Just before Christmas I came in to work at Remains Theatre--in the mall at 1800 N. Clybourn--and standing on the edge of the wishing well outside Goose Island Brewing was an exasperated maintenance man. He was leaning forward perilously over the water, rounding up pennies with a squeegee the size of a push broom. When he had a big enough pile he'd reach in and grab a handful of pennies and drop them in a bucket.
Maybe the old owners of the mall were trying to get some last-minute income from their retail fiasco. Or maybe the phantom new owner--who, according to yesterday's rumor, had finally completed his purchase deal--had found himself a little short on the first mortgage payment.
Anyway, the next day all the water was out of the fountain and so were all the pennies. Maybe somebody got smart and took the water out first.
All a lot of us knew about the new owner, a Mr. Charles Malk, was what we read in the newspapers. He wanted to buy the Ghost Town Shopping Mall, and he wanted all the tenants out. Or most of us. The papers said he wanted to tear half the place down. Maybe he'd learned in business school that if you have a mall that's chronically half empty, all you have to do is tear half of it down to make it full.
Even the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year, there seemed to be more employees than shoppers. After five years of operation, all the empty stores made the mall look like it was still under construction. The out-of-date store directories read like the Vietnam wall, listing casualties like State of the Mind Center and Scoop-de-do.
If anyone needed more concrete evidence that the mall was about to become as past tense as the economic sugar rush of the 1980s in which it was born, the janitor with his giant squeegee was it. The mall felt doomed.
The only other place I'd felt anything like that was in that other monument to Reaganomics, Presidential Towers. One day, just for kicks, I went into the Presidential Towers management office pretending I was a successful young advertising executive looking to relocate. Sometimes I have too much free time. I found myself in this yuppie biosphere, a self-contained universe of restaurants and retailers, fountains and foliage. And they were so desperate for tenants they were offering two of the first three months rent-free.
The Ghost Town Mall had the same pall in the air. It was like we were all survivors of the nuclear holocaust, waiting for the radiation to get us, coping by immersing ourselves in our work.
The first reports that Malk planned to buy the place and demolish almost everything appeared in the papers in the summer. But months passed and nothing happened. Some shopkeeps promised to put up a fight. More gave up and moved out. Those of us who stuck it out felt like squatters, vagrants warming ourselves by fires in garbage cans.
The deal went through right around Christmas. Rick Eckert, owner of Spare Parts, a women's accessories store, had rented in the mall for five years. He says he never saw or talked to Malk and didn't know what the plans were for his store until he got a written notice on Christmas Eve telling him to vacate immediately. He got out on New Year's Eve. He'd been planning to get out then anyway because business had fallen off so badly since word got out that the mall was being demolished. A lot of people told him they thought it already had been demolished.
Eckert had been holding on hoping to get through one more Christmas season before the ax fell. He hadn't paid rent since summer. With Malk's deal in limbo, things had deteriorated into managerial anarchy. Eckert didn't see the point in paying, and no one ever came around asking for the money.
But Barbara's Bookstore was defiant. A letter to customers in the store window said it had retained a downtown law firm to represent its interests. "Barbara's has always paid and will continue to pay its 1800 Clybourn rent on time and in full," the letter said. "How long will Barbara's be here? We hope to sign another lease when our current one expires on August 31, 2010. For that to happen, the reported plans of the mall's ownership will have to change. Stay tuned."
Malk was very hostile when I called in January, just after Remains moved out, to ask what his plans for the mall were. He said he didn't want to see any more newspaper stories about it until after it was finished. When I asked if the latest rumor, that he planned to move a bed and bath store into part of the Remains space and tear down almost everything but that and Goose, was true, he said, "Pretty close."
By early February seven establishments were still left, though at least two were planning to move soon.
"It's like a desert," said one disgusted employee, adding that you can hear the drilling and hammering from the reconstruction inside Remains echoing through the cavernous atrium. Another employee complained that there's no maintenance staff anymore and sometimes he finds himself picking up around the men's room.
On the day we at Remains finished moving out, I went down to the mall's lower level to say good-bye to the tropical fish. The huge aquarium embedded in the concrete wall was one of the cooler things about the mall. My favorite fish was a neon one with a pouty lower lip that in profile looked just like Richard Nixon. I called him Milhous.
All that was left was a little fake coral. Malk had even evicted the fish.
The next morning Muddler's Pool Room across from Goose Island was empty--all the pool tables were gone. Word was that sometime during the night Malk had had them removed.
I felt partly to blame. I should have known anything could happen when I saw what happened to the tropical fish. I should have run upstairs and warned everyone to get out of their state of denial. I should have run through the mall shouting like Paul Revere.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.