When I graduated from high school in Huntsville, AL, in 1983, my dad had accepted a new job about 30 miles away in Athens. The drive from our old home to the new one took us through a rural portion of western Madison County, which was dotted with cotton fields and a few businesses. But one large patch of land had been flattened, prepared as the site of the area’s first “super mall,” meaning it would have a food court as well as department stores, specialty shops and restaurants.
It would be a shopping experience unlike any we’d known and we couldn’t wait. In August 1984, Madison Square Mall opened for business. It had a brass elevator! An Orange Julius! And, before long, an entire business dedicated to selling only cookies! And all under one massive roof.
That Christmas season, the massive parking lot – larger than any I’d seen – was overflowing. People would park their cars across the highway and make the long trek to the mall. It took an hour to get into the lot and back out. Once inside, the mall was a magical place. We went expecting to spend an entire day shopping, and we often did. We trekked through stores like Parisian, Pizitz, Castner Knott and Yeilding (Sears and Penney’s delayed openings by a few months).
Advertisements called it the Eighth Wonder” and extolled: “The Rocket City will never be the same!” For many years, it was a wonder. But in the late 1990s, problems arose. The mall became a hangout for teenagers and fights began. More than once, women were attacked while walking to their cars. I still went regularly, and bought many outfits for Baby Girl at Gymboree, with matching socks and hairbows. But by the 2000s, a new trend began: Big-box retailers as anchors of outdoor shopping centers. Downtowns were being revitalized and people began shopping locally again.
By 2013, the mall always had plenty of empty storefronts and soon they equaled the number of rented spaces. City officials began discussions on whether to save the mall or create a new development. In January 2017, Madison Square Mall closed. By March, it was mostly rubble. It took 33 years to be born, become a star, fade into obscurity and die. I saved a brick and a letter from a sign being torn down as mementoes.
Soon, a new “wonder” will be built here, a multi-use development called MidCity Huntsville. Its website says, “MidCity Huntsville is poised to become the ultimate community destination for the region. An array of retail, dining and entertainment options. Appealing fitness & recreational opportunities. Natural gathering spaces. Walkable streets. Intriguing restaurants. Inspired architectural detail. Intimate spaces. Vibrant neighborhoods. At MidCity Huntsville, it all comes together to create a memorable and defining sense of place.”
We’ll see. But I will always remember the Christmases spent shopping with my mom at Madison Square Mall.
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