Published: Jul 08, 2009 02:00 AM
Modified: Jul 08, 2009 03:18 PM
I turn 46 this week; that's squarely in middle-age territory, young enough to occasionally wear my hair in ponytails (OK, it may look silly), old enough to struggle with bifocals. As a Bull City native, I've lived long enough to see the composition of the city and the Triangle change enormously.
When I tell people I encounter today that I'm a Durhamite, chances are that, more often than not, they are not from the area, or even the South for that matter. The changing face of Bull City's population first became clear to me back in the early 1990s, after returning to the city after living in New York City (Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, to be exact) for many years. When I moved to Old West Durham, the neighborhood adjacent to the west of Duke's East Campus that includes Ninth Street and north to Watts-Hillandale, I joined the neighborhood association. One of the icebreaker questions at the meeting, offered up by president John Schelp, was "Who is a native of Durham." My hand was the only one to go up in a room full of people.
I always like to ask how long some of the newbies to the area have been here. Many have been here five years or less, so they really have no idea how much the area has changed. Everyone has landmarks and mental bookmarks about their hometown from their childhood. One I like to share with newcomers takes me back to the mid '70s when the area now known as South Square along Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard wasn't home to Sam's Club or a Super Target, but was a big empty field with trees. One of the few businesses on the strip was Mario's, a family-owned Italian restaurant that had genuine NY-style pizza; the owners were from New York so it was the real deal. For a kid who spent summers eating the real thing in New York while visiting relatives, it was a slice (literally) of heaven. Then in 1975, that land was cleared and turned into South Square, the now-defunct all-interior box mall. Durham was a pretty sleepy town back then (from a 12-year-old's point-of-of view, anyway), it was the first mall around here with four movie theaters and a food court. There was a Belk-Leggett, a JC Penney, and a Piccadilly Cafeteria, among other stores. It drew shoppers from all over the Triangle area.
In 1976, I moved to New York; when I returned to Durham in 1989, I stopped by South Square Mall from time to time. By the late '90s, the two-story traditional mall was in a serious downward spiral. When it was sparkly and new, it was a safe haven at the time for kids; by this point it was a questionably safe teen-hangout with little to offer patrons, and the movie theaters had closed.
The plans for The Streets at Southpoint mall on I-40 were the nail in the coffin for dead-man-walking South Square Mall. In no time flat, the anchor tenants Belk and JC Penney left for the high-style Southpoint and Dillard's hung around until the plug was pulled on the nearly-empty South Square in 2002. Every time I drove past the abandoned mall it was a sorry eyesore sitting in a prime location in town. It was gratifying to see the wrecking balls finally show up to put the place out of its misery.
It may have been just a mall; but it held a special place in my childhood memories for whatever reason. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to feel old for having seen a mall built, decay, die and be demolished.
Pam Spaudling is the creator of the political blog Pam's House Blend. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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