Westown Shopping City and the emergence
of the Phoenix strip mall
By John Bueker
The modern American strip mall emerged through a fateful confluence of circumstances arising in the aftermath of World War II. A steady migration of the population to suburban living, the increasing reliance on an automobile-based mode of existence, and a robust post-war economy all combined to change the culture of American consumerism forever.
Strip malls were a fundamentally logical consequence of this new landscape. The idea was to provide every conceivable merchant and service a burgeoning suburban community might require and desire, all in one convenient and friendly location. To facilitate access, the stores were aligned in a row with a sidewalk provided for easy passage in and out of the various businesses. A spacious parking lot adjacent to a major thoroughfare completed the simple formula. This arrangement is so familiar to us today that it is easy to forget what a marvelous innovation it once represented.
By the early 1960s, strip malls of varying sizes and aesthetic conceptions were mushrooming throughout the Phoenix area, steadily drawing consumers away from the traditional centers of shopping activity downtown. Examples abound, but the shopping center built for the Westown and Surrey Heights subdivisions in Deer Valley provides an exceptional example of a mid-century strip mall specifically established to sustain an early Valley suburban community.
The construction of these homes so far north of town raised some eyebrows at the time. There was very little development north of Northern Avenue, and the idea of building homes 3 or 4 miles further north was quite visionary in hindsight. The provision of a shopping mall was an absolutely essential element in luring home buyers to this relatively remote area in the open desert.
Ralph E. Staggs, president of Staggs-Bilt Homes and builder of the Westown neighborhood, owned the site of the proposed strip mall, which would be situated at the far eastern end of his new subdivision. With the Steves Brothers’ Surrey Heights homes beginning construction to the immediate north of Westown, the need for the shopping center was becoming increasingly urgent. Ground was broken in March 1960 on the northwest corner of the Black Canyon Highway and Larkspur Drive for what would become Westown Shopping City.
Grant and Leroy Malouf, owners of Malouf Construction & Development Co., signed on as the mall builders, developers, and leasing agents. The Maloufs recruited an interesting variety of prominent Valley contractors of the day for the project, including Arizona Sand & Rock Co., Bill Rouse Concrete, Pioneer Steel and Thomas Air Conditioning. The flagstone-laden design of the new shopping center was devised by Chandler architect Glenn A. McCollum.
Strictly speaking, Westown Shopping City was conceived as a double-sided strip mall, divided into the anchor stores facing east to the freeway with the smaller businesses aligned on the opposing side facing west, a slightly more sophisticated arrangement compared to most early Phoenix strip malls.
Westown Unit 1 debuted in a gala grand opening event on December 1-3, 1960, offering shoppers an A.J. Bayless supermarket, Westown Liquor Store, Westown Barber Shop, Mary Lee Beauty Shop, and Pepe’s Mexican Food. Unit 2 went up in early ‘61, adding a Ryan-Evans drug store and T.G.&Y. five-and-dime to the Westown line-up. The two units were separated by a walkway that would be lined with an array of smaller businesses attached to Unit 1.
Strip malls 50 years ago were far more likely to incorporate small local businesses than they do today, and so it was with Westown. The assortment of independent merchants doing business in this mall over the years was remarkable: Dino's Pizza, Sidoti Bootery, The Family Department Store, Cameo Cleaners, Westown Pastry Shop, G&E TV Repair, Westown Hardware, and The Bent Cover bookstore, to name but a few. Many of the proprietors were themselves residents of the Westown area.
For shoppers desiring a relaxing cocktail in the midst of their consumerism, Westown offered a pleasantly cozy tavern experience. Originally named “Stretch’s Westown Tavern,” the bar was soon rechristened “Amber Inn” and would so remain for the duration of the mall’s existence. Such was the success of the Westown watering hole that it was later expanded into an adjoining store unit to provide patrons with additional space dedicated solely to pool tables and the then-emerging phenomenon of video games.
The Westown shopping experience was completed by a handful of peripheral businesses that sprang up around the shopping plaza. Westown Medical Center, Valley National Bank, a Union Oil service station and the whimsically adorned Merry-Go-Round Nursery School all offered critical services to complement the merchants located in the mall proper. The strip-mall ideal of providing every imaginable business and service the community might wish to patronize was fully realized in Westown. Here was truly one-stop shopping.
Westown Shopping City was easily accessible from the adjacent subdivisions via sidewalks and surface streets, but the builders were naturally interested in luring customers from far beyond the realm of the Deer Valley communities. To this end they situated the large, iconic Westown Shopping City sign on the eastern fringe of the property. With its distinctive irregular 12-point star perched atop, the sign served as an effective advertising beacon overlooking the increasingly busy I-17 Freeway.
As the natural focus of a relatively isolated neighborhood, the mall assumed immediate importance as a center of community activity, hosting everything from political rallies and charity bake sales to 4th of July firework shows, an annual Halloween “Goblin Parade,” and a location for Santa to appear each December. The Phoenix Library dispatched its bookmobile to Westown each week for many years in the ‘60s and ‘70s, providing a convenient source of reading material for local residents. On a more fundamental level though, the mall in its early years was simply the obvious place for neighbors to gather, socialize and commune together.
Inevitably, the explosive growth of the northwest Valley rendered the old Westown center increasingly obsolete. With so many more shopping options appearing in the 1970s, including the nearby megamall Metrocenter, Westown Shopping Center, as it was now known, was luring fewer customers with each passing year. Some additional construction was done on the site during this period and some notable businesses added, including a Baskin-Robbins and Radio Shack, but the tide had irretrievably turned.
The major anchors began to drop out in the 1980s, and the Maloufs at last sold the center to the local Calvary Church, which gradually occupied and extensively remodeled the buildings. As their leases expired, many of the Westown businesses simply disappeared into history, although some long-time merchants like Amber Inn and Westown Barber Shop opted to close and relocate elsewhere.
The barber shop, which ultimately did business in Westown for over half a century, moved to a nearby strip mall in 1995 and prospered for another 17 years before finally calling it quits in 2012. Amber Inn continues to operate in its transplanted location on Dunlap Avenue, the last surviving business of the original shopping center.
Westown Shopping City had run its course, but the old strip mall served its original purpose and served it well. It provided the secluded residents of the early Deer Valley subdivisions with all the essentials of suburban living, and just as importantly, a common focus of socialization and community purpose. The mall delivered far more than a convenient source for groceries and dime-store merchandise -- Westown Shopping City was a familiar and reliable friend whose disappearance is still lamented by many local residents.
Calvary Church has wisely retained that iconic 12-point-star atop the reworked parking lot sign, a poignant reminder of the classic strip mall that once inhabited those enduring buildings along the Black Canyon Freeway and helped define the lives of some very lucky early Phoenix suburbanites.
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