Scenes From a Mall

After more than a year of scouring my wee brain to come up with a reason not to hate the never-gonna-get-here light rail, I've finally come up with something: This looming transit system may very well bring about the resurrection of Christown Mall, a once-important destination for those of us who've lived here awhile, and the backdrop of many better memories of Phoenix before it exploded into its big-city bloat. Because if it's ever completed, light rail's last stop in town will be right alongside every local's favorite old mall at 19th Avenue and Montebello.

Del Webb Corporation built Chris-Town (as it to be used known as) on 80 acres of farmland that the developer purchased from Chris Harri, a Swiss-born farmer for whom the mall is named. The mall measured precisely a thousand feet from end to end and was the first enclosed, air-conditioned mall in Arizona when it opened in 1961. After a couple of decades of thrilling shoppers with its keen mix of chain and upper-end retail shops, the decline of the west side and the rise in megamalls spelled doom for every boomer's fave hangout.

There's plenty of evidence that Christown's current owners are expecting its light rail proximity to give the failing mall a boost. For starters, they've dumped the mall's recent moniker, Phoenix Spectrum Mall, which is what its former owners renamed it in the 1990s, and have dubbed it Christown Spectrum Mall, in good part because everyone hated the "new" name. JC Penney, Christown's main anchor since it opened, is returning to the mall after having jilted Christown in favor of Metrocenter a couple of years ago. And okay, so these days JC Penney isn't much of a shopping destination, but it was the front-and-center focal point of the mall for nearly half a century, and its return is a real turn-back-time move that, along with Christown's retro name-change, signals a potential upswing.

Unfortunately, nothing can bring back the hyper-spastic stylings of Chris-Town's long-gone interiors. Originally arranged into a trio of "courts," the mall's layout was beautifully berserk, festooned with swooping ceiling sculptures and manic mobiles, as if Vladimir Kagan and Robert Venturi had clasped hands and then exploded there. The mall's main entrance opened onto the Court of Fountains, which my brother Dave liked to call the Court of Old People because septuagenarians gathered on the low seats before the court's several fountains after trips into TV Leo's and just before heading to Miracle Mile Deli to gum a knish. The east end of the mall in front of Korrick's (later The Broadway) was home to the Court of Flowers, a hippie-dippy garden full of pansies and petunias and, for some reason, a papier-mâché statue of Ferdinand the Bull, while the west end sported a massive four-way concrete bridge from which hung a passel of pop-art bird cages, each of them stuffed with a brightly colored mynah or parrot, some of whom shouted down salty greetings to startled shoppers. (I was grounded one warm Saturday in 1972 after telling my mother, "That bird just called me a tit-head!")

Christown archivist John Bueker is glad the mall is still standing, although he warns people who haven't been there in a while that they may not recognize it.

He isn't kidding. I dropped in on the once-bustling mall recently and barely recognized it. The main fountain, a sort of dishes-and-sticks structure that always reminded me of that plate-twirling act from The Ed Sullivan Show, is still there in the wide entry court, where we lined up to see Santa each December and to get flu shots each October. But JC Penney is off to the right, not straight ahead, and the entire west end of the mall is pretty much gone, replaced by big-discount stores like Wal-Mart.

Before I went, Bueker prepped me. "There's no more Orange Julius," he warned. "And they tore down the Chris-Town Theater, where we used to go see Wallace and Ladmo on Saturdays." Woolworth's, where I bought my first Partridge Family 45 and where my brother Dave bought a bright red electric guitar for $15, is no more. Bill's Records is just a quaint memory, as is the Janitor's Closet, the famous subterranean Chris-Town tavern. "We used to dare one another to sneak down the steps when we were kids," Bueker recalled. "A basement bar seemed very exotic back then."

I'll probably go to Christown's grand reopening next month, but I don't know what I'll do once I get there. I can't shoplift record albums from Woolworth's; I can't taunt the long-gone parakeets or grab lunch at Guggy's. Maybe I'll just sit outside and wait for light rail, and think about progress.

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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