Boom times for 25th Street in 1950s

By: Michelle Hillen, Waco Tribune-Herald

One sunny day in the early 1950s, Cappy Crow wandered around North 25th Street, capturing with his Kodak scenes of life around him in the then-prosperous business district.

Now those pictures are among the last testaments to an once-thriving part of town that has changed so much Crow won't drive down there any more.

"I grew up with all of those people and places and I loved them," Crow said. "But I don't want to drive through that neighborhood anymore because I'm devastated at what has happened. Other than a few businesses, it's virtually dead down there."

The old 25th Street Theatre is still the main focal point of the area, but the marquee is bare and the windows in the ticket booth have been smashed. Car repair shops have popped up on both sides of the street, and while residents say those are nice to have nearby, they lament the loss of a variety of businesses.

A sign near the intersection of North 25th Street and Grim Avenue says city officials are considering the removal of the traffic light there — further evidence that the area is not getting the streams of traffic it once did.

"Traffic patterns in that area have changed a great deal over the years, and now, there doesn't seem to be a need for that signal," said Rick Charlton, city traffic operations administrator.

But fewer cars traveling that stretch of road form only one part of the story. The rest of the details come from people like Crow, who can still recall the taste of ice cream from the neighborhood's ice cream parlor and remembers hearing a 78 rpm record for the first time in a neighborhood record store.

"It was a very caring neighborhood and we all liked it because we were so close to everything," Crow said. "I could ride my bike down there, do what I needed and zip on back home."

Some of the details, like names, are fuzzy, but Crow said he remembers that time and that place as some of the best years of his life.

Documents for posterity

He also remembers when it all started to decline, with him trying to commemorate his memories with still-life photos that would speak to future generations.

"I remember taking those pictures because I wanted to document the area down 25th Street where I lived for posterity," Crow said. "I knew those places wouldn't last long so I decided to take pictures of them. I wanted other people to appreciate my memories."

Doris Concilio, who helped her husband run Paul's Shoe Service for 50 years on that block, remembers making the move to 25th Street from Austin Avenue downtown because they had found the perfect little storefront that was just what they needed for their business.

"We had been downtown, but the war (World War II) interrupted that, and we were looking for a certain kind of place," Concilio said. "We found it on 25th Street, and we stayed there for 50 years. For us, business was good, right up until the end."

Malls mark transition

Her business was primarily fitting children with special shoes to help them walk, so the store always had a steady clientele, she said. However, she remembers seeing a number of small stores drifting out of the area once malls started becoming popular.

"Times changed for us when the malls came into play," she said. "I remember when Lake Air Mall was open. They drew businesses away from our area and there weren't as many of the mom-and-pop stores anymore."

Mike Stanley, owner of Mike's Print Shop, has called the 25th Street area home for his business since 1974. He still lingers on there, but after watching friends and fellow shopkeepers move away for years, he says he can see nothing good coming to the area anymore.

"When I went in down there, there were still quite a few businesses," Stanley said. "The old-timers used to call me the kid because I was the young man on the block, but over the years, despite all of this talk about revitalization, I haven't seen any revitalization down there."

Stanley attributes the close of the 25th Street Theater as leading to the downfall of the business community, because that cut foot traffic in the area.

Theater led the migration

"That was probably one of the devastating things that happened during my time," Stanley said. "And I just don't think it will ever be the same again. I honestly just can't see anyone putting that kind of money in that part of town, unless it is the pet project of someone who has money."

In 1983, the city planned a big revitalization program in the area, hoping that the development of a merchants' association , a huge clean-up of the neighborhood and the promise of tax abatements for new businesses would help the area to thrive again.

"Back at that time, the city decided to try to do something and pick an area to concentrate its services and see if we could get some revitalization going in the area," said Bill Falco, planning director for the city. "We did some conceptual designs for the businesses and met with the merchants, kind of trying to stimulate some interest along 25th Street. There was even a section that was included in the comprehensive plan, but we couldn't really get anyone interested in it."

Those in the neighborhood took an interest in the plan, and as a result of the revitalization discussion, the Sanger - Heights Neighborhood Association was formed, said Kent Keeth, one of its original members.

"We formed in May of 1984, and helping with that revitalization effort was part of our original goal, but mainly the idea was to clean up the neighborhood," Keeth said. "We feel like we've done a good job of doing that, and we would love to see new businesses in the area."

A couple of years ago, the organization got together a list of businesses it would like to see move into the area. The list contained an ice-cream parlor, a dry cleaning shop, a hardware store and a discount store — the kinds of things that would make life more convenient for neighborhood residents.

"This used to be quite a thriving, attractive street, but not anymore," Keeth said. "Mainly we call it Gasoline Alley because most of the street is body shops and general garage-type things. Now, those things are fine, but it would be nice to add some other businesses into the mix."

Although he doesn't think the area will change dramatically anytime soon, things may be improving for former community commercial hubs like 25th Street, said Falco.

City Hall tries to help

The city has recently considered creating a special tax-abatement district for areas such as 25th Street to encourage economic growth, and city planning trends are going back to the creation of neighborhood commercial centers.

"They are calling it a new urbanism, but it is really the same idea as in the past," Falco said. "The idea is to create mixed use with some shopping like a grocery store and other smaller businesses."

The idea is working well in some larger cities, but it may be tough to get it going in a smaller city like Waco, he said. So 25th Street will most likely have to wait, with little but Cappy Crow's pictures to remind people of its past — and its potential.

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