In 1976, when we told family and friends we had bought a house in Blaine, they reacted as if we were taking up residence in the Arctic Circle.
Our neighbors in St. Paul wondered at our brashness in striking out so far from the comforts of the cities.
As it turned out, someone significant had beaten us to the exurbs.
In 1965, Robert Muir, a California businessman, looked down from a plane at the pattern of highways near Old Highway 10 and University Avenue, imagined future population growth and bought a large parcel of lightly used land.
In October, 1972, a few months after the Watergate break-in and a few years before the disco craze, in the era of wide collars and leisure suits, Northtown Mall opened for business.
It took gumption to locate the metro area’s third largest mall, and only its fifth enclosed mall (after three of the Dales and Apache Plaza), in an area still relatively untouched by Twin Cities population growth.
Blaine had just over 20,000 people, clustered mostly on the east and west borders, and a lot of undeveloped territory in between.
Some people say, “If we build it they will come,” but Northtown not only had to wait for them to come; it also had to wait for them to move there.
The mall didn’t lack for showmanship. Peggy Lee attended the grand opening.
Among Northtown’s earliest workers were plant waterers and fish feeders to tend to the tropical alcoves and the sunken aquarium in front of the present location of Best Buy.
It took a few years for the mall to pick up, but in the 80’s and 90’s it became a place to be. I heard it referred to as “downtown Blaine.”
There were car displays, model railroads, seasonal glass blowers, and dance and music shows.
Tweens and teens asked parents to drop them off to while away a Saturday or a weekday evening, socializing with friends and spending their quarters in the video arcade at the entrance near the west parking lot.
Northtown is now 40 years old. Banners proclaim “40 Years of Fabulous.” If it were a person, it would be entering middle age.
There no longer are tropical gardens or large aquariums. There’s no Woolworth cafeteria and, outside of the food court, there are few places to sit. People come to shop more than to hang out.
It takes some effort to remember how things used to look. For example, there was a 30- foot replica of the Titanic, used in a 1953 movie, where the Becker Furniture display windows are today. In 1985 it was donated to a museum in Massachusettes.
There’s now a parking lot where Ward’s used to be; it closed in 2001 and its structure was demolished in 2007.
If you look through the inside window into L.A. Fitness, you can see where the old hallway led to an exit, past the pet shop on one side and the two-story Pascale’s Restaurant on the other.
It seemed odd, and stills seems odd, that Pascale’s would have a second floor in what was for the most part a one-story mall.
Around the turn of the 21st century, Anoka County retail began to change. Big boxes and their accompanying small stores sprang up along Highway 65.
The Riverdale area grew from an empty stretch of suburban highway to a retail colossus.
Northtown became just one of many options for shoppers. Many of the businesses that anchored it are defunct or in decline: Wards, Woolworth, Powers, Carson Pirie Scott.
In historical terms, enclosed malls are not old.
The first one, Southdale, appeared in Minnesota less than 60 years ago.
They don’t have the cachet they once had, when they were a place to park the car and spend the day.
The young and large open shopping centers don’t provide the same experience. There’s nowhere there to hang out, to meet friends, to see and be seen.
We go there because that’s where the stores are now, but many of us would rather go to a middle-aged place like Northtown, where we used to dawdle over a KarmelKorn and watch the fish.
Editor’s note: John Evans is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.