posted 04/07/2002

Paul McAleer's Commentary:

When I was a kid, there wasn't a whole lot of Big Box Retail in my neck of the woods, in the near-west Chicago suburbs. For years, the only exception was the North Riverside Park Mall - until nearby Forest Park, IL, opened the Forest Park Mall.

Located on Roosevelt Road and Des Plaines Avenue, the Forest Park Mall was on an open plot of land in front of a Naval Academy Training Center and a Chicago Bulk Mail Distribution Center. It seemed a natural, as the intersection wasn't terribly far from the Eisenhower Expressway and public transportation.

The mall was a large, beige-and-white complex with two anchors at either end. There were two floors, but the lower level was very small and predominantly used for offices as well as washrooms. The two anchors at the opening of the mall were Venture, a variety store predating Target and Wal-Mart in this area, and Courtesy Home Center, a precursor to Home Depot. Courtesy is where my father and I would often go for home repair supplies, but the mall sometimes beckoned.

Major mall tenants I can recall from the get-go included Perry Drugs (which had an additional entrance independent of the mall to support longer hours), LaSaunne Jewelry, Lee's Jewelry, Gussini Shoes, Deb, RadioShack, Gift Horse (card store), and Tom Olesker Men's Clothier.

The mall's interior design was wood-and-brick, but there were skylights throughout - causing the interior to be quite light and airy for a mall.

A big event I can recall was the addition of the Forest Park Mall Theaters, and a proper food court. The annex was located just south of the Venture, and seemed well-planned. There was a separate corridor just for the food court, and a back entrance by the food court. The court featured no chains that I can recall, outside of 1 Potato 2. There was an ice cream parlor that looked like an old-fashioned one (taking a page from Farrell's?), and a variety of foods ranging from burgers and hot dogs to Asian cuisine.

On the mall's outlot, development started. Child World opened an enormous store on the northwest corner of land, close to the Roosevelt/Des Plaines intersection. And on the northeast corner, a Taco Bell was built. Child World was one of my favorite toy stores as a kid - it was just so big!

One holiday season, Spencer Gifts opened a very small store in the hallway on the way to the food court. The store couldn't've been more than 20' deep and was only for the holiday season.

There was a second rear entrance near Courtesy, but that end of the mall was woefully underdeveloped. There were two store locations that became permanently open to the mall, and during the holidays this became the Santa station for kids. The holidays also brought temporary tenant FIM, which sells pool goods in the summer, and Christmas goods in the winter; they only opened in the winters. TJ Maxx eventually came to the mall, too, and Old Country Buffet took up the old Gussini Shoe space.

The mall started to suffer setbacks, though. At one point, Venture remodeled its store, and closed off its mall entrance. It seemed odd - the entrance had been in place since the mall (and store's) inception. But it was impossible to enter the mall from Venture, causing less traffic.

Then, Child World was merged with another toy store before going out of business altogether. The Child World building was eventually demolished, but stood vacant for a few years. Once the building was leveled, a parking lot was paved over it and a Portillo's Restaurant was built on the northwest corner of the mall's land.

But Courtesy Home Center went out of business several years later - and that was pretty much the end of the mall. Name tenants such as RadioShack were going away, and while individual proprietors did initially flock in to serve customers, they succumbbed. Courtesy's store stood empty at the east end of the mall for years while the mall withered away. The food court was abandoned over time (I distinctly remember a time in which the mall housed one restaurant in the whole food court!) and the theaters were shuttered. The mall was never closed permanently, but outside of Venture and Old Country Buffet, there was little reason to go.

Forest Park temporarily housed its library in the mall's lower level, while a new facility was built. A Bargain Books store took up the old TJ Maxx location.

Venture closed its doors a few years ago, and the fate of the mall seemed to be up in the air. K-Mart took the space, though, and now their fate is up in the air. K-Mart still has their location at the west anchor's end of the mall, but there's a relatively new Wal-Mart located on the southwest corner of the mall's land. Talk about competition.

The interesting thing about the mall, though, is what happened after Venture closed. A sign was erected on the old Courtesy Home Center: "Living Word Christian Center." The old Courtesy was transformed into a church! The entire, enormous store was a very large auditorium as the Living Word Ministries took over the mall. The old food court and theaters were torn out - just that annex, though - to construct a new main entrance.

The entrance of the Center can be seen on the front page of their website - - and it's very impressive, given the eyesore of a mall around it. This now serves as the main entrance to the Center, but the mall's entrances are all still intact. I visited the mall in early April to see what was changed.

I entered the mall near K-Mart, near Old Country Buffet - which is still open. I noticed that the entire old food court annex was gone, although there were mall furniture tables all around me. I walked down the main stretch of the mall to find abandoned stores. Some were storage rooms, some were unused and closed, but many were converted into offices! The old Deb was a multi-purpose room; Gift Horse was a nursery for toddlers. The TJ Maxx was simply open for people to walk into. The old FIM was a classroom, and the old Courtesy entrance had been converted into standard doors for the (now-unused) auditorium.

Walking around the old mall was eerie. When I first entered, there were people in Old Country Buffet and I also passed two kids - but that was it. There was no mall security that I could see, and no one was opposed to my documenting the experience. This mall was dead and reincarnated as a church!

Only two other stores were open, both bookstores owned by the ministry.

Given that K-Mart may be gone soon, I wonder what will happen to that old anchor - or if the mall's main artery will still exist. A sign in front of the mall indicates that the mall is going to be "revitalized" by the new K-Mart and a forthcoming Dominick's (grocery store) - but that sign has now been up for years.

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