With the January 2015 announcement that Macy’s department store would be closing at Northland, former Oak Park Mayor Gerald “Jerry” Naftaly saw the writing on the wall for the struggling shopping mall in Southfield.
Macy’s, successor to Marshall Field and Hudson’s, was the mall’s last remaining anchor.
“I knew someone had to preserve memories of the place,” said Naftaly, who served 20 years as mayor starting in 1991 and served on the city council from 1977-1991.
A history buff, Naftaly decided that he should be that “someone.” He’d already proven his mettle by writing Images of America: Oak Park for Arcadia Publishing, now in its fourth printing.
Naftaly’s new book, Images of Modern America: Northland, tells the story of a delightful space to shop, work and hang out.
Since the mall’s opening in 1954, teenage girls have flocked to stores like Marianne, Albert’s and Baker’s to find cute clothes and shoes on 50-cent-an-hour babysitting pay. Lunch with girlfriends might consist of a tuna salad sandwich and hot fudge creampuff at Sanders, a Kresge submarine sandwich or a Hudson’s Maurice salad with its sweet pickles.
Northland started on a 180-acre site with 7,500 parking spaces. It was located north of the Greenfield-Eight Mile Detroit city limits. Lawrence Tech, not yet a university, purchased the original Clinton family farmland in the late 1940s, later selling to the Hudson-Webber family for Northland.
Victor Gruen, a Viennese Jew, was Northland’s chief architect. His innovative open-air, suburban shopping center, constructed for $30 million, was admired for its beautiful landscaping, fountains and sculptures.
Suburbanites visiting the center liked the convenient, self-contained shopping. Northland in its heyday was a small city, offering scores of retailers and services, including longtime optometrist Dr. Benjamin H. Stein.
The Northland run lasted 61 years. In April 2015, the city of Southfield purchased the property out of receivership for $2.4 million. One reason the mall couldn’t hang on was because better shopping options emerged.
Naftaly’s research began with calling attorney John Polderman, court-appointed to oversee the mall’s dissolution.
With Polderman’s authorization, mall manager Miles McFee allowed Naftaly to tour Northland in March 2015.
Naftaly gained “a better sense of the place and its history” as Southfield police escorts introduced him to tenants of shuttered stores preparing to relocate.
He joined a group visit a week later. Sheryl Goldstein Young of Commerce attracted eight participants via a Northland Facebook page.
They marveled at what they still remembered or had forgotten about Northland. “For those couple of hours, we were all teens again,” she said.
Young’s memories include DJ Gary Stevens hosting American Bandstand-style dance parties on Northland’s Concourse.
For his book, Naftaly utilized the Reuther Archives at Wayne State University, Detroit Historical Society, city of Southfield, the Oakland Mall Macy’s and clippings from a donor’s Northland scrapbook.
“Marty Weinstock from Radiant Signs suggested the Southfield sign inspector, who gave me a wealth of material,” Naftaly said. “I spent six hours scanning every one of their photos, including for Awrey’s and Puppy Palace.”
Archival records were important for his research. However, “the flood of August 2014 destroyed half of the archives stored in the mall’s underground tunnel,” he said.
Northland had an extensive service tunnel snaking under the mall. Trucks delivered merchandise to tenants. During the Cold War, the space was designated as a fallout shelter for 7,200.
In 1960, Northland paid $500 for the family of optometrist Dr. Harold “Doc” Roland to participate in a shelter manufacturer’s publicity stunt. They lived seven days inside an above-ground, 14-by-10-foot shelter without plumbing, refrigeration or air conditioning.
Marcie Roland Lebow of West Bloomfield, then 9, said her mother Rhoda (Cowen) Roland got them invited because of her work with public relations events at Northland, such as playing the Easter Bunny and Santa’s helper. With Marcie’s 13-year-old brother Marc, the family was on display as they ate canned food cooked on a hot plate, played games and slept.
“Mom wrote articles from the bomb shelter for the Detroit News and Free Press,” Lebow said. “She gave a daily account of what we did there.”
Many baby boomers fondly remember the Mummp, a non-alcoholic dance club for teens. It replaced the Northland Playhouse.
Professional photographer Todd Weinstein of Brooklyn and his Oak Park-based siblings enjoyed meeting musicians Bob Seger and Ted Nugent when their jeweler dad, Hy Weinstein, and business partner, Bernie Adelson, leased the building in December 1966. It closed after the 1967 Detroit riots.
The Mummp, under a geodesic dome, hosted ages 9-15 in the afternoon and later admitted ages 16 and up.
“The club had a revolving stage,” Weinstein said. “The Day-Glo psychedelic-patterned side of the stage featured bands like Scot Richard Case, Frijid Pink, the Shy Guys, Amboy Dukes and Jagged Edge. The Day-Glo striped side was where the greaser bands played. DJ Robin Seymour did Battle of the Bands at the Mummp.”
And the memories go on …
By Esther Allweiss Ingber, Contributing Writer
The Author And Book