Saturday, February 4, 2023

The Good Old Days: Riverchase Galleria

I know the good old days were not always better. We wax nostalgic about things “the way they used to be” when the reality was far less wonderful. Don’t you think George Washington would have loved our dental care today? No more ill fitting hippo teeth for him. Even Outlander’s Claire Fraser, who chooses to go back in time to be with Jamie, admits that she misses “toilets…that flush”. We really do take things for granted. 

But some things truly were better. For instance, the old John’s Restaurant in Birmingham was far superior to John’s City Diner. They say the Chop Suey Inn on Green Springs sells egg rolls similar to the ones Joy Young’s used to make, but let’s face it…nobody does it like Joy Young’s. Remember shopping malls? Brookwood and Century Plaza? You could shop no matter what the weather, because everything was inside, air conditioned in the summer, heated in the winter, protected from rain all year. Lots of upscale shops and places to eat. 

I recall the first time I ever saw a shopping mall. It was the Cherry Hill Mall in Cherry Hill, NJ, the first indoor, climate-controlled shopping center east of the Mississippi River. I was only about 8, but I was enthralled. It was so pretty, with fountains, exotic birds, tropical plants, a movie theater, a children’s amusement park and all the stores my 8 year old self could imagine. I was a fan. 

When Riverchase Galleria in Hoover opened in 1986, my friends and I took personal leave from work to go see it and shop to our hearts’ content. There was a jeep sticking out of the front window of the Banana Republic and a carousel in the center of the food court! Parisians, Rich’s, Pizitz, The Mole Hole, United Colors of Benneton, J. Jill, Ann Taylor, Waldenbooks, Godiva Chocolates, Häagen-Daz Ice Cream, and Boardwalk Fries were all part of the Galleria experience at one time or another. The attached Wynfrey Hotel was marble and brass elegance. 

But then some genius told us malls were passé. Shopping should be done in a bunch of different stores stuck together with sidewalks. That’s all well and good when the weather is nice, but what about when it’s nasty? Who wants to go then? Speaking of nasty weather, my husband and I were stranded in the Wynfrey for four days during the blizzard of ‘93. I was so excited. Trapped in a gorgeous hotel, eating every meal in the hotel’s nice restaurants. The only downside was when I realized I couldn’t just walk out into the mall. Even if the stores wouldn’t be open, I still thought I could get some exercise by power walking through the empty mall. I’d have it practically all to myself! But, no. There was a cage wall pulled down between the Wynfrey and the Galleria. Whatever. At least I wasn’t stranded on the sidewalks of an outdoor shopping complex. 

But, I digress. Back to the demise of indoor mall spaces. The experts had spoken. Outdoor shopping was in, indoor shopping was out. Outdoor malls like the Summit in Birmingham and Bridge Street in Huntsville began to draw stores and crowds away from the old malls. Lots of indoor malls shuttered, some reimagined into different kinds of spaces. Some torn down completely. Even the beautiful Riverchase Galleria became a shadow of its former self.  Online shopping took its toll. Safety became an issue. Stores struggled to stay in business. The building, however, is still amazing. The good bones are there. The gracious old Wynfrey is now Hyatt Regency. The elegant decor of brass and marble and extravagant floral displays are gone, replaced with a look that’s sleek, modern, modular and unremarkable. But at least the hotel was saved. Not quite the 5 star experience it once was, but still a Hyatt. The shopping has turned into copy cat collection of shops selling sneakers, baseball caps, athletic jerseys, and t shirts, along with tacky kiosks. I swear there’s one selling something that looks like crocs with golf balls stuck all over them. A few higher end retailers, like Mountain High Outfitters, Sephora and Cindy’s Cinnamon Rolls remain, but even the big flagship stores aren’t what they used to be. Macy’s is not as remarkable as it once was. The retailer has had financial battles in recent years. Birmingham’s own Parisians, which is the standard all department stores are measured against in my mind, is gone, replaced by Belks, which just can’t measure up. The quality of the clothes is lower, the service inferior and the displays are often messy, with clothing thrown about on tables and on the floor and no one to straighten them up. The mall faces tons of challenges, but I think there’s hope. With a little imagination and a lot of effort by the city leaders and the property owners working together to figure out how to attract more exciting flagship stores and spaces that promise one of a kind shopping,  interesting experiences and top drawer events, I believe the Riverchase Galleria could again be the reason folks head to Hoover. I hope so, because sometimes I miss the good old days. 

Three Friends and a Fork
Three Friends and a Fork

This is a short biography of the post author. Maecenas nec odio et ante tincidunt tempus donec vitae sapien ut libero venenatis faucibus nullam quis ante maecenas nec odio et ante tincidunt tempus donec.

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