'We're Finally Not Teenagers Anymore': Metrocenter Mall To Close After Nearly 50 Years
MARK BRODIE: Metrocenter Mall will be closing this week. Tuesday will be its last day of operation. The west side mall opened in 1973, but, in a letter dated last week, its general manager cited decreased occupancy levels due to the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason for closing. Joining me to talk about the mall and remember some of its glory days is Phoenix New Times writer Robrt Pela. He grew up near Metrocenter and spent a lot of time there as a kid. In fact, in a 2014 list of 100 things to do in Phoenix before you die, he listed people watching at the mall as one of them. Alright. So, Robrt, what was the area around Metrocenter like when you were growing up there?
ROBRT PELA: Well, before Metrocenter, we didn't really have anything in this area. This was kind of the edge of town. 43rd Avenue and Dunlap. We didn't have a community center. We had a park nearby. It's still there, Cortez Park. They had a swimming pool. There were no movie houses in this neighborhood at the time, in the 60s and early 70s. The closest shopping mall was Christown, which was beautiful, but it was all the way over at 19th Avenue and Bethany. And, you know, you could ride your bike for an hour before you got there. So, it was really a lot of just playing in neighborhoods and not having a geographic place to go or a neighborhood anchor. And then in 1972, the developer began this television campaign to let us know that it was coming. And, man, that was the best television campaign. I have this memory of this, of the commercial, and they show a little girl walking along what will apparently be Metrocenter once it's built and the tiles beneath her feet were full of colored gelatin so that when she walked on them, they changed colors and they moved and they were squishy. So we thought the whole mall was going to be like that. But actually, what it was, was it was this little tiny section of like 10 tiles inside maybe Goldwater's or Diamond's or one of the department stores. You had to hunt to find those things. But, we found them.
BRODIE: So, I had the honor of going to Metrocenter with you about six years ago for a story, and I listened back to that conversation and it was striking how you described this mall, you called it, "where everything happened". You said, "you basically spend the whole day there. It's all you had." And listening to you describe that area before the mall, it kind of makes sense. It was kind of where everything happened at that time.
PELA: It was kind of a social center for the area. Your mother could drop you off in the morning on a Saturday. You'd go to the movies. That would be two hours or–because it was a multiplex, which was a new thing in the early 70s–you could sneak into a second movie for free. There was an ice skating rink. There was a pinball arcade. We had not had one of those. There were no satellite stores that were like what you found at this mall. And, when we got older, so there was this thing and I'm pretty sure it doesn't happen anymore, but in the 70s, on weekend nights, you would cruise Central. So you'd get in your friends' cars and you would drive up and down Central Avenue. And the Phoenix police department, for obvious reasons, started to crack down on that. And so the whole thing just sort of moved over to Metrocenter. So it really, we kind of aged with Metrocenter. Metrocenter allowed us to have fun when we were 10, but it was still something to do when you were pushing 20.
BRODIE: So I understand that you have been hearing from people since the mall operators announced that the mall itself would be closing. What kinds of things have people been telling you? What kind of remembrances have they had relative to the remembrances you have of that place?
PELA: People my age want to talk about things that were really rites of passage, really coming of age things. My friend Ann, who is just my age – she and I were in the same graduating class in high school – remembered being taken there by her mother when she was a very small girl to take elocution lessons. It was this kind of place where we could go and our parents assumed that we were safe and that we were sort of chaperoned. But in fact, we were completely on our own. No one was taking us aside and saying, now, listen, you need to behave. And that's the sort of memories that people seem to want to talk to me about. Lots of people want to talk about how they had their first job at Metrocenter. I did. My first job was as a maitre d' at a Mexican-themed supper club. It is a touchstone for us. If you grew up on the west side in the 70s, you want to talk this week about the fact that this part of our life is going away.
BRODIE: So what does it mean then to you, and to your friends with whom you grew up, that this place that was such a big part of your childhood is soon going to be gone?
PELA: You can't have a right of passage that goes on and on and on, right? They are moments in time. And so, Metrocenter closing down can be maybe seen as the end of an era in a very real way. It's not going to transform or be transformed for the next generation. It's just going to either get scraped or become something else. So if we look at it as a metaphor of a nicer time or a sweeter time in our young lives, we can also look at its death as the end of this era. Finally. I guess, I guess we're finally not teenagers anymore.
BRODIE: So what do you think that this mall closing means for that part of the valley? I mean, you talked about what a big deal it was for that area when it opened. What do you think it means for the area of town now that it's closing?
PELA: I think it is really just a reflection of how the suburban community that surrounds Metrocenter is also a dying proposition or a changing proposition. I grew up here in this neighborhood near Metrocenter when it was new and sparkly. And now I come here every day, six days a week, to my childhood home to take care of my 95-year-old mother. And as I do, as I'm driving through this neighborhood, I can see that the death of Metrocenter is really just a corner of this larger story. It's not that Metrocenter is dying and everything around it is still vibrant.
BRODIE: Alright. That is Robrt Pela. He is a writer for Phoenix New Times, among other things. Robrt, thanks for your time. Thanks for helping us remember Metrocenter and giving us some childhood stories.
PELA: Hey, thanks, Mark.