I was browsing the Memphis Flyer’s website (I’ve got this week’s issue at home, I just haven’t read it yet). One of the current features are fresh looks at stories from the archives to celebrate the paper’s 20th anniversary. This week, they look back at the changing value of shopping malls in Memphis.
The original story mentioned the Mall of Memphis, Raleigh Springs, Hickory Ridge and Oak Court. It didn’t mention Southland, which, when it was opened in 1966, was Memphis’ first mall. Also unmentioned was Wolfchase Galleria, since it hadn’t been built yet.
Of course, two of the listed malls are closed, one is on life support and the fourth is doing… okay. I understand shifting demographics. I’m just old enough to remember when shopping (big department store shopping) was a downtown affair. Lazarus, the Federated Department store where I grew up, covered a couple of city blocks with their downtown store and had several nearby parking garages for shoppers.
Like a lot of places, indoor shopping malls began popping up at various locations in the suburbs. One of the very first enclosed malls in the country, Northland, opened in Columbus in 1965. The children’s shoe store where my dad bought me my first pair of cowboy boots had a full-sized fire truck inside the store, which was pretty cool to a 10-year old. They liked to keep things simple around there. Northland was followed by the Eastland and Westland Malls. Eventually, a smaller discount Southland Mall opened.
In ’89, the city tried the “let’s revitalize downtown with a glamorous new shopping mall” trick and built (after years of trying) the City Center – a huge multi-story mall with a Marshall Fields and a Jacobson’s across the street from the Federated store (that’s the company that rebranded all their regional malls as Macy’s a few years ago). They even built an over-the-street bridge connecting the new mall to the existing department store.
Flash forward. Three newer, glitzier malls opened as the population with the most disposable income shifted to the north. Northland closed in ’02 and was torn down in ’04 – except for the branch of the Lazarus, which was converted into a state office building. Southland? Closed. JC Penney moved out of Westland, the Macy’s followed in 2007. The mall, which had 80 stores at one point, is down to fewer than 30. Eastland is holding on, which may be because of the large minority population on that side of town.
The City Center’s story is as sad as the Peabody Place story. Both opened to much hoopla, brought people downtown who hadn’t been in that part of town for years – but both fell on hard times when events (new malls, out-of-control kids fueling shoppers’ fears) conspired to turn people off from making the drive.
The last City Center tenant, a Chinese restaurant chain, moved out in February. The city owns the property now and its plan is to rip the place down and replace it with a mixed use center – homes, shopping, businesses – the mayor there is trying to line up some stimulus money to cover the tab.
When I moved to Memphis in 1990, I went to the Mall of Memphis a lot. Comedian Steve Harvey did a hilarious riff on trying to figure out where to get off of I-240 to get to the mall during a visit here. They could see it, but just couldn’t get there… I stopped going out there around the time they put guard towers in the parking lots to stop the shootings. Hickory Ridge seemed a lot nicer before the city annexed the Hickory Hill area. I only spent time in the Raleigh area when I had in-laws who lived out that way.
I used to hit Oak Court Mall all the time. Nice stores, nice restaurants. Except for a trip to the Macy’s to look at furniture last year, I haven’t been since I moved back. Some folks tell me it’s gone downhill.
I always dug the big stone ball slowly turning on top of the fountain. And I know that the first Starbucks in Tennessee was the one at Oak Court.
And I’ve pretty much always lived on opposite sides of town from Wolfchase. It’s been okay the once or twice I have been out there, but when you live downtown, that’s a haul. And no, I’m not going to take the bridge across to West Memphis to shop at the Super Wal-Mart. I did that once. And only once. Since Earl’s Hot Biscuits closed, I don’t have much reason to head that way.