Drivers of Change
By Cynthia Sommer
How have the areas of activity changed in Murray Hill over the past 50 years? The business districts on Oakland and Downer Avenues have changed some businesses and upgraded their appearance but they are still the hubs of commerce in the neighborhood. Kenwood Blvd. still has an ecclesiastic section of places of worship though the former Jewish Synagogue is now the UWM Zelazo Center. Duplexes/single family homes and apartments are the consistent primary structures on the remaining streets. A less obvious but real change is the activity on Murray Avenue and Park Place. Fifty years ago, a streetcar and later a trackless trolley transported citizens from Farwell to Murray avenue north and then west on Park Place to Oakland Avenue. Because of this route, these streets were a hub of commerce.
The street car route established in 1892 traveled down Murray Avenue and then Park Place until 1953 when the metal tracts were removed but the electrical lines kept and used by the trackless trolley. The #15 trolley actually rerouted permanently from Farwell to Cambridge Avenue to Oakland Avenue in 1956 when Farwell Avenue was being rebuilt thus eliminated Murray Avenue and Park Place from the route. However a few years later in 1961, the #15 trackless trolley was temporarily redirected on Murray Avenue and Park Place while Oakland Avenue was being rebuilt. The permanent route for the #15 buses replacing the trolley in 1962 remained on Oakland Ave.
The change in transit route did affect the commercial activity on Murray Avenue and Park Place. City records from the 1920’s to 1950’s listed a diversity in the types of mostly small independent businesses that would meet neighbors everyday needs such as drugs, dry goods, confectionary and hardware stores, malt shops, florists, large (A & P Tea Co.) and several small grocery and meat stores, bakery and pastry shops, tailors, beauty and barber shops, dentists, shoe repairs, plumbing and heating companies. Many who moved into the many apartments buildings choose this area because of transit access and a need for a walkable community. One can image neighbors getting off the trolley and stopping for fresh meats and breads for dinner on their way home from work.
By the mid 1960’s, the number of small businesses decreased and were less diverse. You would still have seen a drug store, barber and beauty shops, a bakery and a small grocery store, but also stores that reflected a change in society and the neighborhood at that time (Laundromats, dry cleaners, fast food stores, liquor stores and more taverns). Today, few businesses (a liquor and grocery store, quick pick grocery, dry cleaners and beauty salon) exist to meet every day needs of neighbors. The occupants in the remaining business spaces have shifted to specialty businesses (acupuncture, wellness center, pet grooming, pottery business, tattoo shop, food carry-outs) and a change to bars and taverns.
The change in transit routes precipitated this different picture along Murray Avenue and Park Place but this shift in businesses was also affected by competition from big box stores and societal changes. The change that occurred was not planned as is today’s more organized urban planning. The planned addition of the new East Library and housing in the next few years near this area may also have an impact on the neighborhood. The question is whether we should let this long time business district on Murray Avenue and Park Place to just evolve or should there be more directed planning? What will the neighborhood look like in another 50 years?