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Your Village: What was the Old Capitol Mall like before it had so many UI offices?

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The Old Capitol Mall in its pre-UI office days. — photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of Thomas Dean

I would like to know more about the Iowa City Old Capitol mall. Was it always a mall? What was the 2nd floor used for before the University of Iowa put their IT up in there? — Tyler, Iowa City, via the Your Village feature on Little Village Magazine’s homepage.

The Old Capitol Town Center, to use the name the place has had since 2000, started out as a standard mall. It opened under the name Old Capitol Center in 1981, bringing a little slice of suburban-style shopping to downtown Iowa City. It wasn’t until 1995 that it fully embraced its malliness, and changed its name to Old Capitol Mall. But by then, its best years as a mall were almost behind it.

The anchor stores for the mall were JC Penney and Younkers. It had, at various times, such American mall staples as B. Dalton, Zales, Musicland (which become Sam Goody), Claire’s Boutique and Foot Locker. The second floor featured a much-missed video arcade, Aladdin’s Castle. Like all good malls, it had a movie theater. And like almost every mall, good or bad, it had an Orange Julius.

Also like almost every mall, its natural enemy was a bigger, newer mall. That enemy arrived in 1998, when Coral Ridge Mall opened in Coralville. Not only was it bigger — the biggest mall in Iowa at the time — and newer, it had the one thing downtown Iowa City could never provide: plentiful, free parking.

To paraphrase a saying associated with Iowa: build it and they will come, especially if there’s free parking. Shoppers went to Coralville. Some Old Capitol stores followed. JC Penney did. Other stores died. Younkers finally closed in 2005.

Things looked so grim for Old Capitol that someone created a page for it on DeadMalls.com.

But during the time between the first quarter being wasted at Aladdin’s Castle and the posting of the premature online death notice, a lot of fond memories were created. The easiest way to get a sense of how people remember the days before the University of Iowa was the mall’s major tenant is to look at the comments on a post on the You Know You Grew Up In Iowa City/Coralville in the 70’s/80’s If… Facebook page.

Little Village asked, “Who has memories of the Old Capitol Mall at peak mall-ness?” and the answers came rolling in. Some wholesome (“Singing Christmas songs for school choir on the lower level in front of JC Penny.”), some slightly less wholesome (“We used to super glue coins on the floor of the glass elevator. Then just sit and watch people struggle to pick them up. Good times in the early 90’s.”). Some people remembered shopping victories (“Trying on prom dresses at Foxmore when I was in Jr. High! Real badass move.”), some remembered bargains (“$0.25 cookies at Cookies & More while I waited for the bus with Grandma!”), while others remembered jobs, good (“I worked at Musicland. Was a great time.”) and bad (“Worked at Toy Chambers for short while. Not my favorite job.”).

The Old Capitol Mall in its pre-UI office days. — photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of Thomas Dean

For a number of people what came to mind was that you could smoke in the mall during the old days.

But amid the fond memories, one comment stood out: Susanna Rodriguez wrote, “Was a teenager hanging under those fluorescents for years. If you were brown or black you could only wander in groups of 4 or less.”

Little Village reached out to Rodriguez, an Iowa City native who now lives in Chicago, to ask about her memories of going to the mall as a teenager in the ’90s.

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“We just hung out. Maybe there was shopping, but it was just a place for kids during the day to hang out,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview. “Somewhere to go, especially during the winter.”

“As a teenager, I saw a lot of racism. When I was with black friends of mine, it was common for us to get kicked out of the mall,” Rodriguez recalled. “Eventually one of the mall cops told us, you can’t be in a group of more than four or it’s considered gang activity. Even if you’re just walking around or hanging out on a bench.”

“Maybe they were afraid of gangs, but what I do know is that there was never any trouble about how many of us there were in a group when I was hanging out with friends who were white.”

During the mid-’00s the mall began taking on its current shape, as the University of Iowa started renting much of the empty retail space for office space. That has stabilized the mall, but apparently not enough for the folks at DeadMalls.com to delete its page.


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