One of the oldest malls in the Chicagoland area, Harlem Irving Plaza (also known as ‘the HIP’) is also one of the last independently-owned and operated regional centers in the entire country. During its 5+ decades in existence, Harlem Irving Plaza has gone through only minor changes yet it remains extremely viable today, serving a densely populated area of inner-ring northwest suburbs and a large portion of the city of Chicago.
Harlem Irving Plaza is located in the small island-suburb of Norridge. Norridge, and neighboring Harwood Heights, are small incorporated communities completely surrounded by the city of Chicago, on Chicago’s far northwest side near O’Hare Airport. Both Norridge and Harwood Heights were incorporated in 1948 as a measure to protect these areas from becoming the city of Chicago, which was quickly encroaching and about to annex these areas for itself.
Most of the development in Norridge took place following incorporation, in the 1950s through the 1970s. A major development in Norridge occurred with the opening of Harlem Irving Plaza in 1956. Aptly named, Harlem Irving Plaza sits on the corner of a major intersection – N. Harlem Avenue (Route 43) and Irving Park Road (Route 19). When the Plaza opened, it was not enclosed and consisted of 45 stores anchored by W.T. Grant, Kroger, Walgreens, Wieboldts, and Woolworth. Not much changed at the Plaza between the mid-50s and the mid-70s as Norridge filled in and became almost completely built out.
In 1975, as part of a larger nationwide trend of enclosing large, outdoor plazas into climate-controlled malls, the Plaza’s owners embarked on a four-year project to enclose the mall and, in the process, add a large parking deck. The bulk of this structure is what is seen today at the site, and in 1979 Madigan’s was added as an anchor store. In 1987, MainStreet, a short-lived subsidiary of the Federated chain, opened a discount department store on the north end of the mall; this location became Kohls in 1988 when Kohls bought the MainStreet chain. Also in 1987-88, Carson’s replaced the Wieboldt’s as Wieboldt’s went out of business.
The 1990s to the present have been a period of continued success for the enclosed center, with a few readjustments. In 1996, a food court opened near the southern end of the mall, and Best Buy replaced Madigan’s. In 2001, the center was modified again with Best Buy relocating to the parking lot and a parking structure was built on the Best Buy site. In 2004, a popular Target located at the north end of the mall near the food court.
Some of the design elements make Harlem Irving Plaza very similar to other urban malls with smaller footprints like Queens Center in New York City. For one, the footprint of the center doesn’t allow for an expansive parking lot, so there are two free vertical structures to park in. Interestingly, the parking structures are above the mall and one can enter the mall from above at several spots from the parking structure. Also, the way Carson’s is situated at the mall allows the main corridor to go around it before it turns again and ends at Kohls. In the main corridor in front of Carson’s there isn’t enough space for full-size stores so a series of booths are set up along this length for retailers, and they’re all full.
The demographics at Harlem Irving Center are also more characteristic of an urban center, rather than a far-flung suburban mall. Because the mall is one of the closest malls to the entire northwest side of the city of Chicago, much of the clientele are recent immigrants and first-generation Americans, many of whom are of Latin-American and Eastern European heritage. The mall is also close enough to more traditional, yet older, suburbs like Niles, Park Ridge, Des Plaines, and Schiller Park, but it’s not really clear that they shop here as well.
Take a look at the photos of Harlem Irving Plaza and its vicinity, taken in Spring 2008.
And just for fun and perspective, here’s a strip mall across the street from the top of the Harlem Irving parking structure. You can kind of see the downtown skylne if you look closely: