WEEKEND: Dixie Square
Famous mall focus of documentary
By Casey Toner - Herald Writer
A few weeks ago, Paul Mcvay’s name popped up in a Chicago Sun-Times feature series about the Blues Brothers, arguably the best film ever made in Chicago.
Mcvay rattled off a quote about the film and the article identified him as a documentarian of the Dixie Square Mall, the mall featured (and destroyed) in the legendary car chase.
So the Morris Daily Herald contacted Mcvay to see what his film was about and what makes the Dixie Square Mall so much more important and tragic than just its five minutes of fame in the epic John Landis comedy.
Morris Daily Herald: What’s the name of your film?
Paul Mcvay: Dixie Square. It stems from Dixie Square Mall. In 1976, they shortened it to Dixie Mall. That was about the time they did a huge remodeling. Two years later, it closed.
Morris Daily Herald: The mall, located in Harvey, is a fairly random place for someone from Grundy County to shoot a documentary. It’s run down, looted and empty, nestled in the heart of a severely economically repressed neighborhood. What sparked your interest?
PM: Back in June 2004, I happened on a photographer’s pictures, Chuck Janda. There’s a link to his site on dixiesquare.com. I was taken by his photographs — he photographs abandoned structures, drive-ins... it doesn’t matter. What struck me is that the mall was still standing. That was the beginning of the idea of the documentary. Chuck has been there every time we’ve been out to Dixie Square. He’s been out to the mall 10 or 12 times before I did. He showed me around the place Feb. 20.
MDH: How much more footage do you have to shoot?
PM: In light of recent events, I had hoped to have everything finished by January 2006. A big part of closing out the film is the destruction of Dixie Square. The film is about the history of the mall. Not so much the Blues Brothers — that’s a small part. It was a golf course before it was a mall. In light of recent events, the asbestos, it may or may not be finished by January.
MDH: Has Harvey sought any of national aid to demolish or sell the mall’s property?
PM: Do your research on Harvey and Dixie Square. They’ve been up and down every way you can think of. The biggest problem with this mall is that every few years there is the promise of a big pay day. At one point in 1980s, a developer had an idea to build a football and baseball stadium. They actually tried to woo the Chicago White Sox to move to Harvey. Over the years, developers have projected a new shopping mall, a mausoleum — every kind of project has been proposed for the land. Still, to this day, it’s an abandoned shopping mall. With what’s going on with the attorney general, it looks like it’s going to sit there quite awhile until it gets cleaned up.
MDH: You would think that the state would want it removed.
PM: Absolutely. Over the last six months working on this film, I’ve grown to consider a lot of these people who live in Harvey my friends. I feel for them. How would you like to go out in the morning and get your newspaper and look at this abandoned shopping mall that’s been there, closed, since 1978?
MDH: How long do you think the mall will be up?
PM: I was hoping that June 27, at the Harvey City Council meeting, the current developer would pass over a check and buy the property. He was supposed to purchase it Monday night. He was supposed to buy it for $500,000.
MDH: The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency put a cease and desist on demolition because testing has proven that asbestos is present in the mall. The attorney general, Lisa Madigan, has filed a lawsuit against the renovators of Montgomery Wards. They started pushing debris outside of the mall that’s tested positive for asbestos.
MDH: Would you consider the mall a tragedy?
PM: It was a tragedy from the start. It was only open for 12 years. In this day and age there are a lot of malls that have gone under for a variety of reasons — economics, changes in the area, the mall’s location. The original developers opened up a competing mall a few miles away in River Oaks which was, honestly, a better neighborhood. Do you want to go to a shopping mall and worry about getting shot?
MDH: What do you think is the most interesting element of your documentary?
PM: When the mall opened in 1966, it was a pretty big deal. It was a few months before Ford City opened. It was on the forefront of indoor shopping malls. Unfortunately, it was short lived.
MDH: What keeps you making your documentary?
PM: At this point, as much stress as I put on my life, the only thing that has kept me going and the reason I haven’t given up months ago is that on any day of the week, I get 10 to 15 emails about it. The emails provide me dixie square stories, information, contacts. This whole project, without people’s help, would not have been possible.
MDH: What kind of story do you hope to convey through your documentary?
PM: A couple of different things. A cautionary tale. Interestingly enough, right here, a few blocks from where I live, they opened up a strip mall. It’s been open a year and half and there are no tenants.
The reason why there are no tenants is different from Dixie Square.
It’s the same message though: they open up the mall and it looks great – it would make a great commerce center. But, nobody is going to go there and no one is renting stores there. It’s not on Route 113 and it’s set so far back. At the time Coal City doesn’t have the population so people won’t go to Coal City even if something opens up.
We almost have our own version of Dixie Square Mall in Coal City.
MDH: Have you spoken to [Blues Brother director] John Landis?
PM: Interestingly enough, I have not talked to John Landis. But I had Universal Pictures contact me a few months ago. They asked me if I would contribute some my footage of Dixie Square Mall to be used in the Blues Brothers 25th Anniversary DVD extras.
MDH: Did you say yes?
MDH: Why not?
PM: Obviously, that would be a great opportunity for a guy who never made a movie. But I get a little irate. Blues Brothers fans are a great group of people, but it was not something I wanted to be associated with. The documentary is about the mall, the people in Harvey, people that worked there, that shopped there, the whole political scene. What I hope (the documentary) to be is the all encompassing history that is that piece of land. The Blues Brothers being filmed there is such a small part of it, compared to the bigger story.
MDH: What have you found about the Harvey political scene?
PM: That’s half of the reason why it has sat abandoned after all these years. It’s been a volatile situation with the community. I can only put myself in the situation of the average Harvey citizen — the base pay, the average pay medium income of $13,000. That’s a hard town to live near and an even harder town to live in. And you have this huge structure sitting there, that’s not giving money to anyone who lives there including the city of Harvey who owns it.
MDH: Do you have any other documentaries planned?
PM: I don’t like to say anything, but we’ve talked about doing a documentary about the Ford City Mall. We have quite a few relatives who work there. My grandfather was general manager there. My father did some duty there. That’s a possibility.
MDH: Why shopping malls?
PM: That’s just been one idea that’s been shown out there. The film isn’t even finished.