Eastland – Always on our Minds

Awhile ago, one of my friends on Facebook posted a comment as well as an article aboutcentury-iii-mall-57 some proposed changes to Century III Mall in West Mifflin. Although I have been to the mall many times over the years, I have never felt that it was a place that I could really feel any connection with. To me, it always has been an over-sized, confusing, cold and unwelcoming environment. I suppose that if Century III had been build when I was in my teens, I would feel differently, but considering that it didn’t open until 1979, I had moved away from the area and was living in Chicago.

In my retail career, I have managed many traditional department stores throughout the United States. From Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta, Georgia (248 stores/1,545,000 sq. ft.) to Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois (300 stores/2,200,000 sq. ft.), I have seen and worked in dozens of malls. However, the only mall/shopping center that resonates in my mind was Eastland Shopping Mall in  North Versailles, Pennsylvania.

In my mind, bigger is NOT always better! During my retail career, I constantly reminded my managers and selling associates to “think like a customer.” I wonder if the developers of some of the super-sized malls ever considered that customers just may not want to traverse over 2 million square feet of space to just buy a pair of shoes or a tube of lipstick?

The size of Eastland was perfect in my mind. There was an intimate quality about it. You were most likely able to find whatever it was that you were searching for and you also would probably run into someone you knew before the end of your shopping excursion. Rather than a enormous food court with dozens of fast food places, one could NEVER beat sitting in one of the booths or at the counter in Woolworths or Gimbels for a quick bite to eat or enjoy a wonderful meal at McSorleys Restaurant.

About three years ago, I published a post about Eastland that everyone seemed to enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing. I decided to resurrect that post and share it with you once again. I hope you enjoy it!

Project1

Did you know that there is an obituary of sorts for shopping malls? Seriously! The site is simply called www.DeadMalls.com! Who would have thought it would come to that? The only reason I know this is that I happened to be looking through some old photos that I found in a drawer and found one that was taken at Eastland Mall in North Versailles.

Eastland Shopping Plaza opened its doors for the first time on August 15, 1963. I remember going to Eastland with my mother and my Aunt Mary, and how they marveled at the size, the convenience and how much better it was than walking through downtown McKeesport. Unfortunately, many other people thought the same thing, and as a result, McKeesport’s business fell off dramatically. So many of the stores in Duquesne had closed or were about to close since the “redevelopment” had recently begun. First Street was less than a year from being razed, so residents were beginning to form new shopping habits.

As much as Mom liked Eastland Shopping Plaza, old habits were hard to break and she continued to frequent Sally Fashions and Salkowitz Dress Shop in Duquesne for her “preferred wardrobe.”  She also continued to shop at Adler-Greens for my dad, brother and I. When it came to items for the house, it was always the Golden Rule, Helmsteaders and Hirshbergs in McKeesport.

In 1964 when all of North First Street fell victim to the redevelopment’s bulldozer, so did my father’s business on South First Street. It was a VERY stressful and traumatic time for our family. My dad was devastated about closing his business without a choice in the matter. He had just turned 49 years of age and was forced to begin a new job. Fortunately, he was such an adept mechanic, and found work immediately at the J C Penney Auto Center in Eastland Shopping Plaza. There, he was promoted to Service Manager and continued in that role until his retirement in 1980.

For 16 years, Eastland was a part of our lives. I knew it well. In its heyday, Eastland Mall was a two-level, shopping plaza that was built on 57 acres of land at the peak of a hill overlooking the Monongahela River. There was an urban legend about the land that it was built on. Supposedly, the area was once a huge slag dump for the surrounding McKeesport steel mills. Duquesne Works had its own site to dump stag, so were not part of the legend. Every so often, someone would resurface the theory that the mall, in its entirety, would one day slip over the hill toward the Monongahela River due to its unstable foundation of shifting slag. That fate never materialized, and the mall suffered its own gradual and painful death on February 15, 2005, after 42 years.

Originally, Eastland Shopping Plaza was home to 4 department Stores and 52 other retail businesses. Eastland opened with stores such as Gimbels, Sears, J.C. Penneys, Wander Sales, F.W. Woolworth, May-Stern, McSorley’s Restaurant, Docktor Pet Center, Thom McAn (I always thought that was a strange spelling.) There was a Young Men’s store named Silberman’s as well as one called Standard Sportswear, Kinny Shoes, and a Richard’s Shoes. Immel’s had a location at Eastland along with National Record Mart. NRM was on the lower enclosed level of the mall along with a toy store that I can’t remember the name of. Was it Kay Bee? There was also a shoe repair on that level, Valley Shoe Repair that remained there from the first day Eastland opened in 1963 until the mall closed in 2005. That distinction was shared with only one other business, Marc Anthony’s Hair Salon.

In the winter of 1969, I turned 18 and was old enough to begin working at Eastland. At that time, it was still an open air shopping plaza. I decided not to go the route of nepotism and apply at J C Penneys, but took a leap and applied at Gimbels. To my surprise (as well as my dad’s), I managed to get hired on as a holiday seasonal! I was quite excited about working at Gimbels. It was always considered an upscale store and I enjoyed the excitement. Little did I know that the retail “bug” would bite me and cause me to continue into a retail career that lasted until 2007!

I recall how festive Gimbels and the mall looked at holiday time. The amount of customers during the holiday season was astounding. People came from all over the area to Eastland. I saw so many people that I knew from Duquesne while working there. Even some personalities made their way to the mall as well. I had the pleasure of waiting on Donna Jean Young during the holidays which was very exciting. Perhaps the most famous person I met was Hugh Geyer, lead singer for the Vogues. At that time, they were one of the most popular groups in the United States.

I remained at Gimbels while I was in college until 1971. When I left Gimbels after graduation, the store was feeling the bite of competition from Monroeville Mall which had opened in 1969. I remember the Eastland Mall Theatres that were tucked away in the far corner of the Shopping Plaza. They opened at the same time the shopping plaza opened. There were two screens. I remember that the entrance was very bright and was primarily white and gold and aqua(?)! I recall taking dates there, but only remember seeing one movie. What does that say about my dates?? The only movie I remember was Funny Girl in 1969.

For a short time, I worked at the Eastland Car Wash which was located to the right of the theatre. I worked there for about 6 months during the fall and winter. The conditions were crappy since we all were freezing most of the time. I would either be sloshing water on hubcaps at the start of the wash or be part of the detail crew at the end of the wash. Either chore had me exposed to the weather for the most part. As would be expected, it was a rather “motley” but really a fun crew that worked at the car wash. That’s where I learned all my bad habits as a means of survival. Instead of learning the 3 R’s as in school, I learned the 3 S’s. Swearing – Spitting – Smoking. I dressed like a bum, was as dirty as a pig and smelled like one too. But boy, we all had fun there! The car wash was destroyed by a fire in 1987.

A few years after I moved away from home, there was a fire at Eastland. It occurred on June 6, 1973 during the morning hours. It apparently started either at a dairy store or bakery that was located in the lower level mall. 27 stores were involved, 20 in the lower level and 7 on the upper level. Renovation had already been underway to enclose the upper area of the mall at the time of the fire. What eventually emerged from the renovations and restorations following the fire was an enclosed mall with a new “big box” store, Gee Bee, anchoring one end of the complex. The name changed from Eastland Shopping Plaza to Eastland Mall after the mall was enclosed.

After graduation from college in 1972, Eastland Mall and I parted ways. I entered into my “wanderlust” years and began a series of moves that were career associated. I remember returning to the area in 1977 and visiting Eastland with my then fiancée Judy. I believe that was my last visit to Eastland for many, many years.

As I indicated earlier, my father continued to work at Penney’s Auto Center until his retirement 1980. As I continued to travel and relocate to different parts of the country, Dad and my Aunt Mary would keep me abreast of what was happ ening to Eastland. Century III Mall in West Mifflin had opened in 1979 and between that new competition and the continued success of Monroeville Mall, Eastland had suffered a huge decline in business. That decline continued in subsequent years and culminated in 1986 when Gimbels went out of business and closed their doors at Eastland. With that final blow, most of the mall’s remaining tenants left.

The next time I visited what WAS Eastland Mall, things had changed quite dramatically. Stretched across the once pristine façade that was graced with the name of Gimbels, was a stark white sign that boasted “New Eastland.” In the corner of the parking lot was a boarded-up Penney’s Auto Center, once my dad’s bread and butter. Pathetically standing in the opposite corner of the parking area was the remnants of the Eastland Mall Theatres. I entered the front doors of what was a classically beautiful Gimbels and felt a little like George Bailey from “It’s A Wonderful Life” stepping into “Nick’s” the neighborhood bar that used to be “Martini’s.” Nothing was the same. In place of the sparkling aisles and well displayed departments was a maze of mismatched tables, recycled display racks. The noise was at a deafening level and the chaos was even more intense. The 2nd floor had been closed off by boarding up the escalator, but the lower level was still open and duplicated the scenario from the first floor. Believe me, I am a huge fan of flea markets and garage sales. I think they are a blast! However, the scene I encountered that day was a bit upsetting to me. I had seen the demise of the heart of Duquesne, and now to see yet another place I loved suffer the same fate was a bit disconcerting. In 2005, “New Eastland” became “No Eastland” when the entire site was razed. Eastland’s obituary has been written-up on several different sites on the internet. The following is from Wikipedia. Eastland was a grand old lady!

Eastland was located primarily around old mill towns. Many of these communities lost vast amounts of population during the lifetime of the Eastland Mall. Braddock, which East Pittsburgh-McKeesport Blvd leads directly into two miles (3 km) away, had approximately 12,000 residents in 1963. By the mall’s close in 2005 it had fewer than 3,000. This demographic change took with it, potential customers and employees of Eastland Mall. After Eastland Mall had already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, its most devastating blow came in September 1986 when Gimbels, which had developed and owned the mall, went out of business, taking most of Eastland’s tenants along with it. Benderson Development Company of Buffalo, NY purchased the mall from the bankrupt Gimbels department store two years later. For the next 20 years Eastland tried to stay afloat with a variety of unique tenants – including a PennDOT state driver’s license testing center, a beer distributor (Beer World, located in the old J.C. Penney’s), a distribution center for Xerox, the local magistrate’s office, a professional wrestling center (PWX, owned by James Miller), a bingo parlor (Eastland Social Hall Bingo), and a low power TV station, WBYD-CA. Most notable was the addition of a two story indoor and spacious outdoor flea market in the space once occupied by Gimbels which, according to a flea market manager, drew 500 vendors and 2,000 customers per weekend at its peak. Many smaller retail stores then opened inside the mall, including Harper’s Bazaar (a mom-and-pop women’s clothing store run by Jim and Carol Harper), Kennywood Messenger Service (a notary and vehicle licensing service), Amer-a-Quick printing service, a barber shop, and a beauty parlor. The revival was temporary. In the 1990s, the flea market was moved off to the side in the old Gee Bee store, taking foot traffic away from the retail stores located inside the mall. The building then fell into a state of ruin. By the time the mall closed in 2005, it was only worth $1.38 million – less than the $1.4 million that Benderson Development Company paid for it 1988. By that point, trash cans holding water falling from the leaky roof abounded throughout the mall. Parts of the original Gimbels facade had collapsed and the walls were showing stress cracks. The walkway was no longer heated and the tiles were so broken and floor so uneven the heels of a shopper’s shoes often caught in the floor.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Eastland – Always on our Minds

  1. Melanie H says:

    My mom was 1st employee hired at Gimbels. We lived on Overhill Dr & watched the mall being built on that slag dump. We could walk over the hill to the mall. My friends & I went down daily to the counter at Sun Drug for a coke. They had everything there! We grocery shopped at Thorofare. A&P was at the other end. Loved ham bar-b cues at Menzies and dinner at McSorelys &sunshine cakes from Nills bakery. So many memories, I can’t even ride past the old site. Too sad

  2. John stanton says:

    I don,t remember all the stores that where in the mall since I didn’t start to go to eastland till 1976. Wish I would have seen it in the 60,s and early 70,s, must have been really a great place to shop or even just walk around. Does anyone remember the Foodland grocery store that was on the right side of the mall in the late 80,s and 90,s? I liked when the flea market was down stairs and in the gimbels building. The announcer and dj was my good friend Gene McGraw, who did the flea market announcing until he passed away in 2003. He was just a great guy who liked everybody and everybody liked him. Does anybody remember Gene or have any good memories of him to share? The empty lot where they tore eastland down looks so empty and awful looking. Wish they would put another shopping center there or something there, it seems like a waste of a lot of land, but I guess because it,s not on the main flow of traffic is why. Oh well, I guess a lot of us have our great memories of eastland to hold onto and to think about. It,s also nice that u can google and look up articles and pictures of eastland mall to bring back the great memories. Rest in peace Gene McGraw and Eastland mall.

  3. Frank Mullen says:

    As Ms. Vangura Solomon said, “Those were the days.” They certainly were. And where have they gone? What remains? And where would one go to find any of it?

  4. Connie (Mikulas) Vangura Solomon says:

    I worked for Richard Rubenstein at Richards Shoe store in Eastland. It was such a great place. I felt so special working there. I worked there in 1964. Richards father owned Rubensteins shoes in Mckeesport along with his brother. I started working there while in high school and got promoted to Richards. Those were the days.

    • Dave Lewellen says:

      I worked at Richards in McKeesport in 1962& 63 with Skip, Dorthy Masick & a set of twins, Barbara, Betty. I stayed in the shoe business for 51 years. It was nice working there.

  5. Lynne Ann Brewer Shalata says:

    I loved Eastland….my Mom, Sis and I and all our friends were always going to Eastland….it was a really neat shopping experience and good bargains, fun times, sad it is gone like so many things we loved back then. Sign of the times, I suppose…..stinks!

  6. Jack Schalk says:

    I left Duquesne in 1959 and never had a knowledge of Eastland or its environs.
    In my mind, I can’t even place the location from a map of the site. Cory Werling (above) mentioned that he could see Eastland from the top of Kennedy Ave in the evening and I just can’t relate to this vision.
    Does anyone have an older photo of the site prior to development as viewed from Duquesne?

    • Eileen Tokar Lilley says:

      If you double click on the panoramic view of Duquesne from 1938 in the blog from June 20, 2014 and raise the bar on the right all the way to the top and the bar on the bottom all the way to the left, you’ll get the general direction of where Eastland was. Because of the rolling hills, not sure if the correct hill is seen. If you went across the Duq/McKees bridge and made a left and went up the hill, it was in that direction. If you were coming the other direction off Route 30 going west, you would make a left at the red light across from the North Versailles shopping plaza, and make another quick left where the first area McDonald’s was and follow that a short distance. Hope that helps, Jack

  7. Bob Chermonitz. says:

    I agree, Jim. Century 3 is passé. Eastland was much more intimate. Now I miss her.

  8. Harold West says:

    Retail goes through fads and cycles. Mom and Pop ->department store->Downtown->Mall with anchor stores->Big Box centers -> Stand alone supercenters ->quazi downtowns like the waterfront. Next up will be mixed use for young hipsters and empty nesters. Work eat sleep, shop, gamble and get medical care all within walking distance (city center in vegas, National Harbor in MD). It is all owned and controlled by a mega corporation,. Meanwhile Amazon is killing the rest of the brick and mortar stores with free shipping, same day delivery and low (no profit) prices.
    . .

  9. Eileen Tokar Lilley says:

    Even though we had moved from Duquesne in 1964, (graduated from Norwin ’67) my graduation dress was bought at Eastland in one of the small dress shops (don’t remember the name). My mother wasn’t with me that day but she had a charge card for the store but I didn’t have it with me. We shopped there quite a bit and they knew me and my mom and let me get the dress that day. They knew I loved THAT dress and didn’t want to possibly have it gone by the time we could come back together. Where could you do that today? Eastland also had a bakery, again don’t remember the name, but they had the best cookies with a marshmallow topping with a little bit of coconut in. Can’t find them anywhere else. Could anyone possibly have the recipe? Another note on shopping in the area – both my junior and senior prom dresses came from Cox’s. My wedding dress was bought in Braddock where my mother bought hers 20 years earlier and you got a set of everyday dishes with it and you could pick from several designs!

  10. Karen says:

    I was a young teenager when they opened up Eastland. I lived in White Oak and took a bus to the mall every Sat. with my sister. We loved the mall. Wasn’t too big or too small. Just right for walking around the stores and enjoying a bite to eat at McSorleys Rest. in lower part of mall. They had all the big stores to shop, Gimbels, JC Penny, Sears, Wander Sales, Bakers shoe store(my favorite) and of course Thom McCan shoe store where my future husband worked. We dated and went to many movies at the theatres there. My favorite was Sean Connery “Goldfinger”. We stood in line many times to watch all the great movies of the 60’s and 70’s. I miss the atmosphere that was there. Good Times to remember. Nice article!!

  11. I worked at Gimbels Eastland during my college years. They were a nice company to work for! I would send them my schedule for when I would be home for vacations and they would put me back on the schedule.I don’t think there are many stores today that would care for their employees like they did! It is so sad how the area has deteriorated!!

  12. Paul A Prosperino says:

    I loved Eastland Shopping Center and went there a lot when I was young. I really liked eating in Gimbels a lot and remember a good looking red haired lady that was a waitress there. My cousin worked at Gimbels back then too Jim. You may remember her. Her name is Emma Joanne Vicetic Barko. Thanks for this great post !

    • Bill K says:

      Hey Paul… My mom worked at Gimbels Restaurant From 1970 to 1980. Her name is Angie. She is a dark haired lady with a croation accent who was friends with the red haired lady you spoke of. Her name was Marilynn Potts and we all had many fun times back in those days!! I can actually remember everybody’s name that worked in the restaurant. Saturdays were the best days there. My older sister, me and Marilyns daughter Teresa would spend the whole day running the mall, catch a matinee at the theatre and then go and eat at Gimbels and ride home with mum. God, I sure do miss that!!

      • Paul A. Prosperino says:

        Thanks Bill K for replying. I liked the Old Fashioned Strawberry Shortcake at Gimbels a lot. It’s hard to find that kind of dessert today. I mostly ate there in the 1960’s. I liked running the mall too. There was a gun store located close to Gimbels and I bought a handgun there in 1971. I also used to collect coins and liked to browse at what was available at Gimbels. My cousin worked there selling coins for Gimbels. Have a Happy New Year.

      • Jim says:

        Paul, I worked in the camera department next to coins. I remember a lady named Helen Groves and another whose first name began with the letter I. Perhaps Iola? We’re either your cousin? – Jim

      • Paul A. Prosperino says:

        Her name is Emma Joann Vicetic Barko. I like your posts a lot. Happy New Year Jim !

  13. Linda Rodman says:

    Many memories of that place, I grew up in Green Valley and we spent many a Saturday there. One of my first jobs was at Wander Sales. And now it is just a big empty space..so sad..

  14. Cory Werling says:

    One of my favorite memories of Eastland occurred in September 1967 (approx.) I was at a boy scout meeting at a church up on the top of Kennedy Ave. We were standing outside about 7 PM and had a view of Eastland across the river when what we thought was a UFO appeared over the mall. Sure enough, an article appeared in the Daily News the next day stating others had seen the UFO over Eastland. It was the only encounter I ever had with a UFO though more likely it was some sort of unexplained natural phenomenon or a weird angle of an aircraft in the evening sky.

  15. David Marks says:

    I remember being able to get ‘the coolest’ boots at Eastland, when hippies were on their way out and Viet Nam vets were on their way back.

    My parents, Jerry and Louise, loved the fresh carrot juice from the lower level vitamin store. And yes, I loved window shopping at the toy store. We continued shopping in downtown McKeesport, but less often. And my family also did continue to patronize Adler-Green, Sally Fashion and Salkovitz’ dress shop. Mrs. Salkovitz would tug on my cheek and tell me I would be handsome like my father.

    I can still remember Curtis Seaman and me seeing “Destroy All Monsters” at the theater for fifty cents during the Saturday matinee.

    And Kevin Johnson and I made a few trips from Duquesne on our English Racers in the mid-70s. The mall’s parking lot was HUGE and much better than the Sts. Peter & Paul parking lot on State Street! After several circuits around the mall we would stop at the overlook and try to find our homes across the river. Then we’d top off the day by going across the road to Kentucky Fried Chicken and get a full dinner for $1.79 each.

  16. Tom Lane says:

    Frank, you are right about the parking, and much of the demise of many small towns, was also the automobile. Remember how most people in Duquesne walked to work. That is a rarity now. Nothing like 3PM whistle and all the mill folks walking up the hill to home, or the local pub. We have lived and somewhat died with the car. Shopping, working, and living all changed. And I spent my career mostly in the auto industry. A mixed feeling for me. The downtown became the mall, and then the big box store, and now they are under pressure. Things change.

    • Stephen Vajs says:

      Tom, walking or taking the bus. I lived near Holy Name cemetery on the hill looking down toward Long’s on Grant Ave and the bus came right to a corner a block away from my house. It could take me into Duquesne.

  17. Jennifer Onaitis Legler says:

    The street over I grew up on was Lynda Lane, which was parallel to the McKeesport – E. Pgh Blvd, which ran in front of Eastland. When we were older, my friends and I often walked to Eastland, sometimes more than once a week. For a treat, we would get a banana split from the Woolworth’s counter – they sometimes had a special where you would pop a balloon to get the price for the ice cream delight. I am sure there were times it was almost free. Or we would simply window shop or perhaps buy a package of Life Savers at Sun Drug, which was at the end near the car wash side, directly across from the Thorofare market. My brother worked at Woolworth’s so we would visit him, either in pets (birds) or the game section. My sister worked at Richardson’s card and gift shop upstairs across from Gimbles, and later at their card shop in the lower level. There was a Menzi Dairy store on the lower level as well, and sometimes Mom would have me pick up lunchmeat from there for school lunch bags. When Dad went to Sears, I would hang out in the toy aisle, just hoping that Santa would bring me something I wanted. As I recall, Gimbles having a Secret Shopping area at Christmas for kids to buy presents for their parents – it was on the 3rd floor and you had to enter through a scaled down door which lead to a few small rooms with suggested presents, which you could even have giftwrapped. As I got into my teen years, Mom might give me her Gimbles Charge card to do some back to school shopping. I learned to drive using the parking lot on Sundays with my Dad- the mall was closed on Sundays back then. My Mom worked at Cox’s in McKeesport and sometimes when she worked until 9 PM on Saturdays, Dad and I would pick her up there, and then drive to McSorley’s for a crab sandwich late snack. Of course, Mom & Dad had a nice cold beer with it. It was a very nice restaurant with nice wait staff.

  18. Shawn says:

    I still have very found memories of Eastland. Even when it was just about finished, we still would walk through the mall and reminisce. It definitely had it’s own sound (especially when it was a busy mall), like a giant echo chamber. That place was LOUD!
    It’s a shame to see all those things, we remember so fondly, disappear in the fabric of time.
    I would love to see more photos of the mall when it was still grand. Unfortunately in those days we had to pay for film and developing so not many of us thought of just photographing shopping centers. But I’m sure more people out there have pictures of the place, if you’re one of those people please share!

  19. Frank Mullen says:

    Regarding the rise of the malls and the demise of “downtowns,” I would suggest that parking was an important factor. For example, I can recall the days when I used to still motivate myself to walk around downtown McKeesport, and on one pivotal occasion, being irritated by having to “feed the meter.” I missed the moment. Then, I missed the moment of being able to pay only 50cents if I paid the ticket before an hour had elapsed; thus, having to pay the full $2.00 fine for the crime of shopping uninterrupted by meter-feeding. That was the last time I shopped downtown McKeesport. At the malls, parking was a plus, not an irritant and stress factor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s