Evergreen Park, Illinois is an inner-ring southwest suburb of Chicago with a population of about 20,000, located about 10 miles from the Loop. Although established as a village in 1893, most of Evergreen Park’s growth occurred during the middle of the 20th century. This, combined with the fact that Evergreen Park is sandwiched in on three sides by Chicago and by suburbs Oak Lawn and Hometown on the fourth side, caused Evergreen Park to be built out by 1960. As such, growth in the Village has been relatively stagnant for several decades. In this post we will examine the interactions of very separate, racially segregated neighborhoods in close proximity and how they have affected retail offerings to present an interesting case study marrying economics, geography, and socio-spatial interaction.
Considering that the relationship between the scope of retail and place is based on a broader geographical area than one suburb (such as Evergreen Park), we have to examine the entire vicinity in terms of retail offerings, and also demographics in general. Evergreen Park itself is middle class, almost 90 percent white, and unchanged since the 1960s. On three sides of the village is Chicago, whose neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the village range from suburban-style nearly 100 percent white enclaves such as Mount Greenwood to very racially and economically diverse sections such as Ashburn on the north, and Beverly to the east. Further afield, and yet not at all distant from Evergreen Park are neighborhoods like Washington Heights which are nearly 100 percent black and poverty stricken. This melange of neighborhoods exists within very close proximity to one another; however, segregation and racism has presented many obstacles for positive interaction between them.
In terms of retail offerings, Evergreen Park is mostly residential with two important commercial corridors: 95th Street, which runs through the city from east to west and Western Avenue, which forms the eastern border of Evergreen Park and is a retail corridor shared with the city of Chicago. The 95th Street corridor is also heavily populated with retail offerings into the city of Chicago to the east and even moreso into Oak Park and beyond to the west. Major shopping malls in the area include Chicago Ridge Mall several miles to the west along 95th Street, Ford City Mall a few miles north in the city of Chicago, and The Plaza in Evergreen Park located where the two major retail corridors in the village intersect, at 95th Street and Western Avenue.
Evergreen Plaza opened in 1952 as an open-air shopping center developed by Arthur Rubloff, one of if not the first of its magnitude in all of Chicagoland. It was anchored by two grocery stores (one was Jewel) with a row of shops in the middle, which was a new idea at the time. Other stores included The Fair, a small local department store, and Woolworth’s, Lytton’s and Walgreens. Chas A. Stevens, an upscale small department store chain based in Chicago, opened in 1962, and Carson Pirie Scott followed not long after. In the 1970s The Fair store became Montgomery Ward. The mall was also enclosed in 1966, and has been expanded several times including the addition of a food court in the late 1980s or early 1990s based on its decor. Also in the early 1990s, a Silo electronics location was replaced with Circuit City.
Changes since 2000 have led to high turnover at Evergreen Plaza. Montgomery Ward closed its four-story anchor in 2001 as the whole chain went under, leaving a huge vacancy near the north end of the mall. Circuit City and Walgreens both closed in 2005; Walgreens was replaced by Office Depot shortly thereafter. Also in 2005, National Wholesale Liquidators, an east-coast based high volume discounter, took two floors of the former Wards space. Upon their arrival, the NWL logo was emblazoned on the mall’s once-iconic watertower, which one sported the mall’s “e” logo with the background image of an evergreen tree.
In addition to these changes, the mall’s demographic base has shifted dramatically over the course of its existence. When it opened in 1952, it was the premier shopping center in the Chicagoland area and was a destination mall for many years, courting shoppers from all over the area. However, as other, bigger malls opened in the area, The Plaza’s niche started to fade. In 1981, Chicago Ridge Mall opened just five miles west of the Plaza along the same 95th Street retail corridor. While this was the most direct blow to The Plaza’s dominance, other south-suburban malls such as River Oaks Center remodeled and enclosed in 1994, and Orland Square also remodeled in the late 1990s and early 2000s, positioning itself as the dominant tier-A mall for all of south and southwest Chicagoland.
Even indirectly, as the suburbs moved outward from the city so too did the wealth, leaving The Plaza a bit out of sorts. As such, The Plaza acquired a new niche catering heavily to the black population living on the south side of Chicago and surrounding suburbs. As The Plaza is literally across the street from Chicago, the convenience the center provides these customers is immeasurable, since Ford City Mall is the only mall situated in the City on the south side. Interestingly, very few customers of The Plaza today appear to come from Evergreen Park or Oak Lawn, spreading a dichotomy of separateness which interestingly segregates most residents of Evergreen Park from their own mall.
Despite changing times and competition, Evergreen Plaza remains a very popular destination. A lot has changed over the years, but in our opinion this only adds to our fascination with this mall. The decor is decidedly dated on the inside; however, numerous attempts have been made to update the outside facade, especially facing Western Avenue. The mall itself is also rather long and winding, extending from Office Depot in the north to Carson’s on the south end. The center court is an impressively dark, cavernous Gruen-esque space, and also the point where the mall sprouts a basement level which continues on from center court to Carson’s; another smaller basement level with service-oriented shops is located in the original north corridor near Office Depot. The neon-laced food court, which was added sometime in the 1980s or 1990s, also exists in the basement, and a sizeable side hallway extends past the food court culminating in an escalator up to another side hallway on the upper level – an interesting, quirky feature. Also, the NWL (former Wards) anchor has a water tower, and the mall features a large office tower at the south end. Until recently, a large parking deck existed between Carson’s and NWL and a popular, problem-infested movie theatre existed on the property; both were recently razed.
We hope the mall wasn’t damaged in the recent holiday decorations fire, which also sadly closed the mall for two days during December 2007.
Take a look at the pictures featured here; they were taken in September 2007. Feel free to add your own comments and stories, or send us some retro photos of this or any mall.
UPDATE 1/13/08: Another one bites the dust. Coincidentally, the very next day after we posted this mall, news surfaced about its potential demise and redevelopment. According to this recent article in the Chicago Tribune, mall owners are currently looking to redevelop the mall as an open-air center, replacing the existing enclosed structure which hasn’t changed much in over 40 years. The ostensible goal of the renovation is to reinvigorate the center to its former glory, with an emphasis on returning ‘upscale’ stores to the center as were present in its earlier days. Also take a look at some vintage photos of the mall on the Tribune’s site. In addition, the article glosses over the fact that NWL’s lease expires in April, though makes no mention of the lease being renewed or the store closing. In our opinion, the former Wards four-level behemoth anchor, at 225,000 square feet, could never be fully leased as one store again. It will either have to be parceled out somehow to box stores, or razed altogether for new purposes. The lease expiry is probably an ominous hint of things to come.