Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas at Ye Olde Shopping Mall: New traditions and even nostalgia now locate Christmas memories where, for better or worse, families have been going to celebrate as well as shop... for forty or fifty years.
Mall Nostalgia: Recalling Christmas at Ye Olde Shopping Mall

In what’s shaping up to be a bleak Christmas, thoughts may naturally turn to better days gone by. Holidays often look happier in memory anyway, and since Christmas is so associated with childhood (your own or your children’s or grandchildren’s), the season inspires recollections of magical lights and displays, exciting street scenes and parades, and those first visits to Santa.

But one difference over the years has become: many of those fond memories took place in a shopping mall. Routinely berated as cold, indistinguishable and soulless madhouses of over-consumption, these enclosed behemoths have increasingly become the locations of happy, wistful—and important—memories.

Right now on the Internet, sites such as and Malls of celebrate days of malls gone by, while others, such as keep current with fan-like devotion to detail. That so many malls have failed in recent years (catalogued on such sites as dead, or were otherwise transformed in the course of time, has added impetus to this mall nostalgia.

So people are online sharing their memories of Christmases past that might include toddling past the huge mall Christmas tree to tell Santa your secret desires in the Walker-Scott department store in the Escondido Village Mall, or staring at Santa amidst the splendor of a Colonial Christmas with trees decorated by students of local schools at Montclair Plaza, or dashing through the shaved-ice snow at Fallbrook Mall in West Hills, California.

Or riding the Christmas carousel at South Park in North Carolina, being dazzled by the red and green lights in the fountain at Jefferson Mall in Louisville, or standing uncertainly in front of the Talking Christmas Tree at Midway Mall in Elyria, Ohio.

Real old timers may recall Santa arriving at the Tacoma Mall by helicopter in 1965, or in a tank from the local military base (a traumatic event for one online commenter) at the Edgewater Plaza Mall in Biloxi, Mississippi; or snowballs dropping from Santa’s plane over Northland Plaza in Lima, Ohio in 1967.

There is at least one mall that is primarily associated with Christmas experiences, and it happens to be the mall I wrote about extensively in my book, The Malling of America. A website hosted by Dead called Greengate Mall Memories includes over a hundred comments in its “Guest Book,” most of them with recollections sited in the mall, and many of them mentioning Christmas.

These memories are so strong partly for two reasons: because Christmas really was a very big deal at Greengate Mall, and because Greengate Mall is no more.

text continued after photos and in photo captions...

Photos I took of Greengate Mall in 1999, when it was nearly abandoned: (top) outside the old Hornes (later Lazarus) department store; inside at center court, the famous fountain; and in the floor near the fountain, the time capsule, buried in 1985 and scheduled to be opened in 2005, but which apparently "disappeared" during demolition. In it, among other things, was a signed copy of my book, The Malling of America. (click photos to enlarge.)
Greengate was built on land that had been part of a farm and summer home owned by the appropriately named John S. Sell family. (The place even had a name: Sellcroft.) This was an era when a lot of the fresh milk sold in Greensburg came from local dairies and dairy farms. The farm was just west of the town of Greensburg, along the two-lane Lincoln Highway, adjacent to the Mount Odin drive-in theatre.

Then the new four lane Route 30 was built through there, having bypassed the Greensburg downtown. The highway spawned new commercial and housing development, meaning that beginning in the early 60s, it bypassed downtown Greensburg. An early indicator was the K-Mart shopping center that replaced the Mount Odin drive-in.

Then came the first enclosed shopping mall in the county, Greengate Mall. Designed by Victor Gruen, the architect generally considered the inventor of the enclosed mall, it opened in 1965, and after decades of dominance and several troubled final years, it turned off the climate control in 2001 and closed. The building was demolished and a new Wal-Mart opened on the site in 2005.
Greengate Mall, center court Christmas display. Click photo to enlarge. BK photo.
Local news coverage about Greengate’s demise inevitably mentioned its Christmas events and elaborate decorations. (I’d written about the overnight process of setting up the center court tree and Nutcracker theme exhibit, surrounded by a child-sized train ride.) Christmas season at Greengate was popular with the surrounding communities for at least 30 years—long enough for some who experienced Christmas at the mall to bring their own child to do the same.

Many if not most of the comments at Greengate Mall Memories—over a hundred of them—mention Christmas recollections. These memories could be surprisingly specific. I’ve tried to match some of them with images I recently transferred from color slides, which I took at Greengate during the Christmas season of 1981.

“I remember it was where I first told Santa what I wanted for Christmas,” said one. “I always loved going to Greengate Mall with my parents. It seemed like the holidays weren't the holidays unless we had our usual trip to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap.”

“I remember lights in the food court that would change colors (yellow, blue, green, etc) during Christmas as Charlie Brown music would play.” “There was a puppet show that kids would huddle around and watch.”

Many recalled riding the train through the snow-covered Christmas village. “I remember the animated deer with the jerky movements that built toys as kids rode through the display.” Another recalled a young adult perspective, of accompanying nieces and nephews, and watching “how big their eyes would be when they first walked into the center courtyard... Nothing made my parents more happy then seeing [the children] laugh as they went round and round on the train.”

The element of nostalgia is particularly evident in the frequency of comments such as: “Wow, nothing compares to it today.” A department store employee who met her husband there wrote, “We all have very fond memories of Greengate Mall. We especially miss the beautiful holiday decorations!” An ex-employee of another store who remembers “singing on the steps in center court in 1980 for Christmas” with a local high school choir, concludes: “Ahh - Christmas at Greengate Mall - it didn't get any better than that!!!”
When I was first writing about Greengate in the late 70s and early 80s, I often heard similar sentiments expressed about downtown Greensburg in the 50s and before: memories of shopping in the department stores and shops on Main Street, going from store to store in the falling snow, seeing friends and ducking into the Chat and Chew. But Greengate and other malls drew the department stores away from Main Street, and Christmas along with it.

As the malling of America took hold, their size, their concentration on consumption and their sudden omnipresence alarmed many, and their formulaic resemblances to each other brought the malls a lot of scorn. But lost in broad-brush critiques, as justified as they might be on many grounds, was the social and cultural roles many malls played, often defining their own communities.
Then they simply lasted, and thanks partly to years of shared experiences, the local shopping mall often became a real place. And so they became part of memories, and now, of nostalgia. A woman who remembers Greengate as a child (“at Christmas especially. It was wonderful”) has since moved away but visits family in the area every Christmas. She writes: “I'm sad the mall is gone. I would have loved to take a trip down memory lane there by taking my son to ride the holiday train I rode so long ago.”
Christmas is still being experienced at hundreds of malls, and thousands of photos taken with Santa. But even before the latest economic blows, malls were under serious assault by Big Box developments, chiefly Wal-Marts. After decades when not a single regional mall failed, many began to fade, and some (like Greengate) were demolished. Now retail sales so far in this Christmas shopping season are plummeting, and some retail companies are endangered. One mall developer (General Growth) already faces bankruptcy.

But all is not lost for those with mall nostalgia. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than a dozen abandoned malls are being transformed into mixed-use projects, with housing, parks and public services as well as retail. Many malls with empty storefronts typically turn to recreation and public services to fill the space, and White Flint mall near Bethesda, Maryland used community-oriented events and organizations (the local Academy of Performing Arts) to increase traffic, and in the process revived itself as a retail destination. One key event was a Christmas celebration. Christmas magic, it seems, does not require total concentration on consumerism.

But will future generations remember instead a beloved Big Box Christmas? There are many reasons why is this unlikely, but the short answer is: maybe—but not quite yet. Some who rhapsodized Greengate castigated the Wal-Mart and related shops that replaced it. One called it “a soul-less development that could be in Anywhere, USA.” That of course is what used to be said of malls.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Big Box Reuse: an inspiring, important book about transforming abandoned retail spaces for crucial public uses (or at least public fun.)
Big Box Reuse

by Julia Christensen

The MIT Press

This is a wonderful, inspiring book--all the more so because it is meticulously reported and cogently written. But it's also wonderful and inspiring because of the people who made all these projects happen.

The book is about 10 projects in various parts of America that took abandoned Big Box buildings (usually Wal-Marts and some K-Marts) and transformed them for public uses--as a courthouse, children's or senior center, school, library, health center, museum, and in one case, a new wrinkle on a public market.

These buildings were abandoned not because there was anything wrong with them, but mostly because that's what Wal-Mart does: it builds a big store to create a market, then abandons it to build an even bigger store close by, to expand the market. Using jobs and business generation as bait, Wal-Mart often gets municipalities to provide land and roads for reduced or no cost, loans and a deal on sales taxes, with promises of later repayment and/or tax revenues--by which time they're long gone.

So it is more than poetic justice that retail buildings sited and built with public funds eventually get re purposed to serve the public. But it's not easy or quick. It takes a lot of public and private perseverance, ingenuity and hard work.

For example, the Wal-Mart that eventually became the Centralia Senior Resource Center in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Once the long process of imagining how to use this building, designing it and getting the community to accept and even love the idea was all begun, a deal had to be struck with Wal-Mart, which made some compromises but eventually made money on the deal, as well as getting the money it owed the town forgiven. Though the Wal-Mart company was more giving in other projects described here, it was Wal-Mart workers who rose to this occasion, by donating their time to the project and forcing the company to contribute. Eventually there were over 900 names of contributors on a wall in the resulting complex, which has become a center not only for seniors but for the entire community.

For me, this and others like it --the Head Start Center in Hastings, Nebraska, and the charter schools in Buffalo, New York and Laramie, Wyoming --are the most heartwarming and hopeful stories. Of the library project, one participant said, "It honestly would probably be easier to count the people in this town who didn't help."

The more colorful projects may attract other readers more, like the indoor raceway in Round Rock, Texas or the Spam Museum (the kind in the can) in Austin, Minnesota, or the Peddler's Mall in Kentucky. Christensen does the work of a scholar in describing the projects, the design issues, the outcomes, and adds enough voices of participants to provide a sense of personalities. But it is her clear and judicious prose that brings this book to life.

There's a web site of photos and some information, but the book is the thing: hefty but sturdy, with friendly type on good strong paper, with well presented images. Well-written and well published, Big Box Reuse is a pleasure as well as an important book.