By Mike Scott
To the unwitting, it doesn’t appear to be much: small chunks of concrete rubble, most smaller than a golf ball, filling a coffee cup. That rubble, however, holds a place of honor in Daniel Perez’s home, and in his heart.
It’s from the site of the Lake Forest Plaza shopping mall, the sprawling, cloverleaf-shaped retail mecca built in 1973 in New Orleans East in which he spent — and misspent — countless hours as a teenager. Even before it was torn down in 2007, the onetime largest mall in the Mid-South had been in decline for some time. Consequently, its demolition wasn’t met with many tears.
But Perez’s wife, Rita, had heard endless stories of his teenage escapades there. So, as bulldozers tore into the mall’s moldering, Katrina-fouled remains two years after the storm, she leapt into action, fueled by equal parts spunk and love.
“I came home and she said, ‘I got something for you today. I risked life and limb to get this for you,’” said Perez, now 43 and a fiscal manager for the New Orleans Fire Department. “And she gives me this CC’s Coffee cup and it’s filled with this debris. She said, ‘I hopped the fence on the construction site when they were tearing it down.’”
Perez, for one, misses the Plaza. And he’s hardly alone.
For the better part of two decades, the Plaza was more than a mall. Standing at the intersection of Read Boulevard and Interstate 10, it was for countless New Orleans East residents a de facto town square: a community center, a date-night destination, a workplace, an emergency baby-sitter.
“It was this giant monument to consumerism, but it was really a monument to socialization,” Perez said. “At one time, it was the center of a very cross-sectional, multidimensional community, very integrated. It was the center that everybody would go to, and you always knew somebody who was there. …
“If you weren’t exactly sure about your destination or what you were going to do, you went to the Plaza first. It was the first stop until you could gather your bearings and make plans. It was the Situation Room of socialization.”
Stacie Labat White knows the feeling. She lives in Las Vegas now, but ask her where she grew up and she’ll say “The Plaza.” She lived within walking distance of the mall, so she found herself there often, killing time in the food court, at the clothes stores, at the Plaza Cinema 4.
In fact, right after the mall opened in 1973, White rushed to get a work permit so she could get a job there, her first. It was at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour, the joyfully loud and charmingly old-timey joint known for its candy-store front and cacophonous birthday celebrations. It is easily among the more fondly remembered establishments in the Plaza, right up there with the Fiesta Plaza Skating Rink, which was nestled in the middle of the food court and which gave people in hot, humid New Orleans the only place to ice skate this side of Houston.
“It was really fun to go to work,” White said. “Happy.”
NOLA.com commenter “Suburbannaut” — who, like many fellow students at nearby Marion Abramson High School, worked at the mall after classes ended — remembers Farrell’s a little less fondly, writing: “My part-time job was at B. Dalton (Bookseller), which was across the hall from Farrell’s. All day we got to hear the loud bells, drums and whistles for diners’ birthdays. At times I’d be on the phone with a customer and the celebration would break out and the person on the other end would be like ‘What the … is there a party going on?’ ‘Yes, ma’am, every hour or so. Could you repeat the name of the author?’”
A photo of Farrell’s in The Times-Picayune archives backs up both sides of the story. In it, 10 Farrell’s employees, all wearing their company-issue straw hats, sport ear-to-ear grins as one lights the candle on a customer’s birthday sundae. To the right of the photo is the bass drum that would so often break the hushed tones that otherwise permeated the stacks at B. Dalton.
Second from the left and beaming along with everyone else, is White.
“It was just a fun place to work, but we also hung out there,” she said. “We took a lot of stuff for granted. We didn’t realize that, hey, these are the best times.”
When the Plaza was built in 1973 and 1974, it was a big deal. Like, 80 acres big. One million square feet of retail space big.
With construction costing $40 million, it was billed as the largest indoor shopping mall in the Mid-South. At its height, the facility’s shops and restaurants generated nearly 25 percent of the sales tax collected in Orleans Parish, according to a 2007 write-up in The Times-Picayune.
Many names familiar to local shoppers were tenants: Rubenstein Bros., Werlein’s for Music, Godchaux’s, Perlis, Gus Mayer. They were joined by dozens of relative newcomers to the local retail landscape: Fredrick’s of Hollywood, Spencer’s Gifts, Tape City USA, Brentano’s books, Sizzler Family Steakhouse.
All were arrayed in one of the mall’s four cloverleaves, with each cloverleaf boasting its own anchor store: D.H. Holmes, Maison Blanche, Sears and the Plaza Cinema 4. In the center was the food court and ice rink.
“The construction of it was so elegant, you could transfer yourself from one side all the way to the other side just by going through the food court — which was much more than a food court,” Perez remembers.
By the time the Plaza had fully opened, some 120 businesses, from All American Jeans to Zales Jewelers, had hung out their shingles in one of the mall’s cavernous, brown-tiled concourses. The dingy choice of color scheme was reportedly selected to attract shoppers’ eyes to the colorful store windows. That particular aesthetic fell out of favor, and out of fashion, relatively quickly. But once they built it, people came anyway.
“When the Plaza first opened up in the ’70s, my grandparents in Terrytown would drive there once a year and we would spend the day there,” NOLA.com commenter DebbieInLuling wrote. “It was a big deal for them to make this drive.”
Ask those who remember the Plaza about what stands out most in their memories when reflecting on the mall, and you’ll get a varied list of stores, although maybe 10 or so crop up more than most: the Space Port and Tilt video arcades, Orange Julius, Spencer’s, the Record Bar.
The one thing everybody seems to mention, though, the one establishment that is always identified with the Plaza, is the one that functioned for so long as the heart of the mall: the skating rink and surrounding food court.
“All the time, ice skating,” David Guas says immediately upon being asked what he remembered most about the mall. “For me, our parents would drop us off, pick us up eight hours later. It was a place to literally hang out. If we weren’t hanging in the food court, we were going to Spencer’s.”
Or, as with so many young people raised in the East, they were clocking in at one of the food court’s dozen or so eateries, from Baskin-Robbins ice cream to Corn Dog 7 to Flame-N-Burger to Pavone’s Pizza.
Guas’ paycheck came from Philly’s Cheese Steaks, which hired him in the early 1990s. It was the New Orleans native’s first experience in food service. As it turns out, it was also the start of what would become his career. From there, he went on to culinary school. By 1996, he became pastry chef at the Windsor Court.
Now a celebrity chef and cookbook author who hosted the Travel Channel series “American Grilled” and who has been a frequent guest on NBC’s “Today,” Guas also owns and operates two locations of the Bayou Bakery Coffee Bar and Eatery, in Arlington, Va., and in Washington, D.C.
“Food was always a part of my life, growing up in my life,” Guas said. “But as far as thinking of it as a career, working in the Plaza and making cheesesteaks, that’s where it started.”
During operating hours, the ice rink and food court were so popular among shoppers that former Plaza marketing employee Carolyn Mayo remembers making an effort to draw shoppers out into the mall’s four cloverleaves, where the bulk of the retail shops were. That meant scheduling all manner of special events, from fashion shows to concerts to celebrity appearances.
At one time, the “Sesame Street” gang showed up. Visits from soap opera stars were frequent. Will Wheaton of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did a late ’80s personal appearance. Perhaps most notably, the second-season cast of “Saturday Night Live,” including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and others, showed up for a rowdy group appearance at the mall in 1977 while in town for the show’s Mardi Gras special that year.
“The energy in that place was just something else,” said Mayo, who was hired right out of LSU by mall manager Sizeler Realty in 1979. “And it really extended into those four pinwheels, because while the skating rink was the center of everything, and the food court, there was so much action going on up and down between the D.H. Holmes wing and Maison Blanche. We had to work at moving things around from a promotional standpoint.
“While we were providing entertainment, we were really trying to drive business to the tenants,” she said. “That’s why you would have shows at each area of the cloverleaves: because you were trying to look to drive people there. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and, oh, my Lord, back to school — huge time.”
Mayo, who grew up in New Orleans, still works in marketing, for the locally based Peter Mayer Advertising. She can’t help but look back fondly at what she calls “the best first job ever,” one that taught her lessons from which she’s benefited throughout her career.
“It all started with the Plaza, and frankly, really gave me the grounding to take me all the way through my career,” said Mayo, who still hangs onto a tiny sterling silver lapel pin shaped like the Plaza’s cloverleaf logo that she wore back in the day. “It taught me marketing. It taught me a little about advertising. It taught me about tenant relations. It taught me all those things that carried through.”
From the beginning, the Plaza was envisioned as more than just a shopping center. It was also envisioned as a catalyst for residential development in the city’s eastern suburbs.
Subdivisions and apartment complexes sprang up all around it. The Executive Plaza office tower went up across the street. Strip shopping centers and other standalone businesses sprouted like wildflowers.
But if the Plaza’s star burned bright, it also burned quickly. Not even twenty years after its opening, it was already on a downswing.
By the time Katrina hit in 2005, submerging much of the East in post-storm floodwaters, Dillard’s was the mall’s only remaining anchor tenant.
The Plaza era was over. Bulldozers tore into the building in 2007. Rita Perez hopped a fence. Then it was all hauled away.
“All these different cultures were intersected at the same time,” Daniel Perez remembers about the mall’s denizens. “Even if you weren’t inserted into a certain cultural subgroup, you were comfortable being around them just because you were constantly within an arm’s length of them.
“As a result of that, I wound up being not really in a clique — I think a lot of people in the East were like that,” he continued. “You would have friends who were preppies. You had friends who were pits. Then you might have had friends who had a whole grill of gold in their mouth, and then you had skaters, the BMX freestylers, the punk-rock dudes. All these guys, they all came to the same place. We were all there. We all saw each other, and we all rubbed off on each other.
“We had a broader consciousness just by walking around a mall.”
This story was originally published in May 2017 by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.