It’s hard to say when my writing career began. (I’ll save everyone the trouble and make the “It’s hard to say if it began at all!” joke myself.) In the mid-to-late-’00s, I wrote a monthly love-it-or-hate-it column called “Subversions” for the long-defunct Vital Source. Before that, I apparently wrote a few stories for the UWM Post, though—honest to god—I have absolutely no recollection of this. (An old college classmate produced proof of these stories a few years ago. Again, I have absolutely no recollection of writing them. College!)
But if someone put a gun to my head and demanded I pin down the exact date my writing career began (this happens more often than you’d think), I’d say December 7, 2009. That’s when my first story for A.V. Club Milwaukee hit newsstands and big green Onion boxes citywide. The subject of this career-starting story? The Grand Avenue Mall.
Oh, I’ve been missing the Grand Ave. lately. Haven’t you? I was gutted when the long-struggling downtown mall closed up shop in 2019. No more cavernous halls. No more crummy stores. No more food court with a Rocky Rococo and a Culver’s in it. (We didn’t know how good we had it!) Here are some pictures from the Grand Ave.’s final days:
Soon after these pictures were taken, the Shops of Grand Avenue began their long transformation into The Avenue. Apartments took the place of former stores. Office space took over entire floors. In early 2022, the highly anticipated 3rd Street Market Hall will finally open on the first floor where the Leonard Bearstein Symphony Orchestra used to do its thing. (On December 22, the food hall will host a fundraiser for those affected by the recent Waukesha tragedy.) Like I said before: We didn’t know how good we had it!
But back in 2009, the mall was still alive and kicking. Well, sort of. Here’s a little bit from my 2009 A.V. Club Milwaukee story, “The ghost of Grand Avenue: We visit the little-loved downtown mall so you don’t have to.” It was a holiday shopping guide, you see, and the joke, of course, was that there was virtually nothing to buy there (even in 2009).
The Grand Avenue Mall opened in the summer of 1982. (Yes, we know it’s since been rebranded as “The Shops of Grand Avenue,” but come on, no one ever calls it that.) Though it never achieved the same level of success as its suburban counterparts, it did manage to stay competitive for many years, weathering both a fading downtown economy and the addition of the International Clown Hall Of Fame to its basement. In 1997, however, things started to sour: mall anchor Marshall Fields packed up for more suburban climes, and other stalwarts like the Gap, SunCoast Video, and Sam Goody soon followed. Recently, Linens ‘n Things and Old Navy have both gone the way of the dodo, leaving the once thriving mall about as relevant as Hammer pants.
Today, walking through the Grand Avenue is more an exercise in irony than actual exercise, though the enterprising holiday shopper can still find a deal or two. For starters, stop by one of the mall’s many random kiosks where you can pick up some possibly bootlegged martial arts DVDs ($15), or those poster-sized charcoal drawings of everyone from Michael Jackson to a Family Ties-era Michael J. Fox ($25-$30). Next, head over to Planet TV, a goldmine for cheap knock-offs of already questionable “As Seen on TV!” items. Turned off by the upscale, hoity-toity elegance of the Slap Chop? No problem, the Tap That Chopper ($12.99) will likely get you the same chopping results with none of the unnecessary hype or tweaked-out, headset-sporting pitchmen. (Pricing and availability for the Leon Spinks Burger Grill was unavailable at press time.)
For all your clothing needs, head due east from the cramped, beat-up Walgreens and check out Personalized You, where 12 bucks can net you an airbrushed Scarface T-shirt for mom. For more local flavor, Brew City Beer Gear has festive “Ed Gein Lampshades, Inc.” T-shirts ($10), as well a whole slew of other crap covered in forgotten local catchphrases. (“Don’t Whack Our Wiener!”) Finally, finish your shopping spree and experience the ’80s all over again at Radio Shack, where you’ll find in a single store the perfect summation for the entire mall: quaint, off-brand, and more than a little unsettling.
My editor at the time added the Hammer pants reference (and the headline), which kind of irked me. Also irksome: he thought my name was “Adam” for some reason, and so my very first story for the print edition of A.V. Club Milwaukee was credited to…Adam Wild. I was THIS close to writing him a pissy email, but he quickly apologized and I wisely laughed it off. Lesson: NEVER WRITE AN ANGRY EMAIL TO YOUR EDITOR BECAUSE SOMEDAY THAT EDITOR MAY BE IN A POSITION TO GIVE YOU THEIR JOB.
Anyway, back to 2021. I’m glad that the Grand Avenue is being reimagined after years of diminishing returns. Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to eating at Milwaukee’s 17th food hall. And yet…I can’t help feeling indifferent—and even a little blue—when local media breathlessly reports that another chunk of a place that used to be publicly accessible will become a private office. I have fond memories of letting my then-toddler kid toddle around the empty halls of the Grand Ave. during the winter. Now those empty halls are apartments and office space for professional consulting firms. Yay?
I recently came across a hefty coffee table book called Milwaukee: The Best Of All Worlds. It was published in 1990. It gives a thorough history of the city and contains oodles of information on then-thriving businesses and cultural institutions. Here are some excerpts from the sections on the Grand Ave. Thirty-one years later (!), they’re almost impossible to believe:
“It is near the top of every Milwaukee visitor’s ‘must-see’ list. It is residents’ choice for unparalleled ambience and one-of-a-kind specialty shops. It is the shopping center of convenience for the 75,000 people who work downtown. It’s The Grand Avenue.”
“The Grand Avenue is Milwaukee’s premier shopping experience. Always teeming with shoppers and excitement, the mall combines a unique architectural mix of new construction and refurbished buildings illuminated by natural daylight from expansive skylights.”
“In its first year alone The Grand Avenue won nine different awards for excellence and drew rave reviews from around the country. The New York Times cited a ‘four block long enclosed mall using refurbished buildings and glass skyways over downtown streets to link 160 new shops in an old-fashioned downtown atmosphere where fountains splash, public phones work, shoppers feel safe, and even the parking is free…’
“According to the Chicago Sun-Times, ‘This city of beer and bratwurst is putting foam and sizzle back into its downtown with a skylighted shopping mall called The Grand Avenue…In part, the mall’s strong feeling of community results from setting it within familiar and quite fine existing buildings that have been renewed scrupulously.'”
There are some dated howlers in there (“…near the top of every Milwaukee visitor’s ‘must-see’ list”; a land where “fountains splash” and “public phones work”), but what strikes me is how the notion of downtown revitalization is still being crowed about in 2021. The “strong feeling of community” emanating from “familiar and quite fine existing buildings that have been renewed scrupulously” could just as easily apply to the apartments, office space, and food halls coming to the Grand Ave. space today. Things changing, things staying the same, etc.
At least we’ll always have the TJ Maxx, which I think is there to stay. Oh, and we’ll always have a nagging sense that in a few years some genius will strike upon the idea of adding retail to food halls. Can anyone think of a good name for such places?
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