exclusively by the total leasable square footage, Hodges Square comes up way short as a shopping center.
Perhaps most importantly—though also most subtly—the very essence of these buildings challenges the notion of what most people consider a shopping center. Where’s all the parking? Where’s the big-box anchor tenant? Where’s the huge sign nestled with rectangles of varying sizes, correlating to all the different shops available? It goes without saying that I’m describing the suburban archetype, because a shopping center is inherently suburban. Like the “mall” (another term that took on a new meaning through the emergence of suburbia), shopping centers overtly defied retail typologies that preceded them: that is, the historic downtown or pedestrian-scaled commercial node. As downtowns lost their cogency in the 1950s, shopping centers and malls came to fill the void. They offered convenience, through prominent parking lots. They offered centralization, through unified property management, rather than fragmented across buildings under variegated ownership. They offered proximity, since they broke ground right next to where the burgeoning middle class was moving, in the urban fringe. Whether deliberately or not, the term “shopping center” helped brand these new districts as everything a downtown wasn’t. Nobody called downtowns “shopping centers” in the 1940s, and, besides the cluster of buildings one might find at a streetcar/trolley stop, nobody shopped anywhere else. Until suburbia, I’d imagine no one used the label “shopping center”.
Yet here we see Hodges Square and its big lettering. Obviously it isn’t a shopping center by any conventional definition. And it isn’t New London’s downtown, which sits about a half mile to the south of Hodges Square and is working on its own regeneration.My guess is that Hodges Square really was an old trolley stop, back in the day, and it probably functioned quite effectively as a miniature commercial node on its own terms. It might have even looked like a bona fide square—at least until cars took over. Here’s a Google street-section view of the square, with the primary cluster of buildings on the right. The other side of the square is an elevated highway. Most likely at least a few buildings came down in order to make way for that concrete ribbon, and those buildings could have easily comprised the other side of a square. Proceeding further down Williams Street (the primary road hosting Hodges Square), we encounter one or two other old commercial buildings scaled for pedestrians, then a bunch of gas stations or other auto-oriented uses. In fact, the east side of the street offers one gas station after another. Is it possible that other mixed-use buildings (shops on the first floor, offices and apartments above) once stood where we now see a phalanx of filling stations? Did the original main-street character of this area succumb to automobilization, leaving only fragments in its wake—like the old buildings that constitute the Hodges Square Shopping Center?
Just as the term “shopping center” expedited the rebranding the American consumer experience in a setting far removed from downtowns, those old commercial nodes sought to re-appropriate their former primacy by whatever means possible. I suspect that those blocky letters at “Hodges Square Shopping Center” came in the 1970s, when these buildings had clearly already lost their cachet. Calling it a SHOPPING CENTER helped make it that much more prominent to passers-by, but it also served as a last-ditch effort to remind New Londoners that, yes, you could still do at least some shopping here. I’m not sure how much it worked, but clearly the community hasn’t given up yet. Within one of the other storefronts at the two-story Hodges Square building (next to the Institute for Culinary Arts) is a distinct little display:A local nonprofit has valiantly striven to reassert the viability of these buildings, in the face of stiff competition from the Crystal Mall and various other…um…shopping centers. This tiny little commercial cluster—or what’s left of it—can stand in for the identity of the larger neighborhood latticework of northern New London. While it may seem like the New London Village Association has its work cut out for itself, the general public attitude toward old mixed-use buildings augurs well: it may not take too many more streetscape improvements before some hip new entrepreneur recognizes the possibility of the Hodges Square Shopping Center. Before long, if I were a betting man, I’d expect we could see big bold lettering (much more fashionably rendered) that says the following: Hodges Square Brewing Company.