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North Neighborhoods
State's first enclosed mall -- Northway -- celebrates 40 years

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

By Kelly Carr, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Jesse Hirko remembers Northway Mall in the early days. He remembers Woolworth's and the mall's popular bird cage.

He can tell you what stores and restaurants used to occupy which spaces.

Julie Ritz of Franklin Park runs up the stairs between levels of the Northway Mall in Ross during her regular morning exercise regimen. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

In the beginning, Hirko said, "they had everything."

The beginning was 1962, when Northway Mall became the first enclosed mall in Pennsylvania. It had started out as an open shopping center and was enclosed in a $10 million renovation by Community Research & Development Inc. of Baltimore, whose president wanted to design a mall that was geared to suburban families.

On Thursday, the mall on McKnight Road in Ross celebrated its 40th anniversary.

When it opened in 1962, it housed one of three glass elevators in the country. The mall featured a bird cage that contained a variety of birds for shoppers' amusement, and it had a 300-seat community room that was available free to charitable organizations. Its anchors were Horne's and Woolworth's. Today, stores such as Borders Book and Music, Old Navy, Value City, Dick's Clothing & Sporting Goods and Marshall's are its main draws.

"The weirdest part about the mall are the stories that everyone remembers," said Deborah Schell, Northway's general manager. "Everybody remembers this mall in the North Hills as a family mall. I think it's a place where people feel they can come and take their kids. "

Hirko, who just celebrated his 86th birthday, has been a frequent visitor since 1962 and still comes to the mall daily. He arrives around noon and gets his coffee from Mama Lucia's Pizza. The rest of his group usually joins him at the same table Monday through Saturday. Over coffee and pizza, they reminisce.

"At least I have a place to enjoy myself. This is a really nice mall," Hirko said. "Nobody bothers me here and it keeps me out of trouble."

Hirko is just one of the "mall walkers" or the "small mayors" as Schell calls them. A few similar groups have claimed other tables in the mall's food court.

In celebration of its 40-year milestone, the mall is hosting activities every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through August. The monthlong celebration includes a bird show from the National Aviary and live entertainment. The grand finale, which will include a car cruise and a free concert by Johnny Angel and the Halos, will be held Aug. 31.

A collection of photographs from Northway's early years is on display in the food court. Shoppers continually stop to look at photos of Woolworth's and the ribbon-cutting ceremony when Northway opened as an enclosed mall.

"After the mall opened in 1962, they used to celebrate every year," Schell said. "I came across some papers and realized we had been opened for 40 years in August. We decided to do things that would tie into the community. The celebration is a way of thanking them."

Northway underwent another transformation in the mid-'90s that included an upgraded facade, landscaping and the addition of tenants to offer brand-name merchandise at discount prices.

Two of the oldest stores, Northway Barber and Northway Shoe and Repair, have withstood the changes to the mall over the years.

Vince Marchese, owner of Northway Barber, has been in the mall for 27 years. Outside his shop, a classic red, white and blue barber pole hangs. Inside, Marchese can be spotted giving haircuts to lifelong patrons or walk-in customers.

Vince Marchese cuts Paul Borland's hair in his shop, which has been a mall fixture for 27 years. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

"In the barbershop, it's constant news. I have great stories to tell," Marchese said. "I hope I'll be here for another 27 years. I love dealing with the people."

Marchese's most memorable story about the mall is when a bird escaped from the bird cage, which was a popular attraction until the early '90s.

"The people who usually cleaned the bird cage left the door opened and one escaped into my shop," Marchese recalled. "I think it was a parakeet. They had to come back and retrieve it."

Just around the corner from Marchese's shop is Tony DeMarco's Northway Shoe and Repair. The store dates to before 1962, when it was part of the strip mall. In a typical year, DeMarco repairs about 10,000 pairs of shoes. He fixes each pair with little help, due to dwindling interest in the trade. Some of DeMarco's customers have been with him since he bought the store in the late 1970s.

"The mall hours kill me because it is seven days a week and I can't get any help," DeMarco said. "I don't think I have competition from many places. Shoe repair is unique. If you build up your clientele, they will stick with you."

DeMarco's shop is one example of why Schell isn't worried about giant Ross Park Mall a little down the road.

Schell and Northway's marketing manager, Terri Martin, believe the two malls complement each other.

"We both have a niche," Schell said.

"Ours is very destination driven," she said, explaining that Northway shoppers are generally looking for something specific.

Martin agreed. "We are more of a destination location," she said, adding that Northway also is more service oriented. "At Ross Park, shoppers also go there to socialize, browse, look around. They come to Northway in many cases for a very specific purpose."

Kelly Carr can be reached at kcarr@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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