Dubbed by the Detroit Free Press as the
nation’s first regional shopping center, Northland Mall
turned 50 yesterday. During these 50 years, the region and the city
of Detroit have gone through some monumental changes. For those
Detroiters old enough to remember, the Hudson building in downtown
Detroit was the epicenter of a once-thriving metropolis. Today, the
Hudson building is gone, and an entire generation has grown up
without ever having seen Detroit as it once was. Whether the
city’s decline as a center of commerce began long before the
shoppers moved elsewhere is up for debate, but there can be no
doubt that the emergence of the modern shopping mall will hasten
its decline.

Beth Dykstra

To be sure, the move outward toward the suburbs began years
before Northland ever opened its doors. Yet it was stores like
those found in Northland that brought an end to the downtown
shopping experience, making it all the more attractive for
Detroiters to make the move to the outskirts of the city. Northland
Mall pioneered a new brand of shopping experience — a densely
clustered myriad of stores enclosed in a pleasantly designed
space.

The success of Northland served as a blueprint for other malls.
As downtown declined, the suburbs boomed, spurred on by trendy,
convenient shopping centers like Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn
and Twelve Oaks in Novi. While other options like strip malls,
outlet centers, big box stores and online shopping have chipped
away at the market of these superstores, they nonetheless continue
to be popular consumer destinations throughout the year.

Today, Northland is only one of many shopping malls that dot
southeast Michigan. It is apparent that the boom of the modern
shopping center did much to attract metro-Detroiters away from
downtown. The city’s recent efforts to revitalize the
downtown shopping district have met with highly mixed results and
have failed to spark the interest needed to pull back business.

The malls were first popular not just for their convenience but
because as private real estate spaces in a largely white suburbia,
they lacked racial minorities and other people deemed undesirable.
This unfortunate but true aspect of suburban malls cannot be
denied. Indeed, the most common place to find a minority in the
first suburban malls was behind a counter.

Malls are inefficient uses of space with their sprawling parking
lots and inaccessibility to pedestrians that encourage automobile
dependence. Sound policies are needed that will revitalize
downtowns and reaffirm public shopping places as more valuable to
society than privatized commercial malls.

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