Inside a ghost mall: Northridge sits quietly, unknown future ahead
Gallery: Inside Northridge Mall
If you grew up in Milwaukee or have lived here for some time, you certainly remember Northridge Mall.
The 800,000-square foot former shopping center on the corner of 76th St. and Brown Deer Road sits just 10 minutes from River Hills, one of Milwaukee's most affluent suburbs. Built by Herb Kohl and his partners, it opened in 1973, a virtual carbon copy of Southridge. And after a slow decline, it finally shut its doors 30 years later in 2003.
Even though a variety of factors contributed to Northridge's demise, the one many people remember was a murder with a racially motivated alibi: Jesse Anderson, who was white, brutally killed his wife in 1992 but claimed two black men attacked them while they dined at T.G.I. Friday's, next to the mall. It was the final nail in the coffin for many white suburban shoppers who decided that it was safer to travel the extra distance to Bayshore, Mayfair Mall or Brookfield Square.
Now, Northridge sits in an eerie stasis, shuttered but surprisingly well preserved. Purchased for $6 million by a Chinese investment group called the Toward Group at the end of 2009, it was to become a head-scratching "Chinese Mall of North America," dedicated to showcasing Far East retailers.
Not surprisingly, Milwaukee's plan for a Chinatown has not come to fruition.
On a recent trip to China, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett met with Wu Li, the president of the Toward Group, who said he's still interested in developing the mall. And indeed, Toward's liaison, Yi Wan, the president of Y&Y International in Milwaukee, said Toward is continuing to consider its options.
"(Li) doesn't think it was a bad decision because he still wants to develop the property," said Wan. "He's still recruiting the companies from China, and he had some difficulties. That's the problem."
Wan said that Li has encountered challenges obtaining visas from Chinese retailers to visit Northridge and see, first-hand, what they'd be investing in.
Locally, some residents aren't waiting around.
The area's businesses held a brainstorming meeting in the old food court this fall to discuss their options, but unless Toward develops, razes or sells the property, Northridge looks like it's set to remain a ghost mall indefinitely.
As someone who grew up not far from Northridge, who remembers it during and after its hey day, I too wanted an opportunity to get one last look at this testament to the state of Milwaukee's contrasting retail landscape. Generously, the Granville-Brown Deer Chamber of Commerce arranged a private tour to take us inside.
From the outside, of course, Northridge looks like the perfect set for filming a zombie apocalypse movie. Grass grows through the cracks in the cement, and while property caretaker Jeff Myszewski – he worked at Northridge for some 20 years – trims the outdoor bushes annually, there's not much he can do about the vandalism and broken windows on the food court atrium.
Myszewski and Wan let us in through a temporary door outside the boarded-up food court, which was a 1988 addition to the mall. Our jaws dropped as we stepped back into time.
Amazingly, the mall is still mostly sealed tightly, and once we entered its interior, it looked even more like a zombie movie set – but before the undead had a chance to wreak their havoc.
You could hear a pin drop.
Inside, Northridge sits clean and well-lit by its spacious skylights. Even with power and heat shut off, the large trees in the center of the mall continue to grow, their roots planted deep into the ground. Almost all external storefront signs are removed, but it's remarkably preserved.
It really feels like someone turned off lights one day and shut the doors. If that person switched on the lights, the mall could instantly spring back to life.
Of course, that's a big if.
Oddly, the mall doesn't look especially dated, except for the mauve painted steel beams in the food court. Some 16 years after I bought a pager at the mall, presumably my last purchase at Northridge, it's actually hard to remember that we weren't standing in an empty Southridge. For the hundreds of times I visited Northridge as a kid, without any signs to orient myself, I found it difficult to remember it as the mall it once was.
But certain markers gave some indication of where we were. From the faded sign where the letters of Spencer's Gifts once shined, to a a poster outside Boston Store that showed the mall alive with flowers and shoppers, the glory days of Northridge started to re-emerge in my mind. I walked past the movie theater, where I saw "Max Dugan Returns." Myszewski reminded me where the Gap and Farrell's once stood. I might've even seen the spot where I bought that pager in, yes, 1996.
The irony wasn't lost on me as I read a sign urging me to "Rediscover Northridge!"
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Paintball Dave's should buy it. That would be an awesome urban paintball course!
What a fascinating article -- I often wondered what did and/or will happen to that old building. You're right, it looks creepier than a scene from the Walking Dead. It's a waste of a building, the lot, and an opportunity for Milwaukee.
Okay that is the best idea yet....a garden/green coop....you would have to have green buildings for Winter....and with community involved ...it would be wonderful....FRESH fruit & vegetables in the Spring, Summer, Fall & Winter...yes! An Americatown! Like Chinatown only better! Hmmm Our local farmers getting a boost also. The coop on Silver Spring works.... I really think it could work...and give people work!
I saw an opening night showing of 'Batman' at Northridge. One word -- Awesome!!!! This article is just another stop on a long line of reports, studies, and histories about a place and an idea that didn't quite turn out as planned. The history of Milwaukee, urban planning, community development, and race relations all stew together in this story that while provide plenty of sustenance for reporters, researchers, and historians for years. Northridge's history goes back to Mayor Ziedler's administration. In response to increasing suburbanization the city began to annex large swaths of available countryside. The Granville tract, where Northridge sits, was to be Milwaukee's own Northside suburb. The creation of industrial parks and Kohl's commerce/residential development must have made the area seem very promising. Judging from other reader's comments it did seem like an ideal place to live and raise a family in the 70's and 80's. My own family left Brown Deer for Mequon in the early 80's. We moved to a house that had been built in the 60's. Coincidentally, Kohl started developing Northridge in 1969. As a youngster I often rode my bike to Northridge and for years never experienced a problem. Talk of poor race relations were based on fear and not on fact. However, you would have had to been blind not see the growing economic and cultural divides. And of course, like so many people, we knew the effort to bridge those divides wouldn't be mustered and the area would slowly decline. It's worth remembering too that the area is still a community with people living, working, and raising families. I often wonder if it isn't another example of "neglectful racism" when White Milwaukee laments the death of an area all the while forgetting that Black Milwaukee still lives there. I think a worthwhile area of study would be whether or not more regional planning could have changed the outcome. Mequon used their freedom and autonomy to "passively redline". Germantown and Menomonee Falls developed their own commercial districts and ended up siphoning off a great deal of economic activity from the area. Lastly, the creation of manufacturing and business parks farther out in exurbia took more potential tax bases away. I think it's doubtful that these communities would have ever worked collectively with the city. Communities, much more than individuals, act in their own self-interest. I left Milwaukee years ago, but a piece of me will always love the Northside. p.s. how about raze you Northridge and let Growing Power build a farm?
Oh such memories of Northridge Mall!!!! I loved Younkers and Boston Store. This was the first mall that had a food court and we loved it!!!! I remember shopping there on rainy days and seeing lots of my high school friends walking around. It was such a nice place to shop with no gags that are around now. Lets make it an outlet mall. I now live in Texas but come back at times to Milw. and would love to see that place nice into something that would create a lot of business. How about a exercise gym with a walking area for elderly people?
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