As a city grows, memories linger

Commuters, high-rises give Malden a new look

(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Kathy Shiels Tully
Globe Correspondent / April 17, 2011

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‘I have had a wonderful life,’’ said Cathy Winslow Foley, a 1974 Malden High graduate and former cheerleader who recently turned 55. “It started in Malden.’’

She’s spent the last 22 years living around the world, including the Philippines, Iceland, India, England, and most recently in Germany — in different roles as a wife and new mother, then teacher, and eventually as a counselor — so her first impressions when she returned to her old hometown in February weren’t all that surprising.

“I was hit by how it has changed. More concrete, less trees,’’ Foley said.

It’s not just the soaring skyline, now dotted by a dozen or so high-rise apartment buildings in the city of about 56,000 — nearly the same number of residents as 40 years ago. During her trips home, Foley has been struck by Malden’s transformation from a home-grown community to one that now entices a constant flow of those wishing to commute to Boston because of the Orange Line and relatively low rental rates.

According to Malden Mayor Richard C. Howard, the city has focused on development in the past decade, and the people have come. New high-rises with easy access to the T include the 204 apartments at 160 Pleasant St. in Malden Center. Partnerships with neighboring cities have created other rental developments: River’s Edge, built with Medford and Everett near Wellington Circle; and Oak Grove Village, created with Melrose near the Oak Grove T station, which boasts on its website “City convenience with a suburban lifestyle.’’

Howard, a lifelong resident in his 16th and final year as mayor, said that the uptick in the city census numbers — an increase of 3,110 from 2000 — shows “the city is growing; the population numbers are good.’’

Interestingly enough, if Foley had stayed in Malden, she would have found a worldwide experience of cultures and languages right at home. The latest US Census numbers show Malden is among the most diverse cities in the state, with about 20 percent of residents reporting as Asian in 2010, 14.8 percent African-American, and 8.4 percent Hispanic.

“There are 60 different first languages spoken at Malden High School,’’ Howard said. “If you go to a Malden High School graduation, of the 400 grads, there’s representation of easily 50 to 60 different countries.’’

In 2000, the latest year Census figures were tabu lated for housing data, of the 23,009 occupied units in the city, 43 percent were owner-occupied and 58 percent were renter-occupied, the latter figure compared with 39 percent for communities nationwide.

There’s no longer enough space in Malden’s 5.1 square miles for everyone to live in a house with a porch and backyard or hold a local job, as was the trend when Foley was a child. Citing “Big Yellow Taxi,’’ Joni Mitchell’s hit 1970 song, Foley lamented, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. People are paving their front yards to make a bigger driveway to park their cars.’’

Growing up, Foley said, Malden was a “vibrant, alive community where people lived and worked in the community.’’

Foley recalled the excitement when, as a second-grader, she joined other students attending Faulkner Elementary School on Salem Street in a march to the new Chester W. Holmes School on Mountain Avenue. Salem Towers, an eight-story elderly apartment house, rose on the Faulkner site in 1964.

Foley has fond memories of shopping at Jordan Marsh on Pleasant Street, at a site where a CVS now stands. “It was a big store. They had everything: china, shoes, ties, gloves, everything. Now people go to malls. I bought my first gift for my mom, a china teacup. China was on the ground floor.

“I was about 10 years old. My mother treasured it. She still has it.’’

There were movie theaters on Pleasant Street, too. At the Strand or Granada, “I used to go to matinees as a kid,’’ she recalled. “We only had two choices, a 1 p.m. or 3 or 4 p.m. matinee.’’ Or she’d bowl at Granada Lanes. “It had 30 lanes.’’

When Foley’s father died in 2009, a desire to spend time with her mother, Grace, now 81, and the rest of her family brought her back to the United States, eventually to stay. “I was tired of spending holidays away from the people I love and care about,’’ she said.

Foley applied for jobs all over New England from Schweinfurt, Germany, where she worked for the US Army counseling soldiers about substance abuse. She eventually found a position at the Springfield Vet Center, a storefront clinic providing readjustment counseling services to combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and other issues associated with returning from war. Currently renting in Northampton (“It’s much closer than Germany, or anywhere else I’ve lived during the last 30 years.’’), Foley makes trips to Malden to spend time with her mother.

While she waits for her husband, John, to sell their house in England and retire from teaching, Foley has been house-hunting, searching for a home that will have space for their four dogs.

The couple’s children, now older and independent, live across the country: her twin sons, 29, Joseph Astroth in Los Angeles and Justin Astroth in Alabama, along with her stepchildren, Sean Foley, 37, in Missouri, and Eva Foley, 35, in Oregon.

“I can’t live in the city,’’ Foley said. “I need someplace quiet, open, and beautiful, something more than tall buildings.’’

Still, while visiting her mother, Foley looks forward to getting reaquainted with old friends, and perhaps exploring some new finds in Malden, such as All Seasons Table and The Exchange, popular new restaurants in Malden Square.

The restaurants abut Sparks, a 90-year-old shopping institution with entrances on Pleasant and Exchange streets, which is the biggest supplier of school uniforms in the Northeast.

Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, based in Malden, refers students there for mandatory school uniforms. With a long reputation for good service and low prices, Sparks also sells scrubs, ladies sportswear, lingerie, and costume jewelry. Customers include anyone looking for a good-quality bargain.

Amy Sparks, 46, a third-generation owner, said, “A lot of professionals take the subway into Boston and don’t do their shopping here.’’ Still, the store is busy and both of Amy’s parents are still “very active’’ in the business.

Her father, Albert, is about to turn 84 and her mother, Myrna, who Amy says “likes to tell people she’s in her 20s,’’ helps out during uniform season, August through September.

“Twenty to thirty years ago,’’ Albert said, “the foot traffic was so heavy you couldn’t walk down Pleasant Street. No more. People come to our store for a specific purpose,’’ he explained. “They’re not just walking by.’’

Amy was more optimistic. “The new restaurants are bringing people back,’’ she said.

Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at