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Ken’s View: Ice Is Nice

Shopping in America has changed in many ways, and in many ways it hasn’t changed that much at all—Amazon notwithstanding. In city neighborhoods with mixed-use and new-urbanist proclivities, shopping seems to be returning to what it once was —small businesses on the ground floor with offices and residences above. That’s long been a standard city thing. Once shunned for suburban shopping malls, it seems to have been rediscovered and become trendy. Who would have thought?

At the same time, much has been made of the decline of suburban malls as city venues attracted younger residents and shoppers. That can’t be denied, but, like cities, maybe malls haven’t changed all that much either. A recent news report says that a synthetic ice rink may soon be installed in vacant retail space at Hawthorn Mall in north-suburban-Chicago Vernon Hills. This is notable by virtue of its not being new. First, malls are still trying to differentiate themselves by providing entertainment; that’s hardly new. Second, I grew up a short drive from a not-so-upscale mall that had an ice rink back in the late 1950s, early 1960s, so adding skating to spice up your shopping mall definitely isn’t original.

To me, the new project, perhaps unfairly, conjures an image of a sad little ice rink wedged haphazardly in a storefront like a last-chance taekwondo studio or pawn shop, the existing overhead fluorescents left in place to save money. To be fair, I’m sure there are fine examples of pawn emporiums and martial-arts studios, but they generally don’t say “successful mall.” I’m equally sure the ice rink will be sensitively integrated, but what’s with this synthetic ice stuff?

Being diligent, I Googled synthetic ice and came upon a company that sold the stuff. Indeed, not being ice, it doesn’t require the extensive refrigeration and electricity of the real thing, so it may be environmentally friendly. I said, “may be.” What a surprise, it’s made of a particular kind of polyethylene, the latter commonly known to laypersons as plastic. Not so environmentally friendly, eh?

Particularly amusing was the notice on the website of the fake-ice manufacturer: “Out of stock! China has purchased our entire production capacity.” (My note to China: The company is located in Florida; your shipment of imitation frozen water may be delayed.)

The ice rink in the long-ago mall is gone now. The building that housed it burned many years ago. Improbably, the mall itself still stubbornly remains.

The rink is the story of shopping malls and the way things used to be—and still are with much of the amazement and novelty drained off. The mall in question was essentially a large strip mall, but the ice rink was a precursor of malls not even on the drawing board. It was in an enclosed space, called the Wintergarden, comprising the ice rink surrounded by select businesses, including restaurants. One of them, the Alpine House, featured waitresses (these days, that would be servers) in “authentic” Bavarian apparel, it is said.

For its time, it was quite the attraction. Local residents had seen nothing like it and flocked to the mall with their kids in station wagons and sedans despite the fact the mall had virtually no big-name stores. Perhaps it was a simpler time, and folks were not so jaded.

This mall endures to this very day. I had an urge to drive over there to see for myself, but adding to global warming seemed irresponsible with several hurricanes threatening the southern part of the country. Instead, I used Google Street View— not that Google’s server farms and their Street View cars don’t have their own environmental cost.

Anyway, the mall today has a pawnshop, a dollar store, a payday loan store, a liquor store, and a resale shop. Not exactly upscale, is it? Along with some other run-of-the-mill stores there’s a tractor supply store! Really. This area may have been agricultural 150 years ago, but today? Not even remotely. I may still have to drive up there to see if they have real tractors.

Never mind. I don’t have time to sightsee skeevy malls. The Internet to the rescue. Again. The tractor store seems to be mostly lawn tractors and manly, outdoorsy stuff for wannabe farmers. So we’ve gone from station wagons and Bavarian maids to fake ice and pretend tractors. This is progress?

In the long run, cities and shopping don’t change much, though they do need minor adjustments from time to time. That’s what new mixed-use developments or things like adaptive reuse are for. Perhaps some of those undertakings will have skating rinks and Bavarian-costumed serving persons. I never had the chance to eat in the Alpine House, but I kind of wish I had.

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