K’zoo Mall Anniversary: Like Everything Else, Opinion Is Divided
August 19th, 1959. Sixty years ago, the downtown Kalamazoo Mall was officially dedicated, or more precisely, this officially closed parts of Burdick Street in the heart of downtown Kalamazoo, which was replaced with an urban pedestrian mall. This article has a nice sampling of historical photos.
At the time, it was thought visionary and progressive. But, the reality was, its long term goal of revitalizing downtown ultimately failed. When the mall was brand spanking new, pedestrian traffic and sales increased, but eventually, by the time the '80's were becoming the '90's, it was mostly a ghost town, with more skateboarding teens and people living through economic hardship than active shoppers and consumers.
Did the Mall kill downtown? No. But after the newness wore off, it certainly didn't help it, either. The suburban type malls like Crossroads in Portage killed the traditional downtown of the first half century of the 1900's. Crossroads was bright and shiny, and you could shop in indoor comfort.
If you go on to Vanished Kalamazoo, there's no shortage of people lamenting the loss of the Kalamazoo pedestrian Mall. But as a woman much smarter than me said just about the same time as the Mall was being ripped up, nostalgia is "fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth." The fact is, shoppers flocked to Portage, and West Main and the same was the case in other cities that did the mall experience. Ask the people in Battle Creek, or in Chicago, about the disaster the State Street Mall "experiment" was. If shopping downtown was such a great thing, then why did Sears, J.C. Penney, Jacobson's, Gilmore's and any number of other stores abandon downtown. Ineffective leadership? Sure, but if the stores were profitable, they'd have stayed open to this day. What's really scary, in the current retail environment being driven my Gen Y'ers and Millennials, we soon won't even be able to buy a shirt, blouse, pants or suit live in a actual store, but by jumping online. Good luck if you're an in-between size or need an alteration.
What I've come to realize from the comments of those who miss those days is, maybe what they actually miss is their youth; of going shopping with since departed parents and grandparents. You don't need a pedestrian mall to shop at a store. The fountain was nice, but as we saw recently with Bronson Park, fountains can be ripped out easily, depending on the issue.
But, just the same, there was one funny postscript to the Mall or no Mall battle. When the Mall was finally ripped up after a tight election in 1997, the brick pavement was put in with an underground heating system - that promptly failed. So, at least the pedestrian mall had the last laugh.