Ford City Mall is Chicago’s last remaining in-city regional mall. Located on the far southwest side of the city at 76th Street and Cicero Avenue in the West Lawn neighborhood, just south of Midway Airport, Ford City has a storied past.
The site where Ford City Mall now stands was originally a defense plant, constructed during World War II. During the height of the war, a total of 10 buildings were constructed – the largest, Building 4, was over 62 acres in size. The entire site was 432 acres, and was used to make aircraft engines for the war effort, including those for the B-29 Bomber.
At the end of the war the buildings were no longer necessary for defense production and were largely abandoned in 1945. In 1947, the former engine production facility was transformed into an auto manufacturing plant when it was purchased by the Preston Tucker car company. Tucker used the facility to make its Tucker Torpedo, which was billed as the first “modern automobile” in the industry at the time. However, due to competition from the “Big Three” and fraud allegations by the SEC, Tucker went out of business not long after, and the factory was once again abandoned.
In 1950, Ford Motor Company purchased the site and once again put it to use for airplane engine construction during the Korean War. Ford ended up using the plant well after that war, until 1959, when it was idled once again.
In 1961, a group of local investors purchased the site, judging that it would be a perfect spot for large-scale retail. Chicago only had a handful of regional shopping centers at the time, as their advent was relatively new, and being on the growing edge of the second largest city in the country had immense benefits.
The northern part of the former factory site remained industrial, and the southern section of Building 4 was partially demolished and refashioned into two separate retail buildings, both of which opened for business in 1965 as Ford City Mall. The north retail building, North Mall, was made into a strip mall, anchored by a supermarket (Kroger, then Jewel?), a bowling facility, toy shop, and a small two-screen cinema.
The south building, across the parking lot from the strip center, was fashioned into an enclosed mall, much larger than the strip mall. It was anchored by a one-level, 156,000 square-foot Chicag0-based Wieboldt’s department store and a one-level 182,000 square-foot JCPenney, with an enclosed corridor of stores connecting them. Also present in the enclosed mall was junior-anchor Woolworth’s, a Lerner, and Harvest House Cafeteria.
Connecting the strip center on the north end of the complex to the enclosed mall on the south end was, and is today, a subterranean corridor. When the mall opened, it was called Peacock Alley, and it directly connected the North Mall strip center with the middle of the enclosed mall. Located under the parking lot, Peacock Alley was accessible from the Jewel (now Sears) entryway, from a station in the parking lot, and from the center court of the enclosed mall. It was an interesting setup, and it still exists today.
After Ford City opened in 1965, competition came when Evergreen Plaza, an open-air mall located 5 miles away in Evergreen Park, enclosed and expanded. In 1975, the large two-level North Riverside Park Mall opened 10 miles away in North Riverside, and in 1981, the sprawling one-level Chicago Ridge Mall opened 4 miles away in Chicago Ridge. Despite the competition, however, Ford City Mall remained the closest mall to its core market on the south side of the city. Changes did occur, though, due to this competition taking away Ford City’s suburban market.
A demographic shift in the years following Ford City’s mid-1960s debut also changed the face of the stores and, unfortunately, its reputation. Many African-Americans came to live on Chicago’s south side in the latter half of the 20th century, and many neighborhoods changed to be predominantly black. In addition, many Hispanics have also come to live in the areas around Midway airport and in some of the suburbs nearby, including the neighborhood of West Lawn, where the mall resides. The stores at Ford City slowly began to change to serve this demographic.
Around the same time the demographic changed, the mall began to earn the reputation for being home to a criminal element. Sadly, the reputation has merit, as numerous murders have occurred on mall property, including a 2006 shooting of a teenage boy who was trying to break up a fight at the movie theater and a 2001 carjacking where a mother was murdered in front of her two children. This crime is not limited to the recent decade, as evidenced by a gangland incident in the 1970s that forced the renaming and retenanting of subterranean Peacock Alley, which had become a seedy environment full of head shops and drug selling, to The Connection. For the record, I’ve been to Ford City at least 10 times and have never been pestered by anybody other than the cell-phone hawkers at their kiosks…
In 1983, the first and only expansion took place at Ford City, when a one-level, 172,000 square-foot Montgomery Ward was added to the south side of the mall. In 1987, Wieboldt’s closed when that chain folded, and in 1989 the former Wieboldt’s space was replaced with Carson Pirie Scott. Meanwhile, in 1988, the entire mall was renovated and a food court, Food City, was added along the corridor connecting Montgomery Ward with the rest of the mall.
The 1990s and 2000s were a mostly static time for Ford City, with the biggest event being the departure of Montgomery Ward in 2001 and a large explosion in 2005. Unfortunately, Wards has not been retenanted as of 2010, but in 2008 General Growth took over management of the mall and promised a renovation and expansion of the mall in general. Around the same time, General Growth declared bankruptcy and the economy had a meltdown, though, so no progress on these fronts has been made. The problems have been exacerbated with the March 2010 annoucement of Sears’ departure, which is slated to close by July.
In 2005, an underground gas line exploded under Ford City’s parking lot, causing significant damage to buildings, overturning cars, and closing the mall for several days. The explosion also injured 10 people.
Today, Ford City Mall soldiers on. The renovation and expansion would be appreciated, as there are relatively few vacancies in the mall itself due to the large population it serves, despite many of the stores being local. The renovation would also prop up the mall’s image and reputation, as was the case with Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore. In addition, the Chicago Transit Authority is also extending its Orange Line “L” train to Ford City Mall from its current terminus two miles north at Midway Airport, with service by 2016, which could also pull together enough support for a renovation and much greater potential for the site.
The two portions of the mall also still exist today. North Mall, the strip center, is now tenanted by Conway, Old Navy, Marshalls, Anna’s Linens, Office Depot, and other stores. The main mall is still anchored by Carson Pirie Scott and JCPenney, and still has the late-80s look to it. Fortunately, the large fountains at center court are still there, giving the mall a retro verve. We hope they keep them in the upcoming renovation, if it happens. In addition, the subterranean level, The Connection, is still there, and sparsely tenanted with smaller shops including jewelry stores, a Chinese gift shop, and a 99 cent store.
We last visited Ford City in June 2010 and took the pictures featured here. Feel free to leave your comments here if you have anything to add.