The cultural and commercial center of the Ark-La-Tex region, the area where Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas meet, Shreveport is a city of roughly 200,000 people with almost double that amount in the metropolitan area. A truly southern city, Shreveport has roots in shipping, was the capital of Louisiana and one of the last battle theatres during the Civil War, and experienced the volatility of the American Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s.
Also true to its southern roots, Shreveport experienced a period of rapid decline during the mid- to late-20th century, owing in part to a changing economy away from that of manufacturing to one of knowledge, something Shreveport lacked with only one very small four-year college until 1976 – when LSU-Shreveport was added.
Today, however, Shreveport and its twin across the river Bossier (pronounced Bo-zher or Bo-jur) City are experiencing a bit of an economic renaissance, thanks in-part to legalized riverboat gambling, which spurned a revitalization effort along the riverfronts in both cities and the construction of a large retail lifestyle center under one of the main Red River bridges called Louisiana Boardwalk, which opened in 2005.
Until the opening of Louisiana Boardwalk, and for aforementioned reasons due to the declining health of the region’s economy, several of the area’s retail centers were in decline. Both Pierre Bossier Mall, located in the east of metro Shreveport, and South Park Mall, located in the southwest, have not fared well through the years. Centrally located Mall St. Vincent, albeit smaller than the three other major enclosed malls in Shreveport, weathered this decline through an upmarket base of stores. Also faring well are the Line Avenue retail district heading south from downtown, and the booming newer retail strip along LA Highway 1 to the southeast of downtown.
South Park Mall opened in 1974 on the southeast side of Shreveport, near the interchange between the Inner Loop Expressway (LA 3132) and Jewella Ave. It was anchored by Dillard’s, Montgomery Ward, JCPenney, Houston-based Palais Royal, and local Selber Bros. Despite competition from two other enclosed malls in the Shreveport area, South Park held its ground, drawing shoppers from the affluent, growing area of south Shreveport. However, trouble brewed during the 1990s as the area of west Shreveport just north of the mall on Jewella Avenue fell to rough times and developed a gang problem, which extended itself to the mall at times. Even before this major shakeup occurred, changes were afoot in South Park’s anchor roster. Palais Royal was replaced by Bealls (Texas) and later Stage, and Selber Bros. was replaced by Phar-Mor, which in turn closed in the early 1990s and was replaced by Burlington Coat Factory. In 1995, a shooting in the parking lot of South Park Mall was especially bad press for the mall, and other crime at or surrounding the mall made front page news during the latter half of the decade. In 1996, a young woman disappeared while she was presumed to be visiting the mall, and has not been found since.
As fickle shoppers go, they certainly went -away, that is, following this perception of crime and the “bad neighborhood” near the mall, despite that the mall and the retail strip around it were still in decent condition. The first major blow was the closing of 175,000 square-foot behemoth Montgomery Ward in 1999. Then, not long after, JCPenney closed their also-massive store, and Dillard’s hung on a bit longer, closing in 2001. This massive defection of anchor stores spelled even greater woe for the in-line tenants, as many who didn’t leave during the decline of the late-1990s left during this period. The mall limped along and finally closed in the early 00s sometime.
So, in 2003, after putting the final nail in the coffin of the site’s retail history, an unlikely suitor came to the mall in hopes of purchasing it. Summer Grove Baptist Church, a Shreveport religious institution since 1849, did some investigating and decided the empty mall would be a near-perfect fit for its needs, and in September 2003 closed on a deal to purchase the entire property. They moved in 2005 to occupy the mall, and aside from transforming the JCPenney into a church-looking structure, complete with a steeple, have done relatively little to change the mall’s interior as well as the vacant anchors. Numerous former stores, though, are being utilized, and have been converted to worship facilities, a day care, youth outreach, church offices, and more. There are even a couple stores where church crafts are for sale. Even so, many of the former stores are relatively unscathed; for example, a national chain shoe store still has brand stickers up on the windows, and many stores still have many of their fixtures. The former Dillard’s, for example, is an abandoned, dark mess of old fixtures apparently operating as a storage area.
Other interesting tidbits about the mall and its saintly acquisition include an apparent Christian music piece entitled ‘March to the Mall’ written by Jordan Eismeier in 2004, and the rumblings that the former Montgomery Ward building may be sold to the Louisiana Film Institute for classes and shooting locations – all family friendly of course. In 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, the mall was used as a staging area relay for disaster response. Lastly, in other weirdness, Burlington Coat Factory still operates at the mallchurch (churchmall?), the only secular retail holdover from the mall’s heyday; however, it does not have access into the mallchurch corridor.
We laud this retail recycling, especially as it essentially functions as a dead mall museum of sorts. We visited the former South Park Mall in March 2008, completely unaware of the mall’s current state, and were able to walk the mall’s/church’s corridors unimpeded, save for a few goofy looks from church patrons and employees. The corridors and former stores were mostly empty, as it was a weekday afternoon, and the only people to be found were working in the retail shop, the church’s information office, and several employees who appeared to be janitors or building maintenance occasionally roamed around on motorized scooters. In all, the whole experience was neat and unique. Feel free to take a look at the pictures we took, and leave your own comments and experiences.