The place that had everything

By Trevor Ballanger

The Illinois mall that provided the setting for the famous Blues Brothers’ car chase scene is slated to be demolished.

After being abandoned for more than 30 years, the Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Ill., has weathered its last winter—barely.  Demolition contracts have been processed for the site and will be underway later this January. Though the demolition itself hasn’t yet started, preliminary steps have begun. Fencing around the site and asbestos removal now foreshadow the event.

After opening in the late 1960s, shopper traffic in the mall steadily declined because of the location’s rising crime rate. The mall eventually closed down but was briefly reopened and modified in 1979 for one of the most famous car chases in film history. During the filming of a scene in “The Blues Brothers,” actors John Belushi and Dan Akyroyd careened their way through its interiors, shattering glass and perpetuating the deterioration of the structure.

The 1974 Dodge Monaco they drove would later become known as the infamous “Bluesmobile” in the films. It practically blows Toys R Us to smithereens, but Jake (Belushi) can’t help but point out, “This place has got everything,” while the five-0 is hot on their tail.

The movie was a success, but would accelerated the deterioration process of the building in which it was filmed. Its demise, however, has become somewhat of a treasure to artists and architectural enthusiasts. California-based artist Brett Tracy came to Chicago to receive his Masters of Fine Arts at University of Chicago. He said he has put forth an effort to connect and understand what has happened at the mall by doing extensive photographic and film work at the site that documents the mall’s life as a ruin.

Today, the skeletal building sits preceriously on a sheet of ice, its concrete foundation cracked from the force of invading weeds and plants. Rusted steel pipes mingle with distorted wires and chipped graffiti. Faded signs still hang in doorways where stores like Toys R Us and Pier 1 Imports were once brightly lit.  The rest remains dank with wet gravel and shards of glass.

“My interest is in that of the ruin,” Tracy said. “This is what my work is about. It’s the suggestion that the remains of the structure might have what I refer to as ‘ruin value,’ which is the ability to transmit the ethos of the industrial age to the cultures of the future.”

Ed Paesel, executive director of South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, said it’s the danger and stigma of the structure that overrides any artistic attraction. He said he can understand the emotional attachment some fans of the movie have to the mall but added they would feel differently about its removal if they had to live near it. According to Paesel, the site has become a symbol of economic decline and poverty for the south suburbs.

Sandra Alvarado, public relations director of Harvey, said the city is economically challenged. She said stressing the importance of gainful employment has been a focus for Harvey’s Mayor Eric Kellogg and demolishing the mall will open up a corridor of traffic to the city and promote economic development.

More than a year ago, a state grant of $4 million was designated to the cause by the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to sustain the demolition project, but they wanted the SSMMA to also offer a grant and oversee the project.

Paesel said the Attorney General’s Office filed suit against the site’s developer because asbestos was being illegally withdrawn from the mall. Alvarado said getting the asbestos removed safely for the community was the main priority, as opposed to demolishing the building quickly with the asbestos intact. She said Kellogg had the patience to get the job done correctly without asbestos becoming airborne.

According to Paesel, the project is under contract to finish the demolition and cleanup within 182 days of the project being active. He said when the site is ready, the development of another commercial endeavor will commence. Although he expressed his understanding for any emotional attachment to the site, he said he is excited to see the area in a less dilapidated condition.

“This can be a symbol of the rebirth of the region,” Paesel said. “Those of us in the area, especially the people of Harvey, want to see this go and open for redevelopment.”