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Several towns in South Jersey, most notably Cherry Hill, have gradually undergone the equivalent of a facelift over the past 40 years. For some, this change in physical identity has resulted in an emotional shift as well.

 

By Jeff Glauser

 

This was it. Or, more accurately: it.  

Here was where it was all happening. Here was the scene.

Not New York. Not Philly. Definitely not A.C. Right here.

Cherry Hill was it.

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Anna Broe still remembers it fondly. Loitering at the Cherry Hill Inn. Or the Rickshaw Inn. Dancing at the Music Fair on Brace Road. Catching a show at the Hawaiian Cottage and its unmistakable pineapple on the roof. Hanging out at the Convention Center. And, of course, witnessing the biggest and brightest stars at the Latin Casino. In fact, her senior prom was held there; that same evening, the Supremes were playing right down the hall.

“It was the place to be,” says Broe, 54, who also took in Phyllis Diller, Ray Charles (“they were busing people in from New York [for him]”) at the Latin and Chuck Berry at the Convention Center. “There were so many places. You could do anything in Cherry Hill.

“If you wanted to see a star, you went to the Latin Casino. You didn’t have to go over the bridge. Now if you want to see a star, you have to go to Philly and sit in these nosebleed seats and pay too much. [Before], it was close, convenient. You were right there. It was an intimate experience.”

She says she used to love when the weekend would roll around, to dress up with her girlfriends, and do the nightlife practically in their backyard. “It was elegant. You could wear gowns.”

For David Molotsky, 63, his star sightings in town included the likes of Buddy Hackett, Harry Belafonte and Tom Jones, and for just 10 or 12 bucks a show. One time, a good friend of his was pulled up onstage by Jonathan Winters during his comedy act. “It was a hysterical situation,” he recalls.

Molotsky, who grew up in North Camden, moved to town in 1965 with his wife shortly after getting married, and hasn’t moved since. Even beforehand, he often socialized there. “At that time, it was the hot community,” he said. “It was first class, world class entertainment that was here for years and years. It was a lot of fun.”

Forty years later, and the former Latin Casino is a car dealership, albeit the Subaru headquarters. The Convention Center, a shopping center. The Cherry Hill Inn taken up by the Loew’s Theatre and accompanying chain stores. In fact, none of the aforementioned venues exist any longer. “Everything’s gone now,” says Broe. “Nothing’s there anymore [and] they didn’t replace it with anything better. Now, it’s just all commercial. It’s not an elegant place to go.

“No other towns in the area had the nightlife like Cherry Hill did. Now, Cherry Hill is like all the other towns. There’s nothing that really stands out anymore.”

In actuality, Cherry Hill is indicative of a seemingly widespread trend of many contemporary towns throughout South Jersey: having gradually undergone the equivalent of a facelift over the past four decades-- and possibly losing its identity in the process.

The township’s current mayor has seen the entire transformation firsthand, and in distinct phases: from an area laden with corn fields and cows to a social mecca to, well, today. “When I first moved here, there were farms [all over town],” says Bernie Platt, who has been in office since 2002, but also served a stint as mayor from 1979-81. “Today there is only one farm left. In the last 40 years, the landscape has changed tremendously. Communities change over the years, and I feel we’ve changed for the better.”

Platt adds that the township remains just as recognizable today because of the one historical mainstay that hasn’t moved: the Cherry Hill Mall. “We still have the mall here, and that will always stand out,” he says, calling it the “centerpiece” that also brought about the name change from its original Delaware Township moniker.

Cherry Hill’s longstanding reputation as an educational force also keeps it firmly visible. “It distinguishes itself because of the exemplary school district we have,” the mayor says, also adding the shopping, restaurants, medical facilities and “all the businesses” to that list.

Molotsky, who served on the school board for nine years, agrees. “It was an important cog for us to stay [here] all these years,” he says.

Mike Mathis, chairperson of the Township Historical Commission (a group originally established by former Mayor Susan Bass-Levin “to preserve and promote Cherry Hill’s history”), attributes the beginning—and, in fact, ending-- of the physical transformation to another landmark, noting that the construction of the Garden State Race Track “spawned all this recreational development, and made it more of a place known for its night life. Everything centered around the track.”

But in the 1970’s, when the track burned down, coupled with the casino gambling boon in Atlantic City, “Cherry Hill’s image of a central area… kind of waned,” says Mathis, who has authored two pictorial histories: Cherry Hill, NJ and Cherry Hill: Then and Now. When the track reopened in 1985, he says it was never the same as far as public interest and draw were concerned.

Fellow commission member and the township’s Director of Historical Properties and Programming Sandra Ragonese acknowledges the changes, but also encourages others to embrace it for what it is. “Part of the success of any community is to remain fluid,” she says. “Cherry Hill is so diverse in so many ways, that it can find outlets for the changes,” noting that it “grew around an entertainment industry and when that faded, it grew into a retail industry.”

And the retail sect continues to grow, much like other neighboring towns with a similar infrastructure—though smaller-- like Marlton and Voorhees.

Taking the place of former race track will be a multitude of developments, including another shopping center and a state-of-the-art senior living community, which Platt says “will enhance what Cherry Hill already has… there’s not another spot in South Jersey that will be like that.”

Al Garfall is president of D.R. Horton’s Delaware Valley Division and is overseeing the Plaza Glande at Garden State Park project at the former racetrack location; a 55-plus community projected to hold 608 luxury condominiums and include a theatre, indoor-outdoor pools, fitness center, recreational room, library and lounge, among other features. “It’s going to create a freshness, a newness and really make this a centerpiece of the new Cherry Hill,” says Garfall, himself a native of the region and whose grandfather, fittingly, owned horses. “It will be a place where people can live, can commute easily, can shop and have entertainment at their doorstep.”

D.R. Horton understands what the land means—and has meant—to the area. “The importance of the site is not lost,” Garfall says, noting they are “very conscious” of its historic value, and have even incorporated a Garden State Park tribute video in their sales center.

But will this new development add to the increasing South Jersey concerns of added congestion, both population-wise and traffic-wise?

“I don’t look at that as a possible problem,” Platt says, noting that the township is already 85 percent developed, meaning the vast majority of new development is happening on previously used land—something he has strongly encouraged.

“There should be no additional strains on the town,” Garfall says. “It’s dense in terms of what’s on the site… but in this case, it is hopefully providing a walk-to location.” Even so, he concedes that most—if not all—residents will possess personal methods of transportation and inescapably use it on occasion, creating further congestion on an already sardine-tight Route 70.

And as far as the increased population, now at almost 71,000 (a staggering 50,000 jump to when it made its switch from Delaware Township in the 1960’s), Platt also sees the silver lining in the increasingly dense cloud. “I look at that as the future of Cherry Hill,” he says. “In order for this community to continue, you have to have new blood.”

Yet as the new enter, the longterm residents, like Molotsky and his family, stick around. He personally envisions a best of both worlds scenario. “It can offer all things to all people,” he says, “if it’s allowed to develop [appropriately].”

Regardless, it is not a foregone conclusion that every South Jersey suburb will inevitably change or grow in the same manner. Just ask those residing in America’s “best” place.

Earlier this year, Moorestown received top billing as Money Magazine’s “Best Place to Live in America.” Though one of the oldest towns in the state, the designation, in a way, put it on the map.

So what’s the secret?

“We’re very consistent,” says Moorestown Mayor Kevin Aberant, who describes the township as “a community with Quaker roots that is very traditional and has people who are proud to live here, involved in the community, involved with their children and also very charitable… I don’t think we’re ever going to see dramatic changes.”

Aberant provides an example: “Every once in a while, people come into a council meeting and will speak in favor or against [legislative items], and will support their position with the phrase, ‘We’ve got to keep Moorestown Moorestown.’ There’s a feeling of residents here that we want to try to stay the same. It’s almost like a comfort level.”

The mayor was then asked if physical change, like those which have occurred in the once sleepy farm town several miles away, can ultimately play a part in demographic change. “It brings up the age old question of nature versus nurture,” he replies, but adds, “I’m not sure how the environment differs that dramatically from neighboring towns in South Jersey.”

Aberant says the biggest difference is the people and their priorities, pointing out the transience of many in the region. Meanwhile, his town’s citizens have stuck around, sometimes for generations on end. “One of the things Money Magazine said was that there are a lot of people in Moorestown that [moved away] somewhere and came back,” he says, attributing that “momentum” toward the overall attitude of the residents themselves: If it ain’t broke…

The yearning to keep the “was” an “is” might be what’s kept neighboring Haddonfield Haddonfield, as well. “When you’re in Haddonfield,” says Ragonese, “you’re confronted with its history.” But “every town has a history” and Cherry Hill’s is equally rich, though in a different way.

Then there are other local areas, like Collingswood, which have consciously attempted to redefine itself. Molotsky calls its addition of trendy restaurants and stores lining Haddon Ave., along with its creation of its Old City-inspired Second Saturdays a “rebirth” of sorts. And seeing this inspires him. “I feel… Cherry Hill has the wherewithal to re-establish itself,” he says. “It’s cyclical… I think the evolution is realistic.”

But can the smaller towns still compete today with the big cities when it comes being a social hub? Molotsky is hopeful. “If the venue, whatever it was, offered value… I have no doubt that people of this area would come,” he says, pointing again to Collingswood as an example of using quality more than aesthetics to attract the masses. “I don’t see why that couldn’t happen [again] in Cherry Hill.” However, he also believes there are many more stay-at-home conveniences nowadays compelling more people to lean toward a Blockbuster night as opposed to seeing a blockbuster variety show. “Times have changed.”

As a result, has an era been lost forever?

“Very few… people say that to me,” Platt says. “True, we have lost some of our old landmarks, but we have gained new ones.”

But he also realizes that they can’t be completely replaced. “They were one of a kind in their time,” Platt admits, noting that he couldn’t see “another giant pineapple popping up.

“Unless something truly unique comes along in the future, I don’t see that happening.”

“I don’t know if it would be financially feasible to bring [those landmarks] back,” adds Broe. I don’t know if any town in South Jersey could bring it back. It’s a shame.”

Ragonese, however, feels that Cherry Hill’s image is “just beginning” to form itself. “From a historical perspective, identity is really hard to get a grasp of until after the fact,” she says.

But for those like Broe, who loitered and danced and mingled with the stars, who have enough stories to write a book, who were a part of it, that chapter has ended.

“Today’s generation has no idea how nice things were,” Broe says.

“I just miss it.”