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.

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.

"Metrocenter will be 35 years old this October," Michael Fisher, the mall's senior property manager, who speaks in corporate-approved sound bites, told me. "It's not what it was 35 years ago, but the future still looks bright. We're continuing to meet the needs of our changing community."

What he's saying is I missed Metrocenter's ghetto era. That's okay. It was nice to see it again, like running into an old high school pal who looks different but is just as friendly as she was 30 years ago. On my way out, I stopped by the restaurant where I used to work, now long gone and replaced by one of those over-decorated faux-French cafes that serves Mexican and American and Italian cuisine, but almost no French food. I stood in the spot that used to be my boss's office and which is now a salad bar, and I thought, "I should feel horny. Or old. Or sad that the spot where I once went for sex is now a place where people go for Ranch dressing and croutons." But all I felt was hungry. So I sat down and ordered some flautas.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela