Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Eastland Mall closes today, 34 years and 11 months to the day after its much-heralded debut on July 30, 1975. The mall's ride has been a fascinating and rocky one, with all kinds of ties to Charlotte's greater history of growth, development, traffic patterns and changing neighborhoods and identities, fraught with meaning, symbolism and implications. (I've been trying to keep up with news on the mall's fate while delving deeply into some of that in recent stories, which is why my blog posts have been few and far between for the last couple of weeks - for that, I apologize!)
It's been incredibly interesting talking to people about their memories of the mall and their feelings about its slide, and it's reminded me of the role that retail spaces can play in shaping our lives - how they help provide a sense of place, take us back to moments in time and offer not just four walls in which to make some kind of transaction, but serve as a workplace, a social space and a mirror of a community. Are all shopping centers designed and intended to be this way? Certainly not, as evidenced by plenty of disposable architecture littering the landscape. But Eastland wasn't some tossed-off, hastily constructed insta-plaza. As historian Tom Hanchett said when I talked with him about the mall last week: “The mall was thought out in a way that made it a special place, and made it a coming-together place."
I think that's part of why people remember it so fondly and have taken its decline so personally: It was designed as a destination, with entertainment options, spots to sit and relax, waterfalls and skylights and 30-foot ficus trees growing inside. Opening when it did, in the mid-1970s, when malls were ascendant in teen culture and broader society, it became sort of the de facto downtown of a suburban area that otherwise lacked a more traditionally-defined center. And indeed, it struck me that people looked back at Eastland's heyday the same way that someone raised a couple decades earlier might feel upon returning to a small-town downtown that bustled in the 1950s, but has since seen its businesses - drug stores, banks, bakeries, shoe stores, restaurants - depart for newer environs at the edge of town. It's not just that the landscape has changed physically, but what that shift evokes on an emotional level. Or, as David Wayne Evans, the mall's onetime promotions coordinator, said when I interviewed him about how he felt when he last visited Eastland, about four years ago: "I just turned 47, and when you see stuff from your life start to disappear, it's kind of a telling moment how life just changes."
At Eastland, people met their spouses, went on first dates, saw "Star Wars" for the first time, took their first, tentative steps onto an ice rink, got their first jobs, registered for their weddings, bought their first business suits - all life milestones that mean something. "It was a very magical place to go," Donna Ashcraft Pressley, Eastland's longtime marketing director, recalled last week. And no matter how the end came, that's worth remembering.
***The photos with this post are courtesy of Pat Richardson of Charlotte, who generously sent a selection of old Eastland pictures my way. He was 8 and lived two miles from Eastland when it opened, and remembered the excitement of visiting on opening weekend in 1975. "It was so new, exciting and different," he said. "SouthPark was only one level and didn't have a food court. For a teenager, Eastland was a dream come true." Even his cousins who lived near SouthPark would cross town to visit the newer, hipper mall.
Richardson fondly recalls Farrell's ice cream parlor, shopping at the Hub men's store and Spencer Gifts, taking the "up" escalator at the edge of the ice rink, watching his sister when she first got her ears pierced at Eastland and visiting the Record Bar. He also can't forget the distinctive interior design and bizarre seating at Gourmet Gardens, the food court: "It was like you were sitting on boulders." (Oh, the '70s.) Richardson also has a broader interest in Charlotte's dining, advertising and shopping history, and displays some of the very cool artifacts he's unearthed on his two blogs, Charlotte Ads and Charlotte Eats, which are well worth checking out when you have the time.