Posted by: nickgerlich | February 13, 2008

Mall Come Back Now, Ya’ Hear?

Dixie SquareThis was “my mall.” I didn’t own it, but I spent a lot of time there back in the 1960s. Dixie Square was one of the first regional super malls in the Chicago area, opening in 1966. I have beside me right now a fading Polaroid snapshot of me playing the mighty Wurlitzer organ in a recital right out in the middle of the mall, sometime in 1967.

I was so scared I almost…oh, never mind.

It was a little over a year ago (on the occasion of my 48th) that I waxed nostalgic about this place. The internet allows me to drop in on my past whenever I feel like it, doing “click by” visits of old friends and old haunts. Ya gotta love those warm fuzzies.

But the Dixie Square story is different. This was a beauty of a mall in its time, but the Chicago suburb of Harvey was in a period of intense social change. I remember looking out the window from my third grade classroom and seeing rioting across the street. Race riots were about as common as West Texas wind, and it was all leading up to the volatile Democratic National Convention in 1968.

Anyone remember Abbie Hoffman?

The social upheaval of whites running from blacks caused the racial composition of Harvey to change a lot during those years. My parents got the heck out of Dodge in late-1971. And Harvey turned into a suburban sore spot, a municipal crack house with all the crime needed to support such an economy.

So it was no surprise that Dixie Square Mall quickly reached its zenith, and began its precipitous slide into the dustbin of retail history. By 1978 the last tenant had escaped; in 1979, John Landis leased the mall for 8 weeks, to film a scene in The Blues Brothers. “Disco pants and haircuts. This place has got everything!”

Today, it is that scene that conjures up the most memories of Dixie Square Mall, save those of us southsiders who grew up at the place.

So what is going on at Dixie Square today? Not much. In the last 15 years there have been two rapes and one murder; the once-shuttered buildings are now wide open, and civic interia has set in. Asbestos abatement costs money, you know, and neither the city nor any developers have the will to do anything.

A documentary has been filmed about Dixie Square, of which you can view a clip here

Sad, isn’t it? At a more abstract level, I wonder if Dixie Square is but a metaphor of what might happen if e-commerce continues to grow as it has in recent years. Add in the toxic mix of hectic lifestyles and expensive gasoline, and you have a cocktail that could send more and more shoppers to their computers to buy their stuff.

While Dixie Square died the painful death of social unrest, it is a very different form of social change that could cause other malls to experience the same fate in the years to come.

I have many fond memories of Dixie Square. It was the town center I knew, an emblem of suburban growth and the powerful social, demographic, and economic shifts at play all at the same time.

But this one thing remains. I will never forgive my parents for making me play in that recital. That kind of stuff can leave scars, you know. I couldn’t sleep for days leading up to that performance. If only I knew how to drive back then, I would have gladly taken a test spin through the mall like Belushi and Aykroyd would 12 years later. And I would have splintered that mighty Wurlitzer organ into a million pieces.

Just kidding, Mom and Dad.

Dr “Disco Pants? Are You Crazy?” Gerlich

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