Hope for Harvey

By HermineBloom

A large, eggshell blue sign still reads “Hardy Shoes” in white letters, but there is no enclosed space, as two of its walls have long since deteriorated. The ground is littered with weeds and debris and only a few fragile ceiling beams are visible, allowing the sun to cascade light on truly tragic urban decay—or the state of 80,000-square-foot Dixie Square mall in Harvey, Ill., for the past 30 years.

The south suburban mall at 151st Street and Dixie Highway soon to be razed, is best known for being the site of a car chase in the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers.” Opening in 1966, the mall existed as a thriving shopping center for years, but closed in 1979 because of economic struggle in the town.

On Sept. 23, Gov. Pat Quinn announced a $4 million federal grant to be used to revitalize Harvey, said Marcelyn Love, spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for the state of Illinois. Demolition of the mall is slated for late fall and should take at least four to six months, Love added.

Brett Tracy, a 30-year-old photographer and visual artist, has set out to document the “end of the life of a dead mall,” he said. And he’s not the only one interested in urban exploration for art’s sake when it comes to photographing the rotting industrial site.

Tracy, who began a bicycle-mounted research project titled “Illuminated Thread” 2 1/2 years ago, started a Kickstarter.com account in order to raise money to fund his “Last Days of Dixie Square” project.

“I see us at a very important point in terms of the industrial age, which has a bell shaped curve of growth and expansion,” said Tracy, who earned his Master of Fine Arts in visual arts at the University of Chicago. “At some point, this inflection point occurs and it becomes a process of contraction. The project seeks to document this moment in the industrial age where it switches from growth to contraction—and to take a snapshot of the industrial world as it’s still chugging away on fumes—breathing its last breath on cheap energy.”

In what he calls his first curatorial exercise since graduating, Tracy plans to gather photography, video, audio recordings and interviews to illustrate the mall’s history. He will also collect work from other artists to include in one cohesive book, or the centerpiece of the project, and compose a multimedia package from the project’s

digital output.

This “auditory, visual eulogy” is intended to span its demolition, and Tracy is raising money to pay for a digital single-lens reflex camera, transportation to and from Chicago, archival prints, DVDs and publishing 200 copies of the book “Last Days of Dixie Square,” according to the project’s Kickstarter profile.

As of Oct. 2, $6,365 has been pledged out of the $11,160 goal with a Nov. 1 deadline. That said, Tracy still intends to propose the package elsewhere if he does not reach his goal.

Longtime friend and former neighbor of Tracy, Edith Sauer Polonik, said the project appeals to her and will earn the public’s attention because it’s an illustration of healing in the destruction.

“This project is not only about the site, but it’s about a process that’s going on with a place that’s left behind,” Polonik said. “I think he delves very deep, and his eye is very good.”

Christopher W. Luhar-Trice published a book called “Dixie Square Images,” including more than 50 original photographs of the site in 2008. Likewise, Chicago-based artist Brian Ulrich’s “Dark Stores” photography series documents abandoned retail shops, Tracy said. Both artists have agreed to submit their work to Tracy’s project.

Jon Revelle, a 19-year-old photographer, is another artist Tracy contacted when looking to compile works of other artists using Dixie Square as a subject.

Revelle, a Grayslake resident, said he’s been to Dixie Square about eight times in the last two years to photograph. On his Flickr.com account, Revelle recounts each store’s history in detail as a caption for each picture, which led Tracy to believe he had fashioned himself an expert on the mall’s history.

“I wanted to see it as a kid,” Revelle said. “I first found out when they demolished Lakehurst Mall in 2004 and I read about it on DeadMalls.com. Then, I watched ‘The Blues Brothers’ a bunch of times.”

Now, he said it happens to be a favorite place of his—solely responsible for sparking his interest in urban exploring.

“With abandonment, you always see pictures of factories and churches and houses,” Revelle said. “Very rarely do you see a mall. Its location is most fascinating in that it’s right in Chicagoland. You’d think a place like that would never die, and the mall is a whole phenomenon around the country. You see malls shutting down, redeveloping and dying. Dixie Square is one of the extreme cases.”

Tracy and Revelle agree the region of Harvey is in dire need of redevelopment.

“It’s definitely a very good thing for the city of Harvey,” Revelle said. “That whole city needs to see new life. Dixie Square is probably the biggest reflection of that.”

According to Tracy, the mall remains empty because it has been traded around through the hands of developers and was ultimately too costly to demolish. The grant, which comes from federal disaster recovery funds because of flooding in 2008, has been a long time coming, as Harvey has alarming crime and poverty rates. Love said a mixed-use development will be built in place of the mall, though there are no immediate plans.

“If we’re finally knocking this thing down, it must mean the economic tide is changing,” Tracy said. “Whether that’s true or not is beside the point, but it will be this highly symbolic and highly ritualistic event, which is why I wanted to be there. It’s the end of its life as a dead mall for 30 years.”