Byline: Allison Kaplan Daily Herald Staff Writer
Nothing says "suburbs" like the shopping mall.
It's a hangout for teens, a weekend gathering spot for families. Malls are the place to do the Christmas shopping, get a haircut, have a watch repaired and catch a movie - all under one roof, and with the blessed promise of a free parking space.
But it wasn't always that way. In the first half of the century, people spent their time and money on Main Street in towns like Des Plaines, Glen Ellyn, Elgin and Libertyville where department stores were locally owned and the shoe salesman knew your size.
That was when individual communities had their own epicenters. Before tollways drove the suburban migration, which in turn prompted regional malls and corridors of big box stores surrounded by vast parking lots, along wide roads crossed only by cars.
Just in the last few years of the century, the suburbs have seen a backlash to the sprawl that crushed downtowns and prevented newer communities from developing town centers.
Now, people are returning to local downtowns to live, work and play. Naperville has developed a thriving shopping district that combines first-class national stores with quaint, downtown charm. Arlington Heights is in the process of transforming a sleepy downtown into a lively center with theaters, luxury condos and shops.
As downtown development persists across the region, drawing shoppers out of the malls, shopping centers are simply redefining themselves as full-fledged entertainment centers with multiplexes, restaurants and amusement attractions.
Even as downtowns come back to life, planning experts say shopping malls will continue to define the suburbs, as they have since the post-World War II population boom.
"Malls were a response to people's desires," said John Paige, a planning director for the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. "People wanted home ownership, so they drove out on the expressways and found cheap land. They wanted accessibility, and malls performed that service."
In the 1950s, 42 malls sprouted in the six-county Chicago area, said Lake Forest College History Professor Michael Ebner who is writing a book on Chicago's rapid suburban growth.
To get an idea of the impact of the suburban mall, consider this: In 1949, 71 percent of the metro area's retail dollars were spent within Chicago's city limits. By 1972, a year after the grand dame of covered malls - Woodfield Shopping Center - opened,
60 percent of retail dollars were being spent in the suburbs.
As shopping centers opened their doors, from Oakbrook Center in Oak Brook to Hawthorn Center in Vernon Hills, the old downtown shopping districts crumbled. …