How a hobbled Main Street survived the pandemic ‘asteroid’

By Jonno Rattman, Michael Corkery, Alana Celii and Gabriel Gianordoli

Small cities and towns have spent decades trying to revive their faded Main Streets. The pandemic threatened to undo those renewal efforts, and no more so than in Wilkes-Barre, a city of 41,400 people in northeastern Pennsylvania.

We spent the last four months photographing four blocks along the south end of Main Street to capture the pandemic’s impact on downtown Wilkes-Barre.

Main Street is not a place dominated by chic restaurants or perfectly manicured sidewalks. On many blocks sit empty storefronts and businesses that seem suited to a bygone era.

Even before the pandemic, the city had to work hard to keep its downtown vibrant and create a sense of place to compete with the strip malls and big-box stores lining the highways.

Wilkes-Barre, roughly 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia and about 20 miles from President Joe Biden’s hometown of Scranton, is known as the Diamond City because of its reliance on coal production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a magnet for European immigrants, who came to work in the nearby mines or in the ancillary businesses fueled by coal. Most notably, two Italian men founded Planters Peanuts in Wilkes-Barre in 1906 and the company had its headquarters on South Main Street for years. With the coal industry in steep decline after World War II and city dwellers relocating to the suburbs, Wilkes-Barre’s downtown began to struggle. Then, in 1972, businesses suffered a devastating hit during a large flood.

And yet, Main Street endured. New immigrants — this time from places like the Caribbean and Mexico — have taken advantage of cheap rents to open up businesses. The multilevel Boscov’s department store survived the onslaught of suburban shopping malls and the internet. Wilkes University and King’s College expanded their presences downtown, creating more demand for restaurants and bars.

Still, this downtown ecosystem was fragile and it faced its biggest test starting early last year.

“The pandemic,’’ said Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, a nonprofit involved in revitalizing downtown Wilkes-Barre, “was like an asteroid heading toward Earth.”

Main Street businesses across the country were especially imperiled by the shutdowns. They rely almost entirely on foot traffic and only a fraction had e-commerce operations. Rescuing small businesses, which make up more than 40% of the U.S. economy, was seen as imperative for leaders in Washington and small cities like Wilkes-Barre.

“We already had to learn how to reinvent Main Street once after the decline in retail,” Newman said. “Now we have to figure out how to get through this.”

Carleen Hartman moved to Wilkes-Barre from New York after she lost her job in finance as a result of the last recession in 2008. Originally from Jamaica, she and her husband started selling Caribbean jerk chicken in a parking lot along Main Street and then moved into 72 South Main as their clientele grew.

When the pandemic hit, Hartman said, “we were in shock.”

But she quickly adapted, building a takeout window and using Grubhub and other food delivery services after her customers started asking for them. She took out a roughly $2,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan.

“I knew we would get through this,” she said. “My grandfather used to say salvation is forever. But nothing else is forever.”

In a survey in April 2020, more than half of the downtown Wilkes-Barre businesses that responded said they were at risk of closing permanently. In the end, only six did — most of them restaurants.

Many American Main Streets have weathered the pandemic. After some early stumbles, the Paycheck Protection Program has funneled $799 billion, totaling more than 11 million loans, to businesses across the country.

Low interest rates and falling rents have also aided entrepreneurship. A survey by the National Main Street Center of several hundred communities found that for every business that closed in a city the size of Wilkes-Barre, 1.4 new ones opened up. That ratio was lower in larger cities, at 1.1 new businesses for every one that closed.

Cameron English, the owner of a pet store called CDE Exotics, bought a five-story building at 95 S. Main St. a few months before the pandemic and moved his business in. During the pandemic, the store offered curbside pet adoptions, with English saying ball pythons, bearded dragons and leopard geckos were especially popular.

But some businesses were already in decline before the lockdowns, and their owners decided it was time to move on. One that didn’t make it was Tony Bonczewski’s shoe-repair shop. He started as a shoeshine boy at 15 and had been repairing shoes in downtown Wilkes-Barre since the early 1960s. For many years, his shop was on Public Square in the heart of Main Street.

When the law offices and a large insurance company closed early in the pandemic, Bonczewski went days without customers.

In February, Bonczewski closed down his shop. He said he wasn’t sure what he was going to do in retirement. “The older people are all gone. That was my base,” he said. “They passed on before me. I am surprised I am still here.”

Shortly after he closed, Bonczewski died at 91.

Newman compares the downtown’s current condition to people who have lingering symptoms from the virus.

“I’ve begun to worry that many Main Street businesses may face a sort of economic equivalent of COVID long-haul,” he said. “Making it through the shutdowns only to confront a persistent, longer-term struggle.”

Brenda Sokolowski has reasons to be hopeful. She started making sandwiches at Circles on the Square, a popular downtown lunch spot, 14 years ago.

After the store’s owners died, the family asked her if she wanted to buy the business. She and her husband closed on the deal in December 2020, just as the coronavirus was surging again in Wilkes-Barre.

“It was like, ‘Should we do this?’” said Sokolowski, 58. “And then we decided, let’s do it. Let’s just make it ours and we can take it from there.”

During the shutdown, her husband delivered sandwiches to people who were working from home. As some workers have returned to their downtown offices a few days a week, they have started coming back to Circles for their favorites — fried fish and tuna noodle casserole.

“We tried to keep it as consistent as we could,” she said. “It was our bit of normal in all the chaos.”

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