A Cleveland Dead Mall Christmas
Revisiting my favorite places from childhood, which are now mostly dead malls
To all who are celebrating today, Merry Christmas! And to those who have other traditions during this time, whether Chanukah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, New Year’s Day, something else entirely, and/or nothing at all, I wish you warm greetings!
I am so thankful that you have found this newsletter, whether you’ve been here from the beginning or just subscribed last week, and I hope that it is bringing you joy in some way. I really appreciate all of the reader support I’ve received!
Since today is a special day, I thought I would share some reflections on my childhood Christmases in Cleveland and compare that to what I encountered when I returned to Ohio last week for a quick trip. I hope it puts you in a happy mood today!
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When I was growing up in the 1990s, there was no place cooler to visit at Christmastime than Downtown Cleveland. The city was going through a bit of a revival, with new skyscrapers being built, a new downtown sports complex opening, extended rapid transit service, and construction of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. For a suburban kid, nothing captured the magic of the holidays quite like being Downtown where everything felt alive.
A few weeks before Christmas, we always spent a weekend day shopping in the city. In 1990, the main train station in Cleveland known as Tower City Center, was renovated into a premiere shopping mall with high end stores like Gucci, Fendi, and Versace. But as a young kid, I was more intrigued by the giant Disney Store and the Warner Brothers Studio Store. There was also all the traditional mall fare of the era, like Gap, Structure, Banana Republic, and a large food court. It was easy to spend a day there and to drop a few weeks worth of allowance.
The mall was always decorated lavishly for Christmas. There were giant hot air balloons overhead, piloted by animatronic figures. There was a dancing fountain that performed a show in time with music. There were even characters wandering around greeting children, like a silent toy soldier that did the “robot” and local celebrity Mr. Jingeling, who started as a spokesman in the 1960s for a department store and made television appearances for several decades.
Growing up Catholic, we always attended Mass on Christmas Eve. When I was maybe 10 years old, I begged my family to take us to church at the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist, the massive Catholic Church in the middle of Downtown Cleveland. After the service, we would drive around Public Square, the park in the middle of Cleveland, to see the Christmas lights on display. This became an annual tradition after that.
There was another downtown mall known as The Arcade. Built in 1890 as the first indoor shopping mall in America, the structure is distinct for its iron railings and giant overhead skylight. It evokes a sleek ocean liner, and at one time it was a popular destination for shopping too.
With these memories of Christmases past seared in my memory, I was excited to spend a few days in Cleveland recently and share some holiday traditions with my kids.
The trip began in The Arcade. While the beautiful structure still survives, for the last 20 or so years, it has served primarily as the Hyatt Regency Hotel. What were once small offices and shops have been converted to hotel rooms, one of which was our home for the evening.
I’ve stayed in this hotel a few times in the past, and every time, I am struck by the contradictions. The architecture is so grand and gives the space a life, but the empty storefronts (many of them now hotel rooms) give the vibe of a dead mall.
Even without the hustle and bustle of shoppers, the hotel still goes all out for Christmas. There are lighted garlands hung from every balcony and a giant Christmas tree placed at one end of the atrium. Our room looked right down on that tree, and we noticed people stopping at nearly all hours to grab a few pictures in front of it.
There are still a handful of tenants on the ground floors of the building, including a post office and a nice coffee shop, but there is no longer the same foot traffic that was once in those hallways.
Even though The Arcade may be a shell of its former self, the Christmas spirit was alive and well there.
From the Arcade, it was a short walk into Public Square to see the lights. It was early evening the week before Christmas and we had no idea what to expect.
My memories of Public Square are that it was a bit of a barren park bisected by heavily traveled roads. It wasn’t the most welcoming spot when I was a kid, even though it was decorated by beautiful lights. My memory is always of driving past, never once stopping to walk.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Public Square was finally living up to its name of being a destination where the public could mingle! Despite it being a cold and windy evening, there was a huge crowd walking around enjoying the holiday atmosphere. There were photo opportunities with an old blow mold manger set, a giant polar bear, and the letters CLE. There was an ice skating rink that was as full as the one at Rockefeller Center, with Christmas carols being belted out from the speakers.
Public Square was alive and was a place I wanted to spend some time! There was a restaurant right on the common now, and the traffic around the park had been tamed, making it all feel much more accessible as a pedestrian.
From Public Square, we ducked into Tower City, which used to be the centerpiece of Cleveland’s Christmas displays. In fact, the windows of the old Higbee’s department store adjacent to Tower City were featured in the opening scene of A Christmas Story. I knew that the overhead hot air balloons and Warner Brothers store of my childhood were long gone, but perhaps the mall still had something to offer my family.
As we entered the mall, I admired window displays depicting scenes from The Nutcracker and A Christmas Story. It took me a minute to realize that the displays were actually being used to mask vacant storefronts. We passed several more former shops that were covered with photos of Cleveland, until we found a store that was open.
It was a pop-up Christmas store, selling ornaments, stockings, and decorations. The walls were lined with a red gingham wallpaper and the shelves were all rustic wood, all perfectly fitting the Christmas theme. I was a bit surprised that such a temporary store felt so permanent.
It later occurred to me that this decor was familiar- it was the Bath & Body Works design from the 1990s. This store happened to be reusing design elements that were 25+ years old but happened to fit with the Christmas theming.
The other stores we encountered included an off-brand dollar store and a few sneaker shops, but the rest of the shops were empty.
Oddly though, there was plenty of foot traffic, even for a late Saturday evening. The mall was smartly built above the main hub of Cleveland’s subway system, so all four train lines intersect here. When the adjacent Guardian’s baseball stadium and Cavalier’s basketball arena were built in the 1990s, they were connected to the mall (and it’s parking garage) by a walkway. There was a Cavs game that evening, so that may have been a cause for the uptick in traffic.
Even with maybe a 20-30% occupancy rate in the stores, Tower City’s shopping mall still felt alive with activity. The main concourse that was home to the hot air balloons and dancing fountains of my childhood was now home to a giant Christmas tree and what seemed like a pop-up festival of some kind. Elf was being projected on a large screen and families were casually seated enjoying the movie. There were crafters selling their wares from booths. We didn’t explore too much, but it was much more active than I’d expect from what would be considered a dead mall.
It was a bit hard to wrap my head around everything I was experiencing last week in Cleveland. On the one hand, I had very specific memories of my childhood that I wanted to share with my own kids, and many of the hallmarks of that time are now gone. In their place though is an active street life and beautiful decorations.
It occurred to me how much my experience of childhood centered around commerce. The mall was the epicenter of civic life for me. Now it seems to be the municipal town square, just as it may have been 100 years ago. Experiences like ice skating downtown or taking photos with giant stuffed polar bears have supplanted shopping as a reason for being in the city. (Though the old Higbee’s department store is now a casino, which draws people downtown too).
It can be hard to see some of the shopping malls that used to blow me away as a child emptied out or repurposed to uses that don’t make full use of the space, but I was also happy to see that people were still flocking downtown to partake in Christmas festivities without needing to have the mall experience.
I felt a bit like the Grinch in the classic Dr. Seuss book, watching the Whos celebrate Christmas even though all of their decorations and gifts had been taken:
“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn't come from a store.
‘Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!’"
Christmas still comes to Cleveland every year, whether it comes gift wrapped from a downtown shop or is simply about spending time together with friends and family. And that spirit is one worth celebrating.
A Few Postscripts
I talked a lot about how The Arcade and Tower City have become dead malls, but I also should mention The Galleria at Erieview, which is another downtown mall that is a shell of its former self. Opened in 1987, it is also now mostly vacant. It has similar architectural features to The Arcade, and is now slated to be redeveloped as a hotel project by Marriott.
By the way, if you’re considering a visit to Cleveland and are willing to brave the cold, December is a lovely time for a visit. I have mentioned in past newsletters that the house from A Christmas Story has been converted to A Christmas Story House and Museum. If you want to learn more,had a great write up about the museum last month.
And if you’re willing to venture about 45 minutes south of Cleveland, make sure you visit Castle Noel, a museum dedicated to the pop culture side of Christmas. It features movie props from Elf, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Christmas Vacation, plus department store window displays, and even a replica of the slide from A Christmas Story. I visited with my aunt a few years ago and was really blown away by the place. It’s open year round, but is very special at the holidays. Medina itself also has a beautiful Main Street that’s worth exploring.
Here’s a little preview of Castle Noel:
What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
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