Monday, April 26, 2010

Visiting Eastland, before it's gone for good

As Eastland Mall twisted in the wind over the last decade or so, it became increasingly clear that its days were numbered - with the only question when, not if, it would shut for good. But with the news last week that the mall is, indeed, slated to shut down at the end of June, a couple of colleagues and I decided to stop by for lunch on Friday, not as reporters, but just as customers, to see it while we still could.

It seemed the venerable shopping center was more diminished each time I saw it over the last few years, sapped by uncertainty, shedding a couple of stores here and there. But even as recently as a year or two ago, there was a little life left in it. No more: Picture a final clearance sale on its last, weary legs and you'll have a pretty good idea of what the place looks and feels like now. An air of resignation hung over the whole scene, yet maybe also a little relief, because at least now the mall's fate is clear - and shoppers and tenants can plan accordingly. Signs in the mall listed "Operating hours through June 30," and said, "Thank you to the hundreds of millions of shoppers who have visited us over 35 great years!" ("Hundreds of millions"? Hm.)

Contrary to the negative perceptions that have damaged the mall's image, our trip wasn't unsafe or sketchy - just really sad. Even on the way over, it was impossible to escape what had been and was no more - even the Red Lobster on nearby Albemarle Road, which had been open as recently as a few months ago, was boarded-up and closed. At the mall itself, the reminders persisted, down to the curiously unchanged '70s-style "Eastland" signs over the main entrances, showing that leaf-sun logo with the puffed-out cheeks blowing what must surely be a blast of bitter air at this point. The former Firestone car care center in the parking lot, on Central Avenue, was also closed.

Inside, the scene is arguably stranger, because the mall has been fairly tidily kept and still maintains all the familiar visual cues of a decent early-'90s mall, just with few shoppers and few of the stores you'd expect to find in such a setting. There are the shiny, neutral-colored marble floors, the neatly potted plants flanking stairways, the light flooding in from skylights, the greenery lining the balcony overlooks, all a bit of a time capsule, and not a decrepit one. A Charlotte native in our group could point to vacant storefronts and tell us what they used to be - Morrison Cafeteria, Hibbett Sports, Express, Sears, Dillard's, the Children's Place, New York & Co. (though through a window, wallpaper showing the Manhattan skyline was still visible), Chick-fil-A, Showmars. Even the off-brand Cinnabon-type place had departed. The old ice rink is now covered in a blue surface marked for soccer. Stores like Shoe Show and Champs Sports appeared to have left more recently, while Foot Locker, Lady Foot Locker and FootAction USA were still open, among the few national-chain holdouts, along with Kay Jewelers. The retailers remaining were primarily jewelry and sneaker shops, though there were also a couple selling home decor and streetwear, and a nicer men's shop.

The former Belk end of the mall is particularly empty, because it lost its anchor in 2007, earlier than the other sides of the mall. On Friday, nothing seemed to be in business at that end, on either level. We stood there for a minute, listening to the elevator music that rang through the quiet corridors, the cheery, wordless sax tunes striking an ironically mournful tone. "Looking to grow your business?" asked colorful signs affixed to the boarded-off Belk entrances, on both floors."Plant yourself here."

Back at the food court, about five restaurants were still in business, at least nominally: A bourbon chicken place, a teryiaki place, a pizzeria, an ice cream shop and a Charley's Steakery. I'd really wanted a cheesesteak, and it was clear the steak shop wasn't permanently gone: The lights were on, the cash register was on, the soda machines were on and signs promoting sandwiches were standing by the counter. But there was no one behind the counter, and no sign that any food had been prepared there that day. I waited a few minutes, hoping the proprietor would show up, but nothing changed. So I asked the man behind the pizza counter: "Is the cheesesteak place open?" No, he said, he's gone today. As it transpired, the pizza place and cheesesteak place are not open on the same days anymore, the pizza owner said, because if they were both open at the same time, neither would make money. So instead, they alternate - when the pizza place is open, the steakery isn't, and vice versa, with the owners using their days off to search for new digs.

Why, I asked the pizza shop man, had he stayed at Eastland, given the upheaval? Because, he said, until eight months ago, he'd been making money - and had a lease obligating him to remain. The rent was reasonable; though the pizzeria could have done more business in a storefront on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood, the man said, the more expensive rent in a location like that would have negated the benefits. Now, tenants are freed from their leases, so he's looking for a new home.

Our choices thus constrained, we opted for pizza - a greasy pepperoni slice for me - and sat down at the edge of the food court, looking out at the center court. A few other, scattered tables were occupied. As we ate, a man at a jewelry store across the way brought out a sign and put it up: "Everything must go - SALE - mall closing."

As we walked out, we passed the recently shuttered Burlington Shoes, where boxes were stacked inside and the gate pulled down over the door. An old Nike poster display rack stood outside, with a handwritten sign reading "FREE" taped to it. On the door frame, another handwritten sign helpfully noted, "Store is closed."

Through it all, I kept wondering about the mall's decline and how it happened. Obviously, that kind of slide doesn't happen overnight, but it's interesting to consider that as recently as four or five years ago, Eastland was still pretty much fully occupied, with Belk, Dillard's and Sears still in business and other national chains still there, and the ice rink still open. But then, the situation seemed to shift rapidly - hastened, no doubt, by the opening of Northlake mall in 2005, a 2005 Christmas-season shooting near the food court and the departure of anchors such as Belk. For people whose Eastland memories stretch back farther, the contrast is probably even starker and more painful.

Though Eastland doesn't have the retail choices it once did - the biggest thing for sale there now is likely the mall itself, which is set to be auctioned at the Mecklenburg Courthouse on June 28 - you, too, might want to pay it a visit in its waning months. Though it might be easier to file it under "out of sight, out of mind," seeing retail decay firsthand can help you better understand what it means for our landscape, and how it ties into the well-being of an entire swath of town. But if that sounds like too much of a college lecture, approach it instead as a one-of-a-kind field trip to a fascinating 20th-century relic. Yes, it's our very own dead mall, here for a limited time only - and if we're lucky, we won't have another one to contend with for a long time, or ever.


Anonymous said...

As a Charlotte native, it both saddens and angers me what has happened not only to Eastland, but the entire east side of Charlotte. I last walked through Eastland a few years ago and I almost began to cry. The mall was no longer what it once was---a grand mall when it opened in 1975, the best in Charlotte. I took ice skating lessons at the Ice Capades Chalet. I grew up to work at Wilsons Leather Store and Belk. I ate at Annabelle's and Farrell's (an old-fashioned restaurant with an 1890's theme and a piano that played by itself), and bought my wedding dress at the formal store there. It was the place to be for teenagers back in the late 70's, 80's and early 90's.

You wonder what happened to ruin the mall. It's simple--the influx of Section 8 apartments, illegal immigrants and gangs. Poverty, gangs and crime took over, and the people who could do so moved out. The ones who remained were either too elderly or poor to move, and when the elderly people who first populated this once-great section of town passed away, they were replaced with no-goods who rented the homes and turned them into drug houses. I know this to be true, because I have lived through it all. And finally, I too moved out when it became unbearable to me to see the blight and the places I grew up with wither away.

So sad, but totally preventable. And I will NEVER forgive the City of Charlotte for letting this happen to my side of town.

Anonymous said...

You would hardly know it from what has happened to Eastland Mall, but it was once a far better mall than SouthPark. What a horrible mess Albemarle Rd has become. I am sorry to say that side of town will not come back until the multitude of apartment complexes no longer support their owners who will then demolish to redevelop. Unfortunately, I suspect that will take decades.

Anonymous said...

Eh- East Charlotte looks like Myers Park compared to some once great parts of Detroit. Believe me - it could be much much worse.

Anonymous said...

It is just a freaking mall.

Anonymous said...

I remember going to eastland mall to see smokey and the bandit on my first date with my future wife.We then ate at arthurs restaurant in the mall,and then got ice cream at farrells.A pretty good date for 2 17 year olds in 1978!!! I will miss going to sears,morrison's cafeteria,belk,dillards,the food court,and watching the minor league/semi pro hockey team skate and practice on early sat morning.A piece of history is gone,but i think uptons was the first red flag for that area when they boarded up in the mid 90's.

Anonymous said...

Its too bad, I hear that side of town was really nice and rivaled south charlotte up until the 90s. I kinda have a feelin another part of town will experience the same thing, University City.

Nameless said...

The East side was already lower middle class & had drug/crime problems when the mall was built. The mall was heralded as an improvement for that reason. Eastland was really nice for about 10 years, then it was a downward spiral, turning into a teen hangout for all economic groups. It was a dumping ground for kids by parents and became a popular drug hookup point in the 80s. I was a teen then, so I know firsthand. Also, no one considers the impact that Carolina Place in Pineville had in taking away Eastland's adult suburban middle class customers; even before Southpark remodeled.

DMWright1 said...

Nameless, thank you for your insightful condemnation of an entire quadrant of the city in the mid 70's. Especially since, being a teenager in the 80's, your deep grasp of "lower middle class" & "drug problems" when Eastland opened came from the perspective of a child. In retrospect, maybe you should have ventured outside your own neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

I have good memories of Eastland as well. I moved here at age 18 in 1988 to attend UNCC. Eastland was the mall of choice for my age group. I bought my first-ever bedroom suite at the Eastland Sears, blew a ton of money in the arcade, and have bought clothes at Belk, Sears, Champs and Burlington Coat Factory.

Besides the already-mentioned dramatic increase in Section 8 housing and illegal immigrants, sensationalism of citizens has hurt the area. I know a few former residents of the area that started bloviating about how you dare not go to Eastland without a bulletproof vest - because of ONE shooting. That kind of talk has done as much as anything to hasten the decline.

Sound An Alarm said...

Don't forget World Bazaar, a fantastic adventure through the Orient with prices that were very reasonable.

I also have fond memories of our SCCA events in the parking lot on the weekends in the mid seventies.