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HARVEY, Ill. (CBS) — Demolition is finally underway at the Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, more than 33 years after the mall closed.
As CBS 2’s Kris Habermehl reports, fencing is up and wrecking crews are in place at the mall at 151st Street and Dixie Highway in Harvey. It will be torn down after a process of asbestos removal, which is expected to be completed in the next several weeks.
The mall is best known for a chase scene in “The Blues Brothers.” But when that movie was filmed in 1979, the mall had already been closed for nearly a year. In fact, the mall was only ever open for about 12 years; it has been shuttered for almost 75 percent of its entire existence.
The Dixie Square Mall opened in 1966, anchored by a Woolworth, a J.C. Penney, a Montgomery Ward, a Jewel store that only opened to the outside, and later a Turn Style discount store. A Walgreens, a Kinney Family shore store, a Fannie May candy shop, a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop and a Wurlitzer organ store were among the other tenants.
Crime around the mall was already becoming a problem before it closed. Among the incidents were a shooting in a robbery on the mall property, and the strangulation of a teenage girl who was lured from the mall by three peers.
Stores began closing in droves, and by 1978, only 20 were left. The mall shut down in November of that year.
But at that point, the most famous days of the mall still lay in the future.
In the summer of 1979, director John Landis rented out the mall for the filming of a police chase scene in “The Blues Brothers.” In the scene, Jake and Elwood’s blues mobile and pursuing Illinois State Police vehicles crash through the picture windows of several storefronts and mow down shelves and merchandise, leaving the mall in ruins.
Some of the storefronts in the movie were set up with false signs for Pier 1 Imports, Gingiss Formalwear and Toys ‘R’ Us, as well as for a Jewel store with an interior entry that actually had been the J.C. Penney. A man is famously seen buying a plush Grover toy at the Toys ‘R’ Us and asking the clerk, “Do you have a Miss Piggy?” when the blues mobile comes smashing through.
Parts of the empty mall were also used as space for the Harvey–Dixmoor School District from 1979 until 1981. But not much good happened there afterward.
With the mall completely abandoned, vandals began breaking in and stealing scrap metal. Rain and snow began entering the decaying building as structural elements were taken down, leading to an overgrowth of mold and further disintegration.
The empty mall also drew attention for gruesome crimes. Raymond Eaves was convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering a woman, Denise Shelby, in the old J.C. Penney Space in 1993. He was also charged with raping a developmentally disabled girl in the empty mall.
In more recent years, the mall has drawn urban explorers who have ventured inside and taken pictures of the ruins. Among the urban explorers’ discoveries was a sign for the fictional Toys ‘R’ Us set up for “The Blues Brothers.” There was never a real Toys ‘R’ Us in the mall.
But even the explorers admit that such activities are dangerous.
In a well-known feature on DeadMalls.com, urban explorer Ross Schendel describes going inside to discover a “mold smell (that) was so strong it made me dizzy and gave me a strong headache, so I went out,” as well as feral dogs that chased him around the property.
Major fires broke out multiple times at the abandoned mall. One fire destroyed what was left of the old Woolworth store in 2004, and another fire damaged one of the entrances in 2009, leading its roof to collapse.
But for many years, every attempt to have the mall torn down seemed to fail. In 2005, a deal was struck to turn the old Montgomery Ward into a showroom for American Kitchen Delights, and have the rest of the building demolished.
But that plan failed after the discovery that demolition crews had been ripping out asbestos and leaving it lying around wrapped in plastic. The mishandling of the asbestos resulted in a lawsuit by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
The central energy plant for the mall and part of the old Montgomery Ward were torn down in December 2005. In 2006, a new developer, John Deneen of the Emerald Property Group, bought the mall and made headlines in announcing its final demolition, but in fact, only the rest of the Montgomery Ward building came down.
Deneen also announced a $400 million plan to build a new shopping center with retailers such as Costco, Kohl’s and Old Navy, in what Harvey Mayor Eric Kellogg called “the miracle on Dixie Highway.” But after several contractors filed liens on the property, Deneen threatened the owner of one contractor with brass knuckles and a gun, and ended up pleading guilty to aggravated unlawful use of a weapon.
Other redevelopment plans at various points suggested turning the situe into a mausoleum, a new site for a ballpark for the White Sox, or a transportation hub and government offices.
Finally, in September, Gov. Pat Quinn said $4 million in federal funds had been earmarked to finally have the mall demolished. McDonagh Demolition won the bid for the demolition contract for $2.29 million.
If all goes as planned, the mall will be fully demolished by the spring.
The latest redevelopment plan calls for new commercial retail at the site, although no retailers are yet onboard. New construction is to begin in the summer.
The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.