Metrocenter: Part One of "Look What They’ve Done to My Mall, Ma!"

I lost my virtue in a shopping mall. Sort of. It was actually in my boss's office at the Mexican restaurant where I had my first-ever job, in what's known as Metro Parkway, the shopping complex surrounding Metrocenter Mall at I-17 and Peoria. This was in the late 1970s, when Metrocenter was so big it was spilling out into its own parking lot, creating a surrounding landscape of still more stores and restaurants. My senior year in high school, I worked as a maître d' in a big, sprawling Parkway supper club that served flautas and flan, and where I had a fling with my boss, who was real humpy but kind of old — I think he was 26 at the time.

It seems most of my earliest rites of passage took place at Metrocenter. It was there that I finally realized, once and for all, that I'd never find a sport at which I didn't suck when I tried — and failed — to skate at Metro's legendary ice rink one summer day in 1974. And I was served my first drink in a bar there. I think it was called the AeroLounge, a cocktail lounge shaped like an airplane that wrapped around the skating rink. One entered, as I recall, through the cockpit, and waitresses in stewardess costumes brought your drinks to little tables in front of wee portholes that overlooked the skating rink below. I ordered a White Russian, something I'm still embarrassed about 30 years later.

Metrocenter opened for business in late 1973, and for those of us west-siders living on what was then practically the edge of town, it changed our lives. We didn't have to drive "all the way out" to ChrisTown at Bethany Home Road and 15th Avenue; we had our own mall now, the first two-level, five-anchor mall in the whole United States and the largest shopping center in Arizona to date. So important was MetroCenter to our local economy that the 312 acres on which the 1.4 million-square-foot mall was built was annexed by the city of Phoenix from an unincorporated part of Maricopa County.

Farewell, my lovely entryway: My, how Metrocenter has changed.
Farewell, my lovely entryway: My, how Metrocenter has changed.

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None of which mattered to kids in the neighborhood; all we cared about was that we had a movie theater in walking distance; a Bagatelle where we (well, not me — I was too uncoordinated) could play pinball and air hockey; three different record stores from which to shoplift eight-track tapes. There was a Spencer's Gifts where you could buy a black-light poster of recently deceased Janis Joplin, and a Wild Pair where you could purchase cork wedgies or rainbow socks with separate compartments for each of your toes. A gloomy, tucked-away section called The Alley was where young hipsters went to buy incense and smelly perfumes they mixed themselves at Lotions 'n' Potions, or to dress up in old-timey costumes and be sepia-photographed at that weird little photo studio in the corner. For suburban kids who'd had to make do with hanging out at Short's Dairy Queen on Dunlap, the opening of Metro (as we always called it) was a life-changing experience.

MetroCcnter wasn't just cool; it was pretty: its stucco sparkly with glitter, its interior walls extravagantly tiled, its lower levels exploding with sculpture fountains that busted through the floor of the upper level and into which shoppers occasionally tossed coins. The mall's most attractive feature was also its most considerate: Four big, swoopy, chalet-like entrances (designed by my late father-in-law, Frank Grossman) were each painted a different color, so that shoppers would remember where'd they'd parked their Pacer and moms could find their kids more easily ("I'll pick you up at the yellow entrance at 2:30.").

Of course you know where I'm going with all this. Nostalgic for Metrocenter, and not having been there in decades, I stopped in the other day. I'd heard that the skating rink was gone, and wasn't surprised that that area, now an Old Navy store, is no longer hugged by a wraparound bar shaped like an airplane. I'd heard rumblings that the mall had gone derelict and was filled now with the kind of cut-rate shops typically found in low-end shopping plazas. I'd also heard that Metro had turned scary, filled with miscreants and saggy-panted gang members who were there not to shop but to rumble.

Not so. It's obvious that MetroCenter has had a face lift or two. Pretty much the only recognizable landmark is the big, ugly Sears store, which is no surprise, since the mall was built by Homart Development Company, the real estate division of Sears, Roebuck and Company. The original Rhodes store (from which I once purchased a pretty great pair of denim elephant bells, and which eventually became a Liberty House, then a Joske's, then a Dillard's, and finally a JCPenney) is vacant now. All those gorgeous fountains have been ripped out, replaced by kid-friendly rest areas, and the swoopy entrance structures have been replaced (sorry, Frank) by simple flat mosaics with glass doors. But it just isn't true that MetroCenter has gone ghetto. It looks different, sure, but time marches on. I thought it looked pretty nice. Different, but nice.

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10 comments
Jeffgates1973
Jeffgates1973

Metro was a mainstay in my youth. From ice skating,stuffing my face with ice cream in Farrells,to chasing girls with my friends. If ever one of my frends said "hey let's go to the mall" Metro was the place to be.

Stacey Bennett
Stacey Bennett

I have very fond memories of metrocenter! Back in the day like in 1984/85 me and my best friend Ronda were cruzin metro for guys of course and this is where I met Jim for the first time. We dated and fell in love but our lives were going in different directions and I broke it off with him. I never did find anyone that I felt I could marry, nor did he. Recently though, last year Jim found me on Myspace, thanks myspace. We started talking again gradually and he was living in Idaho and I stayed in Arizona. Jim finally moved here in August 21st and we are planning on getting married in the near future!!!

John
John

I was born and raised in Phoenix and sorry to say Metro along with Chris-Town lost their souls and HAVE become ghetto. Don't know what planet the author lives on, but both malls while reconditioned are primarily filled with discount stores. Unfortunately attracting a low life crowd.

ellen
ellen

i recently moved to arizona, the beautiful state where my brother grew up and where now my mother and he both are buried. i have such fond memories of coming out here to visit him and of a mall where i once went ice skating. i remember a big picture of a penguin under the ice and walking in the biggest mall i'd ever seen. could this be the metro that i remember? i went into phoenix yesterday in search of this mall and no one seemed to know what i was talking about, even the police officers that i stopped and asked. i just wanted to go there and recall the wonderful memories of my brother and i walking through looking at stores and of the day i took my first once around the rink on ice. if anyone can tell me if this is the mall i'm thinking of or if not where the mall with the giant penguin under the ice might be or if it still exists. thank you.

Sniffdar
Sniffdar

Did you just cover American Motors, Mexican food and the death of your cock spirit all in a retrospective piece about Metrocenter? Surely this can�t be the voice I hear on KJZZ? Whoda thunk it possible? You�re most definitely a defined product of the 1970�s. Incredible. More incredible because no one seems to have raised an eyebrow.

Your memories of Metrocenter predate my own, but only by a few years. I pick up on the Metromania history right around the time of Joske's. My family had moved (or rather escaped) from Maryvale to join the other hordes of families moving on up. The year was 1977. You hit the major players at the mall in your first article, but what about the obscure tenants? Does anyone remember Boulangerie Appetite, Video Concepts or Toys By Roys? Ok, the last one is not so obscure, but you get the point.

I�m waiting with great interest to see what you have in store for us in your second installment regarding Metrocenter. Perhaps in the future we�ll hear of how the Ford Granada, Arthur Treacher's and The Connection all tie into some Photoshack landmark. The anticipation builds.

Daniel
Daniel

Does anyone else remember when they would make the large sand sculptures on top of the fountains? That was always something that we would go and check out at MetroCenter. I also remember the ice rink, though I never made it on to the ice. I did frequent the arcade that replaced the rink though. It was always some place that my grandparents would take my sister and I to waste a hot afternoon in late July. I don't shop at MetroCenter anymore, not because of the clientele but because of the shops that are there. They all seem to be the same, offering the same items but just as a different brand. Oh well, maybe they can convince a new anchor store to fill the void left by Macy's and they can breathe some new life into Metro.

brian
brian

ah, the Alley. i was only 7 years old when we moved to the valley and I first went to metrocenter. the Alley truly scared me. i remember it as a cross between the french quarter and a head shop. it's so amazing to think that something like that could be a in mall - never, nowadays. too bad. i do remember the skating rink, and that it was eventually replaced by an enormous arcade and large merry go round. metrocenter was the biggest treat for me to go to when i was a kid, and the fact that it was near golf'n'stuff didn't hurt either! and people can whine that the mall has become "ghetto" or filled with too many backwards baseball caps etc, but the real tragedy is how the mall is inching its way towards genericness and having all its edges rounded out. does any real want a "Dunlap Fashion Square"? i know i don't. bring back the Alley, viva la mall rats, let's have a little gun fire, and f*** the fashion squares!

Greg Girard
Greg Girard

I got one for you. Before they started constrution. The farmer who owned the land sons,(I think it was his son's. You would have to check this out) had a barn party on the east side of I17 and Dunlap. They call it the end of deed party. By word of mouth and paper flyer. Hundreds of teenagers flocked to this keger. My friends and I went to this party thinking this would be a good place to pick up women. In the barn was a band playing and people tossing lite cigarette on the floor cover with hay.I knew by the end of night this place would be on fire. I did try to stop them from tossing smokes on the ground but to no avail. We left. The next day I heard that the barn burn to the ground and some kids were injured. Anyone eles remember this .

bex
bex

I too spent a crazy amount of time at Metro in the early eighties. Some of my finest first time memories are there. I guess I'll have to stop by sometime and make out in the parking lot just for old times sake..

Michael McNally
Michael McNally

Thanks for helping this old guy remember the good times. I wear my cap with the bill foreward and my pants up around my waist and can carry on a conversation without dropping the "F" bomb every other syllable, so I really don't fit in with the new Metro crowd. But, at least, I know where to find tha largest gathering of sports cap and shoe stores in town.

 
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