No Better Way? the Kalamazoo Mall and the Legacy of Pedestrian Malls

By Cheyne, Michael | Michigan Historical Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

No Better Way? the Kalamazoo Mall and the Legacy of Pedestrian Malls


Cheyne, Michael, Michigan Historical Review


On August 19, 1959, the battle to save America's crumbling downtowns opened a new and important front. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, about fifty thousand reporters, citizens, and dignitaries witnessed the unveiling of the first pedestrian shopping mall in the United States. Amid a carnival-like atmosphere featuring clowns and a live band, the Kalamazoo Mall opened to throngs of curious shoppers. Once clogged with automobiles, this shopping area now featured two full blocks reserved solely for pedestrians.

Nearly forty years later, another throng of residents and dignitaries clustered in downtown Kalamazoo. On October 9, 1998, the party atmosphere of 1959 was again on display, with concerts, fireworks, and entertainers. However, this time the ceremony was to mark the reversal of what had been so highly praised decades earlier. The Kalamazoo Mall, so long an icon of downtown renewal, was reopening to automobile traffic, having failed to restore the city's flagging downtown economy. (1)

What happened between 1959 and 1998 to cause Kalamazoo to give up on its pedestrian mall? The answer to this question has a significance that reaches beyond the city's history. The mall on Burdick Street was the first step in a movement that resulted in the creation of more than two hundred pedestrian malls across the United States. (2) Those who embraced the concept sought to restore American downtowns by making the urban center a more attractive place for pedestrians. By the late 1970s and throughout the following years, designers began to look on these malls with a more jaundiced eye. Planners revised their theories, arguing that pedestrian-only environments were actually harmful to downtowns. The same cities that had once removed automobiles from areas of their downtowns now enthusiastically brought them back.

Although numerous reasons have been proposed for the failure of pedestrian malls, their lingering effects on urban development remain underexplored. Despite good intentions, most pedestrian-mall projects ignored the extent of the social and economic problems facing downtowns, focusing instead on aesthetic issues. The intense debate about reopening these malls to automobile traffic is instructive. Those opposed argued for tranquility and aesthetics and tended to ignore economic issues, while proponents of the return of automobiles saw this as the answer to all difficulties facing downtowns.

Using the Kalamazoo Mall as a case study, this article will examine the legacy of pedestrian malls by depicting how these malls have been perceived by city planners as well as the public at large, both at their creation and at their demise. Many Kalamazoo residents felt that the issue of automobiles vs. pedestrians was of paramount importance. This belief was shared by planners and citizens throughout the United States, reflecting a broader search for quick solutions to the problems of urban decay, in spite of increasing scholarship arguing for more sophisticated approaches to urban renewal. Ultimately, the history of the Kalamazoo Mall demonstrates how the creation and downfall of pedestrian malls worked to distract policymakers and citizens from discussing the basic problems facing America's downtowns.

The pedestrian-mall movement originated in western Europe. In 1926 the first reported instance of a street being turned into a car-free zone occurred in Essen, Germany, as part of a successful plan to increase retail sales. (3) Over the years, the pedestrian-mall concept became popular throughout Europe, especially after World War II. Harvey Rubenstein attributes the success of European pedestrian malls to "increased urban growth, affluence, a large number of cars, and the dense urban fabric with a relatively high residential population." (4) Automobiles clogged the narrow streets of older European cities, while a large population of apartment dwellers lived in or near the urban core. Unlike their struggling American counterparts, European urban areas were ideally suited to maintain successful pedestrian districts. …

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