Berman: Northland Mall on the verge
Detroit is a city of post-industrial ironies. Just as downtown Detroit's Woodward shopping district shows signs of life, Macy's and Target are bidding their adieus to Northland — the mall whose 1954 suburban opening heralded the death of downtown Detroit shopping.
Now the tables are turning: Menswear designer John Varvatos and a Restoration Hardware outlet are promising to fill historic storefronts downtown while Northland's remaining anchor stores prepare to close shop.
On a 2015 weekday, you can park in nearly any of Northland's parking spaces — originally, there were 8,344. The sense of vacancy is powerful, especially if you're old enough to remember when a shopper could be dizzied by the shimmering sea of parked cars on a hot July day.
Remaining store owners, alarmed by last week's announcement that Macy's will soon exit, are wary of the future. The mall is in court receivership, and John Polderman, who represents the receiver, Bloomfield Hills lawyer Frank Simon, says that the Macy's news ushers in "a new reality."
Macy's has closed its west and east entrances, the metal roll-down doors projecting a faint feeling of doom. Its cafe closed to the public last week. The north and south doors, along with the store, will close in eight to 12 weeks, says Andrea Schwartz, Macy's vice president of media relations. Target is scheduled to close Feb. 1. Other older, inner-ring malls, like Eastland or Universal malls, exhibit similar patterns of decline.
"Not that long ago, this was a place with mink coats and thousand-dollar shoes," says merchant Art McDaniel, who owns City Hatter, a cheerful store that sells the full gamut of hats, from fedoras to fur-lined trapper hats to baseball caps. "It used to be that when one store closed, someone else would try to open," he sighs. "Now, they just stay closed."
Without Macy's, this place will be a giant strip mall," sighs McDaniel, an affable shopkeeper who tries to compete with Footlocker and other chain stores selling athletic wear.
Many of the visitors, like Sam Samuels, a Detroiter dressed in head-to-toe maize and blue, are walkers who arrive early and sometimes walk all day. On especially lively walking days, "it looks like a demonstration." he says. The walkers are leisurely; the shoppers are typically on a mission. "These days, people get in, buy what they need, and leave," he says.
Generations of teenagers grew up at Northland, pioneering the now accepted ritual of hanging out at "the mall." This was the gateway to the yet-unbuilt suburbs of Oak Park and Southfield when it opened, to a new era powered by the automobile and paved in Motor City moxie and exuberance. The J.L. Hudson Co. hired Victor Gruen, a Vienna-born architect who would win renown as the inventor of the shopping mall, to create its "branch" store and the 110-store complex that drew journalists from around America when it opened.
"When the passenger has left the parking lot, he is in a shopper's paradise," Dorothy Thompson wrote in The Ladies Home Journal, reporting that she shopped for six hours without tiring, taking avail of oak benches, and the center's peaceful gardens. Gruen, according to his biographer, M. Jeffrey Hardwick, called Northland "the Shopping Center of Tomorrow."
The J.L. Hudson Co. had the vision to imagine and create its first branch beyond downtown as a mammoth 511,000 square feet store, only nine miles from its flagship store. The center's elaborate design, including abundant cherry trees, original sculpture, fountains and gardens, was meant to echo European promenades.
It was all a novelty then: the "city within a city," the promise of decentralizing the city and regrouping on its borders, the belief that expansion was limited only by imagination and great retail opportunities. Its self-contained design would stamp out commercialism, "the ugly rash on the body of our city," its architect proclaimed. Now those promises strike us as antiquated, while downtown regains its own mythical footing.
Tucked into the east side of the mall, the Dr. Stein Optometrist office is still open, as it has been since 1956, when Dr. Benjamin Stein, now deceased, opened for business. His brother Edward, an optometrist, and son, Stuart, an optician, are proud of being the longest-lived business in the mall. They remember when Gladys Knight's Pips ("not Gladys Knight, just the Pips") came for Benjamin Stein's contact lenses, then an avant-garde item.
Muhammad Ali once hawked shoe polish at Northland. Toddlers never forgot the Marshall Frederick sculpture of "The Boy and the Bear," still here.
"We have fourth-generation patients here," says Stuart Stein, who remembers his father breaking professional protocol by locating in a mall and selling eyeglasses. "Our clientele enjoys that we're a family business." They come from the north suburbs, from Warren on the east, from Detroit: "All over."
The Steins, and other store owners say they want to stay in business, even if business isn't what it was even a few years ago. For now, Northland Mall is a place of wariness, of waiting for an ending before the next beginning.
Sound familiar? That's the story of Detroit, moving north.