by Tim Gilmore, 9/17/2022
1. All Roads Lead to Regency, 1965
The developers of Regency Square Mall, Martin and Joan Stein of Regency Centers Corporation, called it “the largest shopping center in the Southeast.” Martin Stein said he wanted “established Jacksonville retail and service organizations” for tenants. Its advertisements claimed, “All roads lead to Regency Square,” a “city within a city.”
Northeast Florida’s first new “indoor shopping mall,” might just replace the city it left behind. All roads no longer led to Rome. Or Downtown. Increasingly, those “established” Jacksonville stores left vacancies in the heart of town behind them.
The housewife “would no longer have to fight Downtown traffic,” promised Maurice Alpert of Alpert Investment Corporation. “She will have more time to actually shop and she will be able to go from store to store without having to brave the elements or changes in temperature.” Indeed, the whole shopping center would be air-conditioned, an incredible luxury!
Shoppers would find convenience in this new “central location,” central though not much had been built in the sand dunes around it, or between here and the beaches. Capitalizing on new federally funded highway construction, insurance redlining and rampant fears of urban racial integration, developers would shift “the center” away from the center of town.
Regency Square Mall would become, so Martin Stein predicted in an August 17, 1965 Florida Times-Union story, the “regional center for the whole Northeast Florida area.” In March of ’67, the new city square would stand outside the old city limits, at least until Jacksonville and Duval County consolidated governments the following year and made the whole county – though mostly woods and marshes – “the city.”
2. Sallow Sunshine, 2022
The tracks for the children’s train curve between an abandoned Space Shuttle, motionless plastic dolphins and stage-set trees reaching up toward the skylight and collapsing ceiling, the drip drip drip of broken tiles and moisture and mold. No passengers line up. It might be a ghost town if it weren’t a dead mall.
Irony always adhered to Regency Square. So many shopping malls of the 1960s and ’70s aped elements of the urban centers whose decline they hastened. Imitation columns rise inside before marbled facades of shuttered stores.
Shopfronts bear fake clay-tile ceilings, balconies that never had access and probably couldn’t bear weight, a dimensionless pilastered and pedimented portico set in a tall mass of brick like the ancient gateways of Petra carved into the timeless Jordan mountainside.
A diamond of multicolored floor tiles catches the sallow sunshine from a skylight, but the light bears no sadness. The light is light. It shines through every condition. It shone before the beginning and this apocalypse is hardly its first.
3. Air-Conditioned Streets, 1967
The headlines on March 3, 1967 shouted, “Opening Day Big Success,” and The Florida Times-Union reported that 8,000 people poured into the mall and its shops in the first hour. “At 10 a.m. when owners Martin and Joanie Stein officially opened the $12 million, 50-store enclosed mall, the 3,800-car parking lot was nearly full.” When the doors closed at nine that night, more than 25,000 people had wandered the mall.
Boosters had promised customers wouldn’t have to fight Downtown traffic, though the T-U reported, “Out at the entrances on Atlantic Boulevard and Arlington Expressway, bumper-to-bumper traffic stretched as far as the eye could see.” In fact, “traffic was backed up on the Expressway all the way to Arlington Road – a distance of about two miles.”
At opening ceremonies, Mayor Lou Ritter said the opening of the mall was “one of the brightest spots in the history of Jacksonville.” The grand speeches had been going on since groundbreaking on December 5th of ’66, when Joan Stein and Governor Haydon Burns ritually stuck chrome-plated shovels in the sand. Joseph Crain of the T-U led with “Another chapter of ‘The Jacksonville Story’ was written yesterday.”
The groundbreaking began with a champagne breakfast at the brand new Thunderbird Motor Hotel, developed by another Stein, Martin’s brother Albert. Governor Burns, the former mayor who’d promised that Downtown Jacksonville would never integrate racially, spoke at a lectern beneath an umbrella in the pouring rain at the construction site. Downtown, he said, would never have “air-conditioned streets” like Regency Square.
Holding a black umbrella, the governor, dressed in dark suit and fedora, sat and smiled for photographers. The T-U reported, “Gov. Haydon Burns begins his second year in office today under an umbrella. He returned to Jacksonville to take part in groundbreaking for the mammoth new Regency Square shopping center.”
4. Hours of Operation, 2022
Doorways admit no one. Store after store after store. Ironies ensue: the Event Planning Center has been abandoned.
A great yawning nothing echoes in the maw. In one abandoned storefront, a big asymmetrical star fades across the center of the floor. A curved welcome desk waits lonely in the empty hair salon, big bright white efflorescent ornaments hovering from the ceiling in the shadows.
When footsteps seem to sound, it’s really the rainwater dripping in the cavernous distance. Display counters promise special deals. Hours-of-Operation signs reflect shadows golden across the soulless concourse.
The gateway to the children’s train at Union Terminal Station stands cardboard and arched and zigzag and bright dominant pastel beneath falling ceilings and stinking mold bringing all the grand decades to ground. The world always falls back into the earth. The earth preceded us. The world always ends.
The smell of rot and mold pervades the air behind a jammed-open door and a backward, from inside, arrow on glass grown filthy and the message: “ylnO seeyolpmE / ecnartnE niaM usU esaelP / uoY-knahT”
5. Frosty Cottontail Bluegrass Habitués, 1970s
Always Regency hosted something new. When the mall stayed open late for shopping specials at “Moonlight Madness” in January of ’73, ice skaters in bowler hats and bow ties entertained spectators at the “Frosty Follies,” the “Winter Wonderland” featured penguins, and LeDow the Magician performed sleight-of-hand.
Promotional material explained how “the air-conditioned mall” allowed “shoppers to move from store to store within the center without regard to weather or temperatures,” where they could amble the aisles of J.C. Penney, May Cohen’s, Furchgott’s, Woolworth, Ivey’s, Walgreen’s, Levy’s, Lerner’s, Rosenblum’s, Lillie-Rubin Dress Shop, Underwood Jewelers, Baker Shoes, Flair Fabrics, Kay Jewelry and Russell Stover Candies.
But if that weren’t enough, shoppers could pose their children with the Easter Bunny beneath a one-story windmill at Cottontail Square or get their own portrait taken with a monkey in a pinstripe suit.
Besides monkeys, the grand concourse made room for donkeys and sheep and goats in petting zoos and for small bears on leashes who stood awkwardly on tiny pedestals. Potters and portrait painters and landscapists and sculptors from around the state set up at the annual Summer Art Show, replacing the usual summer cultural doldrums something to look forward to each year.
Chris Carver remembers being little, the mall still new, and the goats in the petting zoo trying to eat his and his brother’s coats. He says, “The men all had suits on and I’m sure my mom had on gloves and a dressy coat and high heel shoes.”
For its 10th anniversary, Regency put on a special display, featuring the costumed lifesize wax figures of 40 English monarchs. Queen Victoria sat particularly dour and unyielding while oglers licked ice cream cones and children picked their noses. The Jacksonville British-American Club served tea. Then came live bluegrass music, square dancing, “K-9 Obedience Circus Team” demonstrations and a magic show by Freckles the Clown.
But the greatest and most persistent spectacle was the casual and unconscious parade of ordinary people. Sue Lovett was the manager at Regis Hairstylists when the mall enlarged in the early ’80s. She says, “People lived in that mall! Hot days, rainy days, lonely days, holidays, it would be literally shoulder to shoulder at times. It was a hub of activity from opening to close. I worked there seven years.”
The occasional photoessay focused on those “mall habitués,” elderly men and women who came to Regency daily, rain or shine, not to shop, but to sit at bistro tables and on benches and “people watch,” as other elders had done for a thousand years in cities around the world.
6. The Rise and Fall of the Mall, 1960s to 2000s
The “shopping mall” was a new kind of mall. Before the shopping mall, a mall was a street reserved for pedestrians, a public space in a cityscape, a public commons. At the National Mall in Washington, D.C. the Washington Monument stands across the Reflecting Pool from the Lincoln Memorial, before which Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream!”
The shopping mall became so successful that Americans who grew up with it rarely knew any other kind of mall. The “mall” could only mean one thing. The fact that people once dressed up to visit actual city streets at the heart of town to shop and dine and dance disappeared from the public imagination.
But unlike the North American Downtown, supposedly open to everyone, until Civil Rights demonstrators tested that assertion in the 1960s, the shopping mall was privately owned and controlled. Suburbs and shopping malls flipped cities inside out. The heart of town emptied and decayed as those with means fled for the peripheries.
Better-off minorities fled too, though new suburban subdivisions were often deed-restricted and excluded racial and ethnic minorities. Insurance redlining practices made the new suburban development of “white flight” much cheaper than trying to hang on to home in the impoverished city. Suburbia, “exclusive,” fed off the dying of the supposedly “inclusive” city.
In Jacksonville, the hottest development was the road out of town. Arlington Expressway led city denizens into the vast newly developing eastern quadrant of the county called “Greater Arlington.” While Jax, the city itself, imploded, “Greater Jacksonville” touted burgeoning economic stats by growing outward in flight from itself.
While Martin Stein developed Regency Square Mall, his brother Albert expanded his Thunderbird Motor Hotel, closer to the city along Arlington Expressway, into Jacksonville’s main business conference center and “the city’s premier entertainment complex,” giving Jacksonville, in the words of Mayor Hans Tanzler, “a Las Vegas, New York, big-city type of night club atmosphere.” Al Stein called the new Thunderbird “one of the brightest jewels in the Florida Crown.”
“Greater Jacksonville” now meant “Greater Arlington” and Regency Square and the Thunderbird had shifted the center of the city and left Downtown behind. Part of the coming problem, however, was that the new model was premised on newness, while the center of town obviously remained where the city had first sunk its roots.
By the 1980s, Regency Square Mall had expanded into 1.4 million square feet of retail space. By the 1990s, as the very same suburban kids who hung out in malls listened to violent music and did things with their hair that shocked their parents and pierced their flesh in surprising places, the spirit of the place began to shift. Those dark forces the suburbs were built to escape had rippled out to those inner older suburbs.
By the year 2000, all across North America, these enclosed shopping centers had begun their own death spirals. Meanwhile, urban centers were beginning to repopulate, become fashionable, even regentrify. Exurbs moved further and further away to build new gated communities, while those who moved back to cities newly celebrated a love for “diversity” and “inclusion.”
Shopping malls like Regency Square fell right in the middle of that growing American cultural rift, now neither “urban core,” nor quite “suburban” anymore.
Now “urban explorers” and “urbex” adventurers wander “dead malls” or “ghost malls” or “zombie malls” and post their images to Instagram. Hundreds of “dead malls” lie abandoned or mostly empty across the continent. It’s an inverted frontier.
7. “Declimb” of “the Everything Place,” 1980s to 2020s
Gayle Hodge remembers Regency as the place to go school shopping. Shopping reduced the anxiety of starting a new school year and made the season exciting, eliminated the dread. The mall “was the everything place.”
Patty Ward Shannon finds it sad that “kids today will never know the fun of shopping for school clothes.” She misses the toy stores and “flipping through albums or cassettes in the record store. And food court pizza. And the decorations at Christmas.”
Cherie laments, “It is truly sad to see what Jacksonville has become. It’s definitely not the same place I grew up in,” and Deborah adds, “People would travel from across town to shop at Regency. So sad how drugs and crime destroy!”
Understandably, lamentations accompany nostalgia. Somebody says the mall “started to declimb” when “they remodeled the food court,” and says the mall was “the best part of the city.”
Miller Norton remembers “the strong and sweet odors from perfume counters in stores like Furchgott’s, Ivey’s and May Cohen’s. The smell of popcorn throughout the mall. Christmastime was like ‘Walking in a Winter Wonderland,’ like the song.”
He wishes he’d taken more photos back then and could share them now, but thinks people lived more in the moment then, less in their cameras. He can still picture “all of the bright blue, green, red and yellow blinking lights on all of the Christmas trees in the various stores and at Center Court.”
Some people who remember Regency Square Mall’s glory days also remember the Downtown the mall replaced. Diane Keniston remembers “the old Sears store Downtown,” before Sears departed for Regency. “That’s where I got my driver’s license learner’s permit. I was 14. It was green and had no picture on it and it was paper that folded in half. I always had a good answer for the old question, ‘Where did you get your driver’s license, Sears and Roebuck?’ I would just say, ‘Yes!’”
George Yeates says he “saw the beautiful old Downtown go first. Now the malls are fading fast.”
When Cary Corley worked at Regency Square Mall, he helped set up holiday displays, worked maintenance, “even shoveled coins from the fountain.” Regency’s management regularly trumpeted the charities to which they donated those pennies and dimes. Cary remembers, “I also got to meet the Steins that owned it. They had matching-color light blue Lincoln Continentals. Hers was a two-door. His was the big Town Car.”
Not everybody has fond memories of Regency though and some of those memories echo Mayor Haydon Burns’s promise that Jacksonville would never desegregate. He may have lost his battle downtown, and de jure segregation may not have extended to the new shopping malls, but de facto segregation frequently reasserted itself.
“I was born in that in-between time,” says Tango Jordan, “when Downtown was still the center and Regency was on the rise. I wanted nothing more than to spend all my time in Regency and pretty much did throughout my teenage years.” Nevertheless, he says he’s “kind of glad to see it go,” because he recalls the private security officers at Regency as “overwhelmingly racist.”
“They harassed us incessantly,” he remembers. “They implemented dress codes that made no sense. Some of the clothing they banned was sold right there in the mall. The only thing consistent was that it was always black and brown kids being thrown out. It was always black fashion that was designated as gang-related.” It happened repeatedly, he says, at “the carnival, concerts, any large event or gathering usually ended badly, and whatever account the mall cops gave, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office enthusiastically endorsed.”
Mary Dumbleton, on the other hand, remembers her mother meeting a Civil Rights legend at Regency. Mary was maybe 14 or 15. She didn’t know, at first, what her mother was reacting to. Then the two of them rushed over to meet this small humble woman and Mary’s mother thanked her, Rosa Parks, for her activism.
“She was very gracious. We didn’t chat her up too long,” she says. Strangely, nobody else seemed to recognize her. “My mom was active in college at Spelman in Atlanta, participated in a lunch counter sit-in and got arrested. MLK, Sr. bailed her group out of jail. MLK, Jr. was her Philosophy professor once. She was very familiar with all the Civil Rights activists because she lived it.”
Mostly now the jeremiads lean hard and bleak, frequently unconsciously ironic. Somebody wonders, “Can you imagine the city without the mall? What kind’a city’d that be?” Tellingly and ironically, someone else feels incensed by the word “urban” in the “urban” barbershop and tattoo parlor he recently found in the mall. If you’re feeling lucky, he says, walk through the shopping mall on a Friday or Saturday night.
It’s the same thing his parents said about Downtown and Riverside and Springfield and other urban neighborhoods (now the city’s hippest and most artistic and most storied – which perhaps they always were) when they were the age he is now.
Kelly Sorken calls the mall “ghetto.” Dara Lynn says, “It’s what happens when trash moves in.”
But Curtis Adams says Regency Square Mall “closed Downtown when they opened. Now they the one closing.”
8. All Come Down / Begin Again, 2022
All over town grow pods of decentralized mushrooms in woody soil and sands of old woods. Ringless Honey Mushroom they’re called, Armillaria tabescens. They spring up overnight like swamp fairy cities. They flourish for a few days and then cave in, detumesce, collapse upon themselves, blacken and shrink, putresce, then stink high to the trees like the corpses they’ve become.
Nature never stands apart, though our culture seeks to insulate itself from it. Love and conscious veneration of the earth lends itself to the long view.
Likewise, you can mourn the glorious adolescence lost, first loves and innocence innocently shedding itself, and bemoan the loss of the place that served as setting, but still find fascination in the egress and ingress of historical currents as they wash upon a whole city and its history and reshape the landscape in their tides.
One humid afternoon, I find my way into that crescent enclosure of curved concrete modeled to look like a brick 19th century British Martello Tower beside the central front entrance sign with its postmodern post-Deco lettering for Regency Square. I look up through the incidental cylinder toward the sky and note the vines coating the palms and threatening to overtake them and bring them down to earth.
So too we’ll all come down. So too we’ll always peer up toward the blue that shields us from the eternity of space. So the world always ends. And so from the end of the world, the earth itself has never yet failed to begin again.