Awhile ago, one of my friends on Facebook posted a comment as well as an article about 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!
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.