Analysis: An Eastfield of Dreams of What Had and Might Have Been…
SPRINGFIELD—The Eastfield Mall is no more. It closed Saturday, July 15, with little fanfare save a sendoff for its mall-walkers the day before.
A week before the end, its glory days were clearly long gone. Many storefronts had been vacant for months if not years. The mishmash décor of post-war optimism and subsequent 80s renewal were a reminder—haunting?—from its past. Eastfield lacked the ambition of the Holyoke Mall, but fit its moment. But much like many shopping centers of its ilk and vintage, its fate became ruin and then demolition.
Still, the Eastfield Mall had represented modernity and the future. Opened eight years after population peaked in Springfield, it was an avatar for the city. The errors and omissions of mid-century America asphyxiated cities like Springfield and its downtown with the car, big lawns and asphalt moats. Eastfield, nonetheless, was evidence Springfield could adapt. But the sirens of nostalgia proved more appealing, driving the city to serial neglect of the mall and its Boston Road neighborhood.
To be clear, the story of Eastfield has occurred countless times over as the post-war retail giants failed and Amazon’s empire grew beyond the reach of any sunset. Enfield Square’s precipitous decline mirrors Eastfield’s and began earlier. Springdale across from Eastfield became a Lowe’s and Stop & Shop. Fairfield Mall met the wrecking ball long ago. The Berkshire Mall emptied.
In one way, Eastfield, and the Boston Road retail corridor, was a victim of a positive turn for the city overall. A proposed beltway through Forest Park and 16 Acres from the interstate would have given the mall direct highway access but wrecked Springfield’s cityscape as badly as I-91 had. But that omission for the greater good did not kill Eastfield.
Rather, the tragedy with Eastfield lies more in the city’s failure to focus on the mall and the broader area. Countless administrations, including the current one, have obsessed over bringing people into Springfield, but somehow the city’s frontier with Ludlow and Wilbraham did not count. It was downtown or bust. The result was more deflation of the commercial tax base which now residential taxpayers bear.
Millions in public money have been pumped into plot after plot for downtown. For Eastfield, the most significant subsidy was probably the state-supported COVID-19 testing site in the parking lot. Briefer still was the mass vaccination facility that jabbed folks where five years before Macy’s sold jewelry, cosmetics, and perfume.
The failure to ever prioritize what had become the city’s largest retail strip predates when the Steiger’s mothership and Johnson’s Bookstore succumbed but to history and the congressional record. Save a much-needed redesign of Parker Street and Boston Road, there was little thought let alone attention for the taxpaying corridor and its three-anchor store retail citadel.
City lore tells of proposed Eastfield expansions and improvements that officials put off to tend to the resurrection of downtown’s glory days instead. Rather than developing the strategic ability to adapt that Eastfield exemplified, City Hall overlearned the tactics employed for the suburban landscape. It insisted on a remaking downtown into a Frankenstein of the 60’s futurism Eastfield embodied merged with the comfortable memories of when downtown thrived like 34th Street in Manhattan. Folly, in other words.
But on the penultimate Saturday for Eastfield, there were no anchors. J.C. Penney, ever in turmoil, bailed a decade ago. The mall’s former owners once planned to redevelop its building, but never seemed to figure out how to execute except seeking a since-expired demolition permit. Macy’s, which replaced Filene’s, which had stepped into Steiger’s former outpost, bailed in 2016. The movie theater shuttered during the pandemic, the operator allegedly trashing the place on the way out. The ex-theaters were briefly temporary court venues.
The greatest fall was Sears. Opening before the mall itself, it had once been a beehive of industry. Nearly every arm of the vast post-war Sears empire had a branch there. As those businesses folded and a parade of incompetent leadership cycled through headquarters in Chicago, the store itself withered. It closed in 2018. While most of the Eastfield Mall will vanish, the ex-Sears shall remain for now.
The property lies fallow and overgrown, its concrete bunker and underground loading dock returning to nature like a department store near Chernobyl. The mall entrance was bricked off. Doors have plywood or are papered over. With no alternative future announced, this bit of ruins porn shall endure at Eastfield.
Inside the mall, the last gasps of commerce hummed for the few souls wondering thereabout. Three eateries endured in the food court. The pizza place was long gone. Donovan’s, bound for Holyoke, by far seemed the busiest, a healthy complement at the bar. Televisions hoisted high above displayed nothing but notice that they had no signal.
A mini-arcade still flashed and blinked across from where the much larger video game haunt had been. The center fountain had lasted far longer than those in other malls. Holyoke, Westfarms and others dumped the fixtures decades ago. One week out, Eastfield’s was dry.
Local mainstays like Hannoush, which had built out a full-operation in the quiet ex-Penney’s wing, were still shutting down. They relocated across the street. The Mall Barbershop had vacated. The faint outlines of Payless Shoes, which went bankrupt in 2019, were still visible. Recent departures like Old Navy still looked like themselves, sans product, between the paper on the windows. Still operating were the odd nail salon and independent clothing store.
Stranger still, were the ghosts of retailers who had packed up long ago. CVS had evacuated malls like Eastfield nearly two decades ago. But its mid-90s, silvery mall-facing façade endured, even though a string of dollar stores had lived there in the intervening years. For those that remembered Waldenbooks, its old slot looked just familiar enough to imagine the bookshelves.
For all these syrupy lamentations, the Eastfield Mall was not the Parthenon or the late Penn Station. Its fall to progress would be acceptable were its vast tract of land assured to transform into something grander and timely. Originally, there was talk of new retail but also apartments and room for other services. A lifestyle center in the vein if not the tax bracket of Blue Back Square in West Hartford.
While the new developers, Onyx Partners, “contemplates” those things, the only certainty for now is a new retail open-air structure. Something like a Target would be welcome and some officials have implied it will come. Onyx has promised something that improves the corridor and the tax base, but it is setting expectations modestly. That is for the best. Springfield, after all, is a museum of gamechangers that ultimately left the score unchanged.
Whatever success the redevelopment brings, the saga of Eastfield Mall is still more cautionary tale than redemption story. While city officials came out swinging in the mall’s last moments, 36 Court Street’s neglect looms everywhere. That is not altogether surprising though.
The city has long subordinated its unique neighborhoods to more politically valuable things. Eastfield’s and its environs’ albatross was that it could not deliver the headlines, ribbon-cuttings, and adulation as whatever the latest scheme for downtown was promised to do.
In the end, of course, all Eastfield could offer was gratitude to its customers.
“Thank you for shopping for 55 years,” the mall’s electronic signboard flickered, days before Eastfield went dark.