Not too long ago, news slipped out that the McDonald’s on Hampton Beach would not be reopening for the 2017 season. Perhaps the country’s only seasonal fast-food restaurant, and the only one on the boardwalk strip along New Hampshire’s busiest stretch of coastline, was closed for good. Fast-food restaurants, and restaurants in general, are hardly fixtures of the landscape. They come and go as franchisees and patrons demand. But given enough time, they become landmarks all the same.
Years ago, I read that some people were more adept at mileage-based directions, and others were more attuned to landmarks. In my experience, we all favor landmarks. We recognize those things that stand out within the landscape. We relate to them better than we do the abstracts of distance and time.
We imagine landmarks as something permanent, something built to stand the test of time. It’s done so long enough to be a landmark in the first place, right? And so we assign the lofty title of landmark to those things that seem timeless: big granite buildings, statues and monuments, or natural features left untouched.
But live somewhere long enough, and almost anything can become a landmark. It’s merely a waypoint, a guidepost, but it’s one that tells you you’re on the right track. It tells you you want this right turn and not the next one. It tells you that home is just a mile away. In a pile of photos of similar cities or neighborhoods or beach boardwalks, this one matters to you.
And so the convenience store on the corner becomes a landmark. The gas station where you stop every Friday night becomes a landmark. The ice cream stand that’s closed all winter but pops open at the end of the spring’s hopefully-final thaw becomes a landmark. And even a fast-food restaurant nestled between other beachside stands becomes a landmark.
And when you live somewhere long enough, there’s another inevitability: landmarks are never as permanent as they may seem.
On Manchester’s East Side, at the corner of Hanover and Page Streets, stood Angelo’s, a family-run Italian restaurant built right to the edge of the sidewalk, with two narrow driveways leading back to the parking lot behind. Before there was an Olive Garden, before Piccola opened up downtown, there was Angelo’s, with its lounge hidden behind smoked glass, the separate salad bar at the back of the restaurant, and banquet rooms at the rear of the building. We gathered there for casual nights out, for dinners with my dad’s mother, for my maternal grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary in 1999. In 2007, I rented an apartment on Page Street a couple blocks away. The Girolimon family had long since retired, the restaurant was renamed, but it still stood sentry at the corner of Hanover and Page every morning as I left for work.
And then, that Christmas, my mother called me early in the morning. There had been a fire in the kitchen overnight. The restaurant was damaged. “They might have to tear it down,” Mom warned. When I drove past a couple hours later, I saw she was wrong: there was little left to tear down. Just like that, a landmark was gone.
Sometimes it’s disaster. Sometimes it’s business. Sometimes it’s simply the march of time. Angelo’s was hardly the first landmark to vanish before my eyes. As a kid, there was a gas station at the intersection where we turned off the main road to go home. That intersection needed to be redesigned, and the gas station was in the way. Just off Route 114 on the way to Goffstown, there was Bedford Golfland, a driving range and miniature golf course that had been around for years, complete with windmills and tacky fiberglass animals standing six and seven feet tall. But modern courses like Mel’s and Legends came along, and Golfland closed. Nature slowly reclaimed the land, until it was cleared to make way for a new Market Basket.
And it won’t be the last, either. Just this past year, the Macy’s that stood at what used to be the only exit to Route 3 in Bedford was pulverized into stone dust to make way for a new development. Once again, time marched forward, and the monolithic retail box with its 1960’s facade wasn’t marching in step.
When landmarks go, they’re missed. But new landmarks arise in their place, by fortune or by necessity. To go to my parents’ house, we turn at the light by the Dunkin’ Donuts shop. For our apartment, you go past Bass Pro Shops, because it sounds better than saying “past the Walmart” for some reason. Beach visitors will get used to meeting by the fried-dough place. We adapt as we must.
And yet we’ll always cling to the memories of landmarks to remind us what once was. When I get off the highway in Bedford, I think of where Diamond Lumber once stood, where C.R. Sparks was, when Foodee’s Pizza was in the big barn, and what the Bedford Mall used to look like. They’re not landmarks we can point to, but they’re landmarks in our mind. And by sharing them, we help them live on, beyond foundations and walls and time.