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As Metrocenter shutters, residents reminisce over iconic mall

(KTAR News/Luke Forstner)

PHOENIX — If you walk through Metrocenter Mall now, things probably won’t look how you remember them.

Empty storefronts line the corridors, heavy concrete planters block off inoperable escalators and you can almost walk a lap of the mall without seeing another person.

Now, after 47 years in business, the iconic mall off Interstate 17 between Dunlap and Peoria avenues is closing down Tuesday.

For years Metrocenter was a dominant force in Phoenix’s shopping and social landscape. That was especially true of the high schoolers who would “cruise Metro,” congregating at night and driving the circle around the shopping center long after it closed, or at least until police sent them on their way for blocking traffic.

Many people who grew up in Phoenix when Metrocenter was still bustling have fond memories of meeting friends, or making new ones, while driving around that mall.

On Saturday, thousands of them returned for one last cruise.

It started when Tracy Smith made an offhand comment on Facebook. She saw that Metrocenter was closing and posted a few sentences to Facebook about her memories cruising the mall as a teenager and suggested making a return.

“I put ‘Metro’s closing, last cruise, let’s do it,’” she says. “And I figured I was just trying to hit some of my friends.”

That simple post soon grew into a page with more than 14,000 members. It was more than she could’ve ever expected, but she wasn’t surprised to see that the mall played an important part in the childhoods of people all over the Valley.

Metrocenter opened in 1973, and it was already breaking records. At 1.4 million square feet, it was the largest shopping center in Arizona and one of the largest in the United States.

When it was built, Metrocenter felt state-of-the-art, with a distinctive style of swooping, futuristic curves juxtaposed against traditional brick flooring.

It didn’t just look the part, though.

It was the only two-story, five-anchor mall in the country, with the original anchor stores being Sears, Rhodes Brothers, Diamond’s, Goldwater’s and The Broadway. In total, there were 175 vendors and services available to shoppers at the mall’s peak.

The shopping alone would’ve made it a destination, but Metrocenter also had other attractions, including a movie theater and an ice skating rink overlooked by the large food court. A restaurant there even resembled an airplane suspended over the ice. And the mall was right across the street from entertainment park Golf n’ Stuff, which later became Castles n’ Coasters.

Metrocenter enjoyed years of prosperity, but eventually other malls opened and drew away customers, and major stores left that couldn’t be replaced. Slowly, it lost more and more of its unique appeal.

The mall struggled through multiple ownership changes in the 2000s and continued to decline despite renovations. Then, with the coronavirus pandemic cutting down traffic even further, it simply wasn’t generating revenue. Management announced it would close, nearly half a century after it first opened.

To the thousands who gathered in the parking lot Saturday to relive fond memories of cruising the mall in its heyday, seeing it finally shut down brings about a sense of loss.

“We were just teenagers having a good time,” Ken Postgate, who came with a group of friends, said. “Now [Metrocenter] is kind of a tombstone to that generation.”

Smith, whose unassuming Facebook post was the catalyst for everyone gathering at the mall again, also says it’s odd seeing a fixture of her childhood disappear.

“The realization that it’s going to be gone, that it won’t come back the same way we had it, it’s almost a grieving process,” Smith said.

Even if it’s tinged with sadness, the event to gather for one last cruise was ultimately a celebration.

The mall parking lot, left nearly empty for years, was filled with people. Visitors walked among rows of classic cars with their hoods opened for an easy look at their engines. Groups of friends sat in lawn chairs to reminisce. Some people who frequented the mall decades ago brought along their own kids, showing them firsthand what they used to do for fun.

At the other end of the parking lot, a long line of cars slowly made the pilgrimage around Metrocenter, snaking their way past food trucks and a tent selling commemorative t-shirts.

“My biggest memory of this place is that everybody knew somebody,” said Scott Kasallis, who came with his brother Ron. “You might not have known each other’s names at first, but you became friends by the end of the evening.”

The festival-like atmosphere supported one thing all the attendees seemed to agree on: Cruising was a time for putting aside your differences and enjoying being young — even if it was only for a night.

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