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Eastgate Part 2: The Rise and Fall

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In a previous post on my page, I wrote about Eastgate Shopping Mall on the Eastside of Indianapolis, which is one of the more famous dead malls in the city. After I finished the article, I realized readers might be more interested in the exploration of why dead malls exist in the first place. Certainly now, with the malls that helped shut down Eastgate, failing themselves, the interest is peaked. Shopping centers such as Washington Square and Lafayette Square are experiencing their own floundering, while more upscale malls like Circle Center and Castleton Square are seemingly doing well. What explains this juxtaposition? Let's head back to the 1950s to help us frame the issues that plagued Eastgate.

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After World War II and the prosperity that filled American towns, people were eager for consumption. At the time, the only way to shop for things that one needed was in a downtown where ma and pa shops dotted the landscape. If you needed, say, shoes, a coat, and a watch, you had to stop at three different stores all located in the bustling downtowns. It was convenient because most people could take a bus to downtown, walk through the downtown corridor and then hop a bus back to their place of residence.

All that changed in the 1950s when President Eisenhower ordered the building of the interstate systems. People now, with their newly gained wealth, were buying cars and moving out to suburbs and the interstate made all of those things possible. Now, one could live with their family outside the city and the downtown bustle and drive back and forth to work on the interstates. But what do all those people who are moving out to the 'burbs need? Places to shop for food, clothing, toys, and household goods. Thus, the regional mall was born.

How does all this apply to Indianapolis? Well, Indy was not immune to the same sprawl that most every other midwestern city experienced. Downtown was vibrant with hundreds of shops and stores, however, many faltered and failed during this time and running up into the 1980s and 90s. EastGate, the first mall to be in the Hoosier state, opened in 1957 and it revolutionized what it meant to shop in Indy. It was anchored by two famous and heavily trafficked stores, J.C. Penny and H. P. Wasson. EastGate did extremely well, even competing against Glendale mall located 7 miles away. Things began to change, however, in the early 1970s when Washington Square was built, offering amenities including stores inside that were air conditioned (EastGate was an open-air mall and anyone who is from Indiana KNOWS summers can be brutal here). This would be the beginning of the end for EastGate. There were many attempts to rejuvenate the failing mall: name changes, store changes, and even major renovations making it an indoor mall, but all that couldn't stop the inevitable from coming. There were newer, hipper malls and EastGate was no longer cool.

And, as progress usually does, it marched forward, always looking for the next big thing that would revolutionize people lives. That next big thing came in the 1990s...the internet. Now, the internet was alive and well before then but it wasn't a staple in people homes and lives until the 90s. And it took the 2000s to bring us into the age of online shopping. The ease at which people could buy items, and not have to drive to a mall, was astounding. In the words of Robin Lewis, author of "The New Rules of Retail, "Why drive to a mall when you can reach into your pocket?"

The retail shopping game had been changed and for several years, online shopping has reigned supreme among a certain segment of the population. However, not everyone uses the internet for shopping and not all malls have been shuttering. As mentioned at the onset of this article, Castleton and Circle Center have been fairing rather well. What gives? Why are some malls suffering while others thrive? Stay tuned for the next chapter in my Eastgate series where I'll look at how class division is affecting malls all over the country, not just Indianapolis.

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