Remembering Southridge Mall10/2/2019
Did you ride the “Hydrotube”?
The new season of “Stranger Things” has sparked nostalgic interest in shopping malls. The show highlighted an abandoned mall that was brought back to life as a surging metropolis complete with a pretzel shop, a food court and shopping options as far the eye could see.
Although some malls are still prospering, many have seen better days. Some of you may remember the impact that malls had on downtown shopping. Downtown Des Moines slowly died once consumers realized they didn’t need to walk from store to store in the heat or the cold in order to shop. To have a mass structure with every store one could seemingly ever need under one roof — and a place to drop off the kids for a few hours to get some “me time” — was a dream come true for many. Times have changed. Who would have guessed that we would be talking about how urban gentrification hurt our suburban shopping malls or that billions of products would be ordered sight unseen on something called the Internet? Meanwhile, let’s reminisce.
Remember when Southridge Mall had a full food court, stores like Suncoast video, Claire’s, Musicland, JCPenney, and although I cannot find the written proof anywhere, a Bishop’s Buffet? People would show up at 8 a.m. for their morning exercise. Stores would open around 9 or 10 a.m., and commerce would be in full force. The so-called mall rats would show up late morning to wander through the stores with zero buying intentions, which prompted the mall cops to catch latch-key kids who might be loitering.
The Southridge food court had its key spots: a Chinese place, Sbarro’s pizza, McDonalds, Orange Julius, and a pretzel stand. There was also a stage in the center of the food court for special events. You might have seen local TV broadcasting there on Black Friday or a live infomercial for a cleaning spray that wouldn’t make your children sick.
But what really made Southridge unique from the other malls was the inclusion of a giant water slide. The “Hydrotube” only lasted for six months, but its lifespan was memorable for many.
“Southridge was a destination spot for my family,” remembers Kory Pohlman. “We would drive in from Story City. We would spend the day there shopping and playing on the giant water slide. A couple hour drive for a visit to the mall seems strange now, but it was a family trip for us.”
Melody Hammond of Grimes says her Hydrotube memory wasn’t as pleasant.
“It was one of those things you didn’t want to think too hard about, in terms of cleanliness,” she says. “They had these pads you could sit on when you slid if you wanted to, and they made you go faster. Well, one day my friends and I were there, and one of my friends got on one of those pads to go fast. Apparently, the attendant didn’t have her wait the correct time after the guy before her went down. … They shot out the bottom of the tube together, and I am not sure who was more mortified.”
Malls struggled through their own Y2K nightmare when many cities wanted to help their downtowns come back to life. The recession and high gas prices of 2008 didn’t help either. People who lived in rural communities often couldn’t afford to drive to populated areas where most malls existed. Although this prompted rural towns to rebuild their main streets, it ultimately caused mall business to decline.
It’s one thing when a single store front closes, but what do property owners do with the large structures they erected that no longer can be sustained by their original purpose?
Southridge Mall certainly has adapted. When Iowa had film tax incentives, a production company had plans to turn Southridge Mall into a soundstage. A pirate ship was being built inside but was eventually abandoned after the incentives were cancelled. Now DMACC has facilities there.
Owners and developers of other malls across the nation have begun to think outside of the box, too, and change their structures from retail to newly designed corporate and education facilities.
So is there an opportunity for another Hydrotube at Southridge Mall?
Don’t hold your breath. ♦
Kristian Day is a filmmaker, musician and writer based in Des Moines. He hosts the syndicated Iowa Basement Tapes radio program on 98.9FM KFMG.