One person's thoughts may change the world
This is a very familiar picture for me and many who have lived in the Detroit area. It’s the old Hudson’s building, and was the home and headquarters of the JL Hudson’s company. It was, by square footage, the largest department store in the world at one time. It was still the tallest department store in the world when it closed. Yep, right here, in good ole’ Detroit.
It was a grand building, with huge selections of clothing, several wonderful dining rooms, barber shop, music department, bakery, magazines, bookstore, ice cream parlor, elevators, shoes, jewelry, furniture, and many other fine things to purchase and look at. It belongs to a different era, when shopping was an experience, a place where sales people knew you, and, you could purchase quality American made items. President Trueman spoke in front of the building at the end of world war II. Santa Claus was presented the key to the city every year in front of the building by each mayor of Detroit in celebration of the massive Thanksgiving Parade which ended at the building on Woodward avenue. The building was constructed on a city block in 1923, had 33 floors, closed in 1985, and serves as the largest single building ever imploded. Shopping, which was a growing boom that started in the ‘20s, dictated growth of such stores during the era of what was deemed the roaring ‘20s, which ended in the great financial crash of 1929.
Shopping back then was centrally located, and all avenues led to downtown anywhere. All major cities of the 20th century were going through this transformation. People came “downtown” to shop, or at least to their local centrally located venue. But, everyone came downtown to shop, just to see all the wonderful things at these or this magnificent department store.
After WWII, and a minor recession afterwards, boom times hit again in the United States and globally. Hudson’s was convinced to expand to capture a new trend, suburbanization. With new freeways being funded by the National transportation department, people were getting an opportunity to drive to new places of open and affluent areas. Large portions of land were converted from farmland to suburban-land and Hudson’s built which was to be the largest open mall at that time, Northland Mall in 1954.
Not only was a new store was to be built, but surrounding space was made for other retailers to sell their goods in a more spread out environment. No longer were tall buildings needed to maintain a department store. Suburban land was cheap, so the mall had it way of spreading out with large parking lots to accommodate customers. With the Hudson’s building being the showpiece of the mall, it drew you in to it’s open air facility, well designed and well stocked with the amenities that customers wanted on wider floors and escalators. It still maintained the eloquence of the downtown store, but had a newness to it that drew you into it and the surrounding stores. Free parking in its massive parking lot. Longer hours. Northland changed the game, along with its sister malls. Eastland, Westland, Oakland malls followed. Each was strategically placed along newly created freeways, freeways that were designed to move large populations in and out of the city, straight to this new shopping mecca, and the start of the erosion of the Detroit tax base. All for the sake of progress, convince, family tradition, which adds up to, you know what… MONEY.
The suburbs were somewhat of a planned community, with winding streets, no sidewalks, look-alike houses, a car in every driveway, no black people, and June Cleaver wearing her pearls and apron. What was unplanned was how to get downtown to shop. In fact, their was no plan. Bring the shopping to the community and open up new markets. A risky decision but the above Northland mall was the largest of its type in the United States; yep, right outside of good ole’ Detroit once again. Some of you forget or never knew, Detroit at one time was the 5th largest city in the United States, and with the automotive industry as the main employer, one of the richest blue-collar per capita as well.
This is a picture of part of Eastland mall, and the statue of the lion and the little mouse in the picture I use to play on. I took organ lesson out there in the morning, before most shops opened, in a Wurlitzer music annex store. My parent bought an organ from the store, and I had Saturday lessons there. But the real deal was for my mother to go shopping. It was almost a ritual. After organ lessons, we’d stop at B. Segal, a whole two-story building devoted to woman’s clothing. Next was Kresge’s, then a Jewelry shop next door to it, then Wilkelman’s, then lunch at Sander’s buffet in the basement, then several other woman’s stores, then finally, Hudson’s.
My only consolation was the Hudson’s toy store which was on the 3rd floor. After that, I was done, I wanted to go home. But, wait, my mother and sister had not even started visiting the shoe stores….. Oh my goodness. I use to think my mother was going to spend all of the money my father made. But, the landscape was the most intriguing. We would be the only black people. My mother said we single-handedly integrated the mall back then. When we saw other black people (finally), we would wave and say “HI!”.
These mall grew and morphed themselves over the years to even draw more customers. They enclosed themselves in the mid-70s. They added new stores. They added restaurants, then build more pricier malls to accommodate the affluence and wealth around them. They added movies theaters. They then went and build super malls and discount malls and when the old malls lost their luster, they razed them to build big box stores that had the feel of malls outside being fully enclosed. For warm weather cities, this was perfect. In fact, many warm weather cities thrive with open malls. They exported the mall concept around the world and made money by the billions. They created new ways to discount clothing by making them off shore at a very cheap price.
It’s now 2010. And the picture to the left is nothing more of a glimpse of mall I walked in a few days ago. I call these kinds of malls “anywhere USA” because most of these types are focused on getting you to buy something so there is nothing to highlight what’s going on outside. See the marble floors, it’s an upper class mall. A mall full of people buying endless supplies of stuff. Specialty stores which carry items that give you a distinction you think you want or need. Actually, I found the mall so uninteresting I was glad to get out of there. I briefly walked into a Starbucks to which the only thing that caught my eye were to young African-American woman with funky throwback fro’s. They were the coolest thing I saw in the mall and they weren’t even part of the mall. They spoke after drawing such a long stare from me, and I complimented them on their hair.
Other parts of the mall drew your attention by bright colors, or loud music, drawing the attention of a younger crowd. Walking by a Victoria’s secret store was bright and in your face, with pictures of models dressed in underwear for women sized 3 and under. Walking by Abercrombie and Fitch was a loud blast of music, and their typical pics of topless male pictures trying to draw you in to buy something of a size that wouldn’t quite fit me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in shape, but, hmmmm, they don’t seem to carry my size. I did stop in Eddie Bauer, but out of sympathy, they are on the brink of bankruptcy. The only store I was interested in going into was the Apple store, which, was too crowded. I walked through the Banana Republic store, which was one I use to shop in years ago. But what was really interesting was the people. So, I sat and did one of my favorite past times, I people watched.
I watched as people carried their bags, their kids, there drinks, their asses, and their phones. I watched people primp, pose, look, and look at. I watched as people seemed to just be walking, headed to store anywhere in this three-story complex, which is a far cry from 33 floors. Not to go into any detail, but actually, there was hardly anyone there. Perhaps it was the time of evening. Perhaps it was the day. Perhaps it was because it was nice out and people wanted to be out. Perhaps it’s because, people are shopped out. Stores are everywhere, as well as what items you can purchase. CVS is a store full of almost everything, not just a drugstore. The Dollar store carries a little of everything, cheap as it is ( sorry you dollar store lovers). Malls and strip malls and BigBox stores abound in all these communities. Shopping is not just clustered around junctions and roads but where ever they can find the land and put up a new mecca to take your money. The old model of the department store which morphed to the mall is now so disjointed that you cannot really say that any one mall in your area is the most significant place to shop. And, don’t let me leave out the internet, which has changed the whole landscape of what people really call “shopping”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the necessity of shopping. I’m not knocking the usefulness of commerce and the “excitement” of purchasing a new pair of shoes. It’s just an observation of a brutha sitting on a bench, looking around, and thinking about the history of the shopping mall on a Friday night while drinking my “cafe latte”.
P.S. If you’ve been reading any of my blogs, you’d get the “cafe latte” line. Peace Mickey Fickey…