The rise and fall of Milwaukee malls is a common conversation among longtime residents. Many remember – and converse about – when Bayshore and Southgate weren’t enclosed, rather a collection of shops, and some locals lament the now-defunct Northridge Shopping Center that was the one of the city’s premier shopping destinations in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The fall of Capitol Court is another sad story for some, particularly those who remember the Kooky Kookie House – a replica of a cookie factory – that was open during the holidays.
The Grand Avenue Mall, renamed The Shops of Grand Avenue, is another mall many Milwaukeeans have strong feelings for. When it opened in 1982, there was wall-to-wall traffic and 80 shops. Now, although it is resilient and making strides toward a resurgence, it’s still under-utilized with many empty retail spaces.
This is also the case with the Milwaukee Mall, 2100 W. North Ave. Last week, after driving by about a thousand times, I finally parked and got out.
There’s a large, free parking lot to the north side of the mall, across the street from the thriving Fondy Market. My car was one of three parked there.
According to the manager, Bobby Park, the Milwaukee Mall opened just under 20 years ago.
The mall features 11 businesses, most of which are clothing stores. There are three for men, two for women and one for kids – all of which stock similar clothing: shoes, jerseys, hoodies, pants and caps.
The Milwaukee Mall has signage reading "discount mall," which it is. Shirts go for $9.99; a lot of the jeans cost $14.99, some even less.
There’s also a nail salon, a restaurant, a video game store, a beauty supply shop and two jewelry stores. The nail salon, Top Nails, and the eatery, Mama Nana’s, seem to be the main draw and both were bustling with customers.
Top Nails applies acrylic nails and fills and provides waxing services. Mama Nana’s offers pizza, hot dogs, sub sandwiches, fresh fruit, pretzels, pie and chips. There’s a smattering of tables or food can be purchased to go.
The beauty supply store sells stockings, wigs, bras, hair supplies, shoes, Rasta tams, fuzzy hats, back packs and other odds ‘n’ ends.
Over all, the mall has a lot of closed-off spaces covered in plastic tarps and black retail gates. The floors are scuffed, the fluorescent lighting is a bit harsh and it’s a little dank.
I admit, I was really hoping for more. My curiosity was quenched, but I can't say I'd have a reason to return.
"We lost a lot of shops in the past couple of years," says Park, who has been the manager for 10 years.
There is, however, a new lingerie store opening soon.
"The economy is slow, but we are happy to have a new shop," says Park. Most of the shops are owned and staffed by Asians.
Park is from South Korea and moved to the United States almost 30 years ago after serving in the Korean army.
"As soon as I finished in the Army I moved here," says Park, who is married and raised three children in Milwaukee.
Park says the opening of multiple Walmarts has taken a toll on business, particularly when one opened in Midtown Center (at the former Capitol Court location) and on Capitol Drive in Riverwest.
The Fondy Farmers Market, he says, helps increase mall traffic, but only a little bit. "It’s two different customers," says Park.
The Milwaukee Mall was originally a Sears store that opened in 1927. The store underwent a renovation in 1947 but closed in 1981.
The Legacy Bank opened across the street in 1999, but in 2010, was closed by the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions and the FDIC, then reopened after purchase by Seaway Bank from Chicago.
The Milwaukee Mall seems to be in a holding pattern for now, but for how long is uncertain.
"At one time the economy was much better than it is now," says Park. "There were more stores, more business, more customers. But now a lot of people are losing jobs, and they’ve been cutting welfare."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.