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The death of Northland Mall is a cautionary tale for Detroit

Feb 26, 2015

When the news came yesterday that Northland Mall, that early suburban icon, would close forever in 30 days, I was with former State Senator Jack Faxon.

Faxon, who once represented the area in the legislature, said, “How ironic. It was the start of the end of Detroit, and now it is the end of Southfield.”

Well, I don’t think this is necessarily the end of Southfield, the first big suburb on Detroit’s northwest border. In fact, if somebody makes better use of this 110 acres of still fairly prime real estate, the mall’s end may even be good for that struggling city.

But there is some irony here.

When Northland opened 61 years ago, it was a magnet that pulled people out of Detroit. The Lodge Freeway had just opened. Northland was the nation’s largest open air shopping mall, with store after store and free parking that stretched on forever.

And consumers couldn’t get enough. 

Hudson’s, the city’s premier department store, built a huge satellite there which eventually outstripped its flagship store on Woodward Avenue. People moved out of Detroit to be close to the mall.

Southfield boomed. So did Oak Park. Faxon, who is Jewish, watched as his neighbors and constituents emptied out of Detroit and into those suburbs and beyond.

Eventually, he followed his voters, staying 30 years in the legislature.

But as the years passed, Northland was no longer THE in place to shop. It spawned a host of imitations, from modest strip malls to the impossibly upscale Somerset, which is still thriving.

Southfield became more diverse, and white people gradually stopped shopping there.  The money moved north, and there were whispers of crime at Northland.

The owners enclosed the mall in the early 1970s, and that helped for a while. But a year ago, a man died at the mall after being choked and pepper-sprayed by security guards, something that didn’t exactly help business.

When Target announced last fall it was closing, and Macy’s followed last month, the mall’s death was only a matter of time.

Meanwhile, Detroit is struggling to try to come back.

There’s some new retail opening up in the city. A new open air mall of sorts on Woodward, with Meijer as the anchor store, with a second planned in the struggling neighborhood of Brightmoor.

Whether the city will once again become a place where you can shop for anything you need is uncertain. But it would be useful to remember why Northland and the other suburban malls caught on.

Whether the city will once again become a place where you can shop for anything you need is uncertain.

But it would be useful to remember why Northland and the other suburban malls caught on.

There was less and less mass transit in the city.

The streetcars shut down, everyone needed cars to survive, and it was hard to park in the city. So the people headed for the malls.

These days, many Detroiters have no cars and mass transit is still pitifully inadequate. The legislature approved plans for a Rapid Transit Authority with special lanes for fast buses, but funding has never come.

The death of Northland could be seen as a cautionary tale.

We have a chance to undo a mistake made decades ago, and give our historic neighborhoods a second chance at life, and make Detroit truly livable again.

If that’s ever going to happen, this is the time.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.