Just about 10 years ago, I wrote one of the most read-articles I’ve ever created for OnMilwaukee.
As we settle into holiday season, it looked like a good time to revisit the sad topic of Northridge Mall.
The article is still up and you can read it, but it’s pretty dated now. What it doesn’t have is all the original photos we took inside the ghost mall on 76th and Brown Deer Road.
Back then, our software couldn’t really display an article with some 20 photos, so I’m creating this video with some new commentary to turn back the clock and take another look at Northridge and how it appeared in January 2012.
The 800,000-square foot former shopping center on the corner of 76th St. and Brown Deer Road sits just 10 minutes from River Hills, one of Milwaukee's most affluent suburbs. Built by Herb Kohl and his partners, it opened in 1973, a virtual carbon copy of Southridge. And after a slow decline, it finally shut its doors 30 years later in 2003.
Even though a variety of factors contributed to Northridge's demise, the one many people remember was a murder with a racially motivated alibi: Jesse Anderson, who was white, brutally killed his wife in 1992 but claimed two black men attacked them while they dined at T.G.I. Friday's, next to the mall. It was the final nail in the coffin for many white suburban shoppers who decided that it was safer to travel the extra distance to Bayshore, Mayfair Mall or Brookfield Square. You may also recall that Anderson was murdered in prison alongside Jeffrey Dahmer.
In 2009, Northridge was purchased for $6 million by a Chinese investment group called the Toward Group at the end of. It was to become a head-scratching "Chinese Mall of North America," dedicated to showcasing Far East retailers, sort of like a brick and mortar wish.com.
Not surprisingly, that never happened, and honestly, I doubt that was ever really the plan.
So where does my visit come in?
I was in Brown Deer doing an interview and on the way back downtown, I drove past Northridge Mall. This was before the streets around it were closed off, so I pulled right up and looked at it. I remembered all those times as a kid growing up on the north shore how it was my mall of choice. I remembered my final visit there, actually, when it was in steep decline, and I bought a pager.
So I made some phone calls. I called the Granville-Brown Deer Chamber of Commerce and asked if I could get in to take some pictures.
Amazingly, they said sure, and hooked me up with a man named Yi Wan, who was the liaison of the Chinese company, Toward Group, that owned it. Yi Wan was the president of Y&Y International in Milwaukee. At no point did he explain what this company did. According to Google, it was a “business management consultant” company in Menomonee Falls that it is now closed.
With me also was property caretaker Jeff Myszewski, who had worked at Northridge for 20 years. He, understandably, was not happy about the state of the mall.
I also brought photographer Eron Laber from Front Room Studios who took these pictures, and my friend Jon Adler, the morning show host at FM 102.1.
Myszewski and Wan let us in through a temporary door outside the boarded-up food court, which was a 1988 addition to the mall. Our jaws dropped as we stepped back into time.
It looked exactly like its twin, Southridge Mall, before it was remodeled.
Inside, Northridge sat clean and well-lit by its spacious skylights. Even with power and heat shut off, the large trees in the center of the mall continue to grow, their roots planted deep into the ground. Almost all external storefront signs are removed, but it's remarkably preserved. As I understand it, those trees are gone now.
Certain markers gave some indication of where we were. From the faded sign where the letters of Spencer's Gifts once shined, to a a poster outside Boston Store that showed the mall alive with flowers and shoppers. I walked past the movie theater, where I saw "Max Dugan Returns." Myszewski reminded me where the Gap and Farrell's once stood. I might've even seen the spot where I bought that pager in, yes, 1996.
The irony wasn't lost on me as I read a sign urging me to "Rediscover Northridge!"
In fact, while all the storefronts were virtually completely empty, we could walk a bit into the pitch black anchor stores. With our camera flashes, we could see displays and posters for the beauty products at Boston Store and J.C. Penney. The mall didn't smell musty. Nothing appeared to be falling apart, except for a broken skylight and some signage by the movie theater, which was shuttered many years ago; long before the mall closed.
It was like time stopped in 2003 and hasn't restarted, but Myszewski remembered all the storefronts when we quizzed him. I could tell how disgusted he was.
One thing that upset me was why the heat was off. Until 2012, Myszewski was instructed to warm the building to 32 degrees. Thermometers have been placed along the walls with marker lines indicating the freezing line – and all were below. I’m sure all the pipes have since blown. Northridge would never be a shopping mall again.
Since my tour, Penzey Spices tried to buy Northridge in 2013, but in 2014, the Chinese company paid its back taxes, stopping a foreclosure sale.
A YouTuber did a Christmas video with Samsung there a few years back and that trashed what was left.
And April 11, 2019, the City of Milwaukee issued a demolition order for the mall. On the evening of July 22, 2019 a maintenance contractor was fatally electrocuted while investigating an open fuse box at the mall.
The demolition order was approved by a judge of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court on May 13, who ruled that the mall was dangerous.
As of April, the Business Journal reports The city of Milwaukee is hiring a contractor to clear asbestos from Northridge Mall’s former Boston Store so it can be torn down as the remainder of the vacant north side shopping center remains tied up in a lawsuit.
All I know is that it’s still standing there, looking worse and worse every day. I consider myself fortunate that I could see it one last time 10 years ago.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.