Monday, June 29, 2020

A Bolt from the Blue- How a Pandemic, Economy and a Closing Mall Brought Thousands Together

Lightning Strike (August 2015 by Matt Carden)

Sometimes it is hard to see a silver lining in the storm clouds that surround us.  Other times the clouds bring more than just a Silver Lining.  Every so often, the dark and menacing storm clouds of life bring lightning; a bolt from the blue that  that flashes through the darkness that appears to surround and engulf; a concentration of energy that tears the darkness asunder and becomes a beacon to for all to see.  

Few could imagine a confluence of events- which began on a global stage- that would give rise to a nearly spontaneous gathering and reunion of thousands, who attended dozens of different local high schools from the late 1970’s to the early 1990’s.  The December 2019 outbreak of SARS-COVID-19 in Asia spread across the planet, eventually reaching Arizona in March of 2020.  April and May saw “Stay Home” orders in Arizona; a closure of the State, the likes of which few, of any, had experienced in their lifetimes.   Despite the relaxation of the “Stay Home” orders, social distancing protocols bring significant changes to the operation of indoor mall spaces. With COVID-19 continuing to spread, shoppers do not seem eager to return to to the habits and practices of retail before the pandemic.  “Survival of the fittest” can easily be witnessed in retail world. This Darwinian process is brutal and effective.  Strong businesses who can adapt will survive.  Business that is struggling, whether financial, managerial or just from bad luck, will quickly die. 

And so it was, on June 19, 2020, a letter from the General Manager announced that Metrocenter, a mall in northern Phoenix; once the model for indoor malls nationwide; once the set for a movie that help launch the career of at least one major Hollywood star; once the place for you, your friends and your car to see and be seen on weekend nights as you were “cruising Metro”- a pastime and right of passage for over a generation of the youth of the Valley of the Sun;  would close its doors forever.   

Thus would end our tale; until someone said, “maybe we could cruise Metro one last time...” And there in, as the Bard would say, lies the rub.  

This story really begins in the early 1970’s.
Construction began on what would become Metrocenter at the southwest corner of Interstate-17 and Peoria.  When construction started, Metrocenter was not even inside the Phoenix city limits. The land was unincorporated Maricopa County.  Metrocenter opened in October 1973.  This mall was not only the largest in Arizona, this mall was the first multilevel indoor mall in the United States with an unheard of five anchor tenants.  Metrocenter soon became the place to shop.   The original anchors were Sears, Rhodes, Diamonds (later Dillard’s), The Broadway, and Goldwaters.   

By the time the 1980’s arrived America became a country ready to spend money. The Phoenix Metropolitan Area’s economy was booming.   Several defense contractors were located in the Phoenix area; these included Motorola, Honeywell, Sperry and many others.  With President Reagan’s defense increases in the 1980’s, the Phoenix economy saw benefits.  Perhaps there is no better symbol of the 1980’s, than the Mall.  Soon, Metrocenter was not just the place to shop, Metrocenter became the place to see and be seen as well.  

Even Hollywood knew there was “something” about Metrocenter.  In 1989 Metrocenter itself played the part of “The San Dimas Mall,” with co-stars Keanu Reeves and  Alex Winter in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

No one can give the date of the first night there was cruising at Metrocenter.  Cruising has always been a true “grassroots” activity of teenagers.   Metrocenter seemed built for cruising.  A long, oval outer road, Metrocenter Parkway, circles the mall and its parking lots.  One could park at the edges of the parking lot and be just a few feet from the parkway.  By the early 1980’s, thousands of cars would drive Metrocenter Parkway, often never being able to exceed fifteen miles an hour due to the traffic.  Business on the outside of the Parkway, especially places like Peter Piper Pizza or Golf ‘N Stuff, were grateful for the teens and their money- as long as it was going for Pizza and video games.  Other retailers were less than happy, saying customers could not reach their businesses due to traffic.   The conflict between cruising and business did not stay at Metrocenter.  The conflict found its way to Phoenix City Hall.  For High School students across the Valley of the Sun, this was a case of “the adults” dictating in a hypocritical manner.  After all, those that were complaining, or sitting on the City Council had once “Cruised Central” (Central Avenue runs through the middle of downtown Phoenix).  The City Council wanted to protect business.  

In 1985,  the Phoenix City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting cruising at Metrocenter. 

From the Arizona Republic Jun 7, 1985: An anti-cruising ordinance takes effect at Metro center today, but city officials are crossing their fingers and hoping they won't have to enforce...

The cruising did not stop, and the ordinance was enforced.  Over the years, other steps were taken.
Anti-Cruising Sign
Finally, on weekends, roads-blocks  were set up around Metrocenter and traffic patterns changed. The Phoenix Metro area grew and grew and grew.  Eventuality,  urban sprawl as much as any other factor, killed cruising at Metrocenter.  That same growth and sprawl, along with other factors such as the local economy, killed Metrocenter as well.  

By 2019 one could argue that Metrocenter stood only from the will of the building itself.  Although WalMart now occupied the space originally held by The Broadway, and although there have been many ideas for revitalizing Metrocenter suggested over the years, for those of us who remember Metrocenter in the 1980’s, the days of of the Grand Old Mall were gone.  The death notice came in the form of a letter from Metrocenter management dated June 19, 2020. The letter announced that due to COVID, the economy and other factors, Metrocenter would close forever June 30, 2020.  

The day after the letter announcing the closure of Metrocenter, Tracy Smith, a 1986 Graduate of Thunderbird High School in Phoenix, created a Facebook Group to see if any of her friends would want to “Cruise Metro One Last Time.”   Little did Tracy know that her small Facebook Group would go from one member to over 14,500 members between June 20 and June 29.   Suddenly, a small grassroots movement became an explosion of enthusiasm.   

Thousands gathered at Metrocenter on Saturday, June 27, 2020 for the Last Saturday Night Cruise.  Metrocenter Parkway saw traffic unlike any it had seen since the height of Cruising Metro in the 1980’s. There was loud music, loud cars, and thousands of people gathering with friends they had not seen in years and making new friends along the way.  There was a police presence and even Phoenix’ Finest seemed to have a good time as well.  This crowd was gathered for fun and to relive the happy days of youth, and it showed.

Fortunately, there is one more Cruising Night still to come.  Even with new COVID restrictions, on Tuesday, June 30 at 6  o’clock p.m.,  thousands will gather one last time.  The participants are encouraged to wear masks; encouraged to maintain social distance; encouraged to drive around the mall (cruising is by default an activity that allows for social distancing); but mostly they are encouraged to have fun.  

It has not been unusual over the Second Quarter of 2020 to see groups of hundreds and sometimes thousands gather publicly- but most of these have been to protest; some of these protests have turned to riots and violence.  Protesting COVID restrictions, protesting discrimination, protesting against the police have filled newspapers and seem to run constantly on our television screens.  Rarely over the last few months have we seen “good news.”  A huge crowd gathering for fun seems unusual to say the least.  That thousands would gather to relive their younger days because a global pandemic caused economic downturn and a local mall to close, is not an idea that even a fiction writer would invent.  

One Last Cruise has become more than just a drive around a circular parkway.   The One Last Cruise has become an example of the reasons to have faith and hope.  Despite the turmoil; despite the political conflict; and despite the negative images that seem to constantly assail the senses, individuals can come together to celebrate life.  One can even argue that it is because of a pandemic that people are joining together for this celebration and remembrance of days gone by.  

In the middle of the darkest night many have ever experienced; in the middle of a storm of disasters, the likes of which most alive today have ever seen; a bolt from the blue has turned night today.  No matter what else is happening in the world; despite disease and disaster; despite riots and chaos; people WILL come together to share happy memories and celebrate life.  One Last Cruise has proved there is good still in the world and reasons to have faith and hope.  

Let it never be forgotten, that at the moment when the news was its darkest, we gathered in a parking lot and on a circular drive, to celebrate the past and express faith and hope in a future yet to come.  

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