When you look at a city, you’re viewing a kind of publication – a publication written on the landscape in the form of buildings, roadways, parks, and much more. Although these publications in the landscape are not like the ones you can experience in books or newspapers, they can still be read. In their reading, they disclose a product of the set of dreams, visions, aspirations, accidents, and mistakes of people who by various means left a legacy of “text” on the landscape. I’ve always been fascinated by reading this textual fabric and how people have used the built environment to publish their lives and legacies.
A large component of the built environment consists of retail and shopping centers. Since I was very little I was intrigued by retail chains, malls, and the like. Over the years it has become a dedicated interest, and I’ve toured retail landscapes from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine and everything in between. A common misconception is that this hobby is married with that of ’shopping’ – it is not. I have little to no interest in shopping or any sort of excess, but merely in seeing how these retail landscapes transform over time and publish a legacy, for better or worse, relating to the places where they are.
My first post will discuss the former Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois. Dixie Square Mall was located at the intersection of 151st St and Dixie Highway in south suburban Chicago. I feel it’s an appropriate place for me to start, because it not only represents the most extreme example of what can go wrong in retailing, but it is also one of the first exposures to this genre of downtrodden retail I had in 1999 (The first of which being River Roads Mall in Jennings, MO). Because Dixie Square Mall is possibly the most publicized ‘dead mall’ and there are more complete articles on wikipedia, and even a film documentary currently being made about the mall, I’ll instead focus on my own personal experiences with the mall and the implications the mall has on the urban millieu of Harvey and that part of Chicagoland
I first wrote about Dixie Square Mall almost exactly five years ago in 2001 on deadmalls, following earlier trips in 1999 and 2000. In fact, it was somewhat of an accident that I discovered Dixie Square Mall in the first place. Caldor and I were driving around Chicagoland in 1998-99, when he noticed Dixie Square Mall labelled on my map. I quickly discounted it as ‘nothing’ and we kept on going. I was so sure I had at least heard of most of the malls in the Chicago area that a mall called Dixie Square, being in Harvey of all places, was simply preposterous to me. Then, a few months later, I investigated further and shockingly discovered that not only was Dixie Square a mall, it was a huge mall. Whoops! Furthermore, the reason I hadn’t heard of it is because it was only successful for a few years in the 1960s. Throughout much of the 1970s the mall was a failure, and everything in it had closed permanently by 1979, several years before I was even born. Even more amazing, I learned the mall had been sitting abandoned ever since.
I’ve been back several times since I first published about it on dead malls dot com almost five years ago. I’ve also learned a lot about the Dixie Square Mall, most notably that the mall was used during the chase scene in the original Blues Brothers movie in 1979, and that a young woman was raped and murdered in the abandoned JCPenney store in 1993. Wow.
But back to what I wrote about at the very beginning of this article. How does Dixie Square Mall function as a text of the landscape of Harvey, or on a greater scale? More succinctly, why did this mall fail? Much of the resources online are dedicated to ‘what happened’ but few delve into ‘why’ – I think an understanding of the events that caused Dixie Square’s failure is as interesting as the downfall of the mall itself. Probably more important than anything else is urban sprawl, which both created and destroyed Dixie Square as well as Harvey as viable places to live and shop. In the post-World War II economic boom, suburbs sprouted up very fast around Chicago as well as many of the nation’s industrial centers. As a result, suburbs such as Harvey grew from zero population to tens of thousands in a matter of less than 20 years. The problems with Harvey, and with all urban sprawl, are twofold. First, there’s nothing dynamic or unique about these suburbs to distinguish them from any other suburb. They don’t contain functional centers where people work, because all the people are commuting into the city. In fact, most 1950s-1970s suburbs look much the same no matter where you go in the entire country. Second, urban sprawl doesn’t stop – it just keeps going (like the Energizer bunny!) Before Harvey was 20 years old, development began to move farther and farther out to places like Orland Park and the exurbs in the Land of Beyond. At the same time we have people both moving out to ‘better’ newer places, we have Harvey, with nothing unique to retain people’s interest. Sounds like trouble to me!
So what’s driving urban sprawl? It has to be more than just the economy. And it is. There are also other considerations, such as the notion of white flight. The issues of who is moving where also drives what happens with urban spaces. As urban sprawl pushed development farther and farther out, the land value in places like Harvey plummeted. As this happened, the (predominantly) African-Americans living in poor conditions (caused by urban sprawl) on the south side of Chicago moved into Harvey and surrounding areas. Because of this, the remaining whites in Harvey also left. Land values plummeted even more, crime rates rose, and more people left. People began to shop at newer, bigger malls in newer suburbs like Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, or Orland Square in Orland Park. This feedback negative cycle makes places like Harvey worse and worse, while constantly investing in things that are shiny-and-new. No one wins except for greedy developers and the brand new suburb-du-jour, and places like Dixie Square become the retail equivalent of a fossil record, indicating poor decisions in urban planning.
As for the future of the mall, your guess is as good as mine. Since 2002, several companies have expressed interest in the site. According to one source, the mall began coming down in February 2006. However, I drove past more recent than that and it was still standing.
I took the following pictures in July, 2001.