Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Southern Park Mall

Southern_Park_Mall,_Boardman

Southern Park Mall, viewed from the north. By Nyttend – Own work, Public Domain, via Wikipedia

One of the major national newspapers (with a paywall, unfortunately) ran an article yesterday on the death of shopping malls. It is undeniable that many malls have struggled with challenges. The major mall near our home when we lived in Cleveland was Randall Park Mall. It has been razed and converted to an Amazon distribution center. When we came to Columbus, City Center Mall in downtown Columbus was the showpiece of the city. Incidents with teen gangs and rising vacancies and the closure of the major local department store anchor led to closure and eventual razing of this mall as well. The area has been converted to upscale downtown apartments and a performance space, which might be a net gain for the city.

Southern Park Mall was the place we went to hang out as teens and on dates. We all flocked to it when it opened in 1970. There was room, with free parking for 6300 cars, unlike downtown stores. At that time, it occupied over 1,100,000 square feet, expanding further when Horne’s was added as a fourth anchor store, joining Penney’s, Strouss’s (with its second floor pavilion style restaurant) and Sears. Both Sears and Penney’s had exterior auto centers. In all, the mall had over 100 stores as well as movie theaters. The mall was built near the location of the historic Southern Park Race Track, hence the name. It was built by the Edward J. DeBartolo Company, whose offices were just down the street.

Some of my Southern Park memories: Standing in line to see The Poseidon Adventure, for which Youngstown native Maureen McGovern sang the theme song (“There’s Got to Be a Morning After”); going to Spencer Gifts for girl friend gifts and posters; using my Higbee’s employee discount at The Loft and at Burrows; visiting the first store I ever went to dedicated to selling books, Walden’s; and in later years, taking my mother-in-law to do her Christmas shopping, which always involved a stop at the Roy Rogers Restaurant, which she loved. Before we were married, my wife worked for a time at J.C. Penney. We still have items in our home she bought there.

Eventually Strouss became Kauffman’s, and finally Macy’s. Horne’s became Dillard’s. In 1997, the DeBartolo Corporation merged with the Simon Property Group, and they invested in $19 million in improvements, including a foodcourt and a seven-screen theater complex. In 2014, the Simon Property Group sold the mall to Washington Prime Group, a spin-off company. In July 2018, Sears closed its store, part of a national closure of stores. Dillard’s announced its closure early in 2019.

No plans have been announced yet for the former Dillard’s space. I learned that the Sears store is being torn down and the space is being converted to what is being called DeBartolo Common, which will include stores making up the new exterior wall of the mall, athletic fields, a green space, and a bandstand intended to make this a community gathering place for Boardman and the great Youngstown community. This reflects a national trend for malls that survive, according to a Forbes article that suggests that younger consumers are more interested in spending their money on experiences rather than material things. According to The Business Journal, among tenants being considered are a fitness facility and an indoor golf facility connected to a restaurant.

It is interesting to see how these things go in cycles. The advent of malls fifty years ago were the sign that the days of downtown shopping were numbered. Now, as malls struggle to address safety issues posed by everything from teen gangs to gun violence, and to compete against online sellers, some are dying and some are reinventing themselves. Southern Park Mall (as well as Eastwood Mall) has so far survived and appears to be reinventing itself. And looking on a store map, I see that Penney’s, where my wife worked, and Spencer’s, where I bought gifts and posters, both live on. I hope that is a good sign for the rest of the mall. To good Black Friday and holiday sales and better days to come!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Shopping Plazas

Liberty Plaza in its Hey day

Liberty Plaza, probably in the 1960’s. Photo by Hank Perkins, used with permission of the Mahoning Valley History Society Business and Media Archives collection (http://mahoninghistory.org).

As Youngstown grew in the post-World War II years and automobile ownership grew as well, shopping opportunities began to move out from the downtown with the development of shopping plazas. Unlike some of the mom and pop stores where you either walked to them or could park on the street nearby, these were set back from the roads, usually a main thoroughfare, with acres of parking in front of the stores.

The plaza nearest where I grew up was the Mahoning Plaza. I remember when the big anchor store in the plaza was J.C. Penney’s, and there was a Mahoning Bank branch, a Murphy’s, and my favorite, the Western Auto store, where I bought accessories and replacement tires and inner tubes for my bikes. I believe there may also have been a drug store, possibly a Gray Drugs. As I started earning money, I used to buy my school clothes at J.C. Penney since I thought my fashion sense was better than my mom’s. Looking at old pictures, not sure that was so. I’ll admit it–I was a bit of a dork!

This was one of a number of plazas that sprang up around the city. On the far south side, you had the Boardman Plaza, which stretched for what seemed like a half mile along Rt. 224. Further out on Mahoning Avenue was the Austintown Plaza as well as the smaller Wedgewood Plaza off of Raccoon Road. The east side had the McGuffey Plaza, one of the first plazas developed by the Cafaro Corporation,  and the Lincoln Knolls Plaza. On the northside, there was the Liberty Plaza. There were other, smaller plazas scattered around town as well.

I dated a girl for a while who lived in Liberty Township and we could walk to the Liberty Plaza from her house. We’d shop at some of the stores and take in a movie at the Liberty Theater. I remember seeing the Beatles “Let It Be”, which would have been in the spring of 1970, when it was released. Sadly, it marked the end of the Beatles as a group. And not too long after, our relationship ended as well, and with it regular trips to the Liberty Plaza. Later on, I remember buying lots of vinyl from a record store (Peaches? Oasis? I can’t remember) in Boardman Plaza, where my mother-in-law liked to shop when we were in town. But it was around this time that Southern Park Mall and Eastwood Mall became the places to hang out and so I spent lots less time at plazas.

Almost all of these plazas have undergone fairly drastic changes. A huge Walmart sits where Liberty Plaza once did. I understand McGuffey Plaza (later Mall) is no more.  Both Boardman and the Mahoning Plazas are still alive, but with much different mixes of stores than they once had. Youngstown’s changing economy, shopping malls, standalone big box stores, and more upscale shopping developments (like the Shoppes at Boardman Park) worked together to change the landscape of shopping plazas in Youngstown, even as they began to cut into the downtown stores of an earlier era.

What were your memories of shopping plazas in the Youngstown area growing up?