Big Time Mallin'

Living, loving and loathing in the mini-cities of the Valley's malls

"Maybe Phoenix might be cool if you're 21," says Brockoff, 17. "But for us, this is where we have to go. The stupid mall!"

"I hate that place," says Cain, as the crowd of teens empties out and heads toward mom's minivan or else to Tower for one last hour of hang time. "I'm probably going again next Friday."

Wal-Mart vs. the Organ Grinder

Life or something like it: Eventually, everybody hits the mall.
Paul Wilson
Life or something like it: Eventually, everybody hits the mall.
Jesse Williamson at Desert Ridge: "Every Friday, it kind of sucks you back in."
photos by Jackie Mercandetti
Jesse Williamson at Desert Ridge: "Every Friday, it kind of sucks you back in."

"Janitor's Closet? I can tell you exactly where that was. Right . . . here!"

Barbara Bueker, 51, and her brother John, 46, are strolling the familiar brick concourse at Spectrum Mall -- to the Buekers, always "the mall formerly known as Chris-Town" -- when the siblings come upon a slightly sunken section of the brickwork, the gap left from the renovation tackily sealed over with heavy-duty brown masking tape.

"Oh my God!" John says. "You can actually see where the hole was covered over. That just looks so cheesy!"

To John, who runs a Web site that is, in part, a shrine to the 43-year-old mall (www.chris-town.com), and Barbara, who once worked at the JCPenney and Broadway stores that have since been replaced with Costco and Wal-Mart, respectively, in the now "re-purposed" Spectrum, the changes made to their beloved teen hangout are a defamation.

"We were really angry when they changed the name from Chris-Town to Spectrum," says Barbara, who now works as a schoolteacher in the East Valley and has her own mall-addicted 12-year-old daughter.

"I mean, that was sacrilegious. Our generation is clinging to those last vestiges of our childhood -- and our malls are a big part of our culture. We were the first generation to grow up in the malls, and we'd come here every weekend and just walk up and down the mall. It was the place to be seen."

John still remembers when his grandmother first brought him to Chris-Town in 1963, two years after its grand opening as the first enclosed mall in Arizona.

"I was 5 years old, and I'd never been in such a vast, enclosed space in my life," he says. "Looking down from the Court of Fountains towards Ward's, and seeing this mass of people. I still remember it distinctly."

The Buekers came to the mall religiously throughout the '60s and '70s, and every square foot of the place seems to trigger some surreal flashback.

"The Janitor's Closet was always this foreboding place," John says of the underground tavern that used to have its staircase at what is now the entrance to Wal-Mart. "I remember the warning sign that was at the bottom of the stairs: 'Must Be 18 To Enter,' and there was a little red light there."

"We would dare each other to run down the stairs!" Barbara adds.

Walking past the Costco food court, on the same spot where Barbara used to work the Penney cosmetics counter, John flashes again. "Do you remember the organ grinder that used to be right here? He'd have a little monkey, and you'd give the monkey a coin, and he'd put the coin in his pocket and tip his hat."

Gazing around at the crowd of lower-income Hispanic families that now dominates the mall's shopping population, the Buekers concede their cherished hangout has evolved to better fit its community.

"The demographics have changed, big-time," Barbara says. "In the early '60s, when Chris-Town was built, this was kind of a nice side of town: central corridor, nice homes. Now, it's much different. When we pulled up and my daughter saw the Wal-Mart, she said, 'Mom! We don't shop at Wal-Mart!'" (Her daughter's impression upon leaving: "It's kinda cool. But they don't have an Aéropostale!")

Judy Roberts, general manager of the new Spectrum Mall, holds her own fond memories of the old Chris-Town, but maintains that adding the value-priced "power stores" were actually innovative moves that signal the direction older malls -- like Phoenix's own Park Central, now also facing re-purposing -- must follow in order to survive in changing communities.

"Wal-Mart and Costco had never been attached to a mall before," Roberts says. "So this has been a real pilot program for everyone across the country to watch. And it's worked. We recently brought in a PETsMART, too."

A few of Phoenix's oldest shopping landmarks are now considered "dead malls," but finding new lives for the giant empty boxes often presents a business challenge.

The 30-year-old Los Arcos Mall in Scottsdale was closed in 1999 and demolished a year later, but the sign didn't come down until just this past summer, when Arizona State University's purchase of the property for a planned technology center was finally worked out. Thomas Mall remained a dusty field in the early '90s until it resurfaced as the $1.35 million Arcadia Crossing in 1995, anchored by Target, Costco and Petco.

One of the last remaining stores from the original Chris-Town is the tiny Tony's Shoe Repair, occupying the same space it's held since 1961. Before gathering up her daughter and her friend to leave, Barbara and her brother stop in to chat with Juan Fuentes, a familiar face from her JCPenney days who's worked behind the counter for 23 years.

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