The once-bustling Northridge Mall supposedly died in 2003, but it's still on a ventilator 17 years later. Milwaukee wants to unplug it.

Photo by Rachel Semanski

The city wants to pull the plug. Kill the thing. It’s doing more harm than good. Somebody died here. The death toll shouldn’t rise above one.

But a nebulous, name-changing, promise-unfulfilling Chinese company with unclear intentions is keeping the ventilator plugged in.

Northridge Mall is a husk.

The shopping center, nearly 50 years old but dormant for the last 17, is covered in graffiti. Shattered glass covers most of the floor. Waste accumulates in the massive, vacant parking lot. Asbestos is a concern. Mold grows and stale water rests where moviegoers once munched popcorn and watched blockbusters like Jaws in the mall’s heyday or Scream in 1996 – not long before the theater shut down.

The city has raze orders, yet to be enforced, nailed to the boarded-up entrances.

The 975,000-square-foot building is in such a state of disrepair that it’s become a danger to the public, and it probably would cost more to repair than to demolish, according to City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux.

The current owner of the mall, Black Spruce Enterprise Group, disagrees. It’s suing the city, claiming that Northridge still has potential and is not a public nuisance – even after a handyman contractor hired by Black Spruce, 37-year-old father-of-six Victor Diaz, died on July 22 after being electrocuted by a damaged transformer outside the mall. His family said the shock was delivered when he closed the door panel of a vandalized electrical box. The district attorney was conducting an investigation in July, but nothing has been heard about it since then. “They created a public nuisance,” Marcoux says. “That was a function of the ownership not keeping the mall in a safe fashion.”

Black Spruce has said it wanted to turn the building into a kind of expo facility for Asian companies to market their wares to American companies. Unsurprisingly, that plan never took shape.

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Bill Penzey, the CEO of Tosa-based Penzeys Spices, tried to purchase the mall to set up a new hub for his spice retailer. But while negotiations were ongoing, he was ghosted like a bad Tinder date.

The Wisconsin-based attorney for Black Spruce did not respond to numerous requests to be interviewed for this story.

The city has lost its faith and its patience.


IN OCTOBER 1987, 15 years after the mall opened, Northridge’s occupation rate was a strong-ish 90%. But then anchor tenants started faltering. Ownership changed. Fewer and fewer trendy stores could be found there.

Marcoux says it was the northern suburbs that killed Northridge. He’s quick to point out that “There were no big box stores in Mequon” when the mall opened. While the city’s population has fallen since the early ’70s, the northern suburbs have grown. Menomonee Falls added 4,000 people, Mequon’s population has increased by more than 50% and Grafton’s nearly doubled. And they all added shopping options that kept suburban consumers closer to home.

The struggling mall quietly passed away in 2003.

Today, the only business in operation at Northridge proper is a Menards in the space of a former anchor. It shares a wall with a retail corpse.


THE MALL WAS mostly ignored for a decade, except for “urban explorers.”

In December 2017, YouTuber Casey Neistat got permission to turn Northridge into a “Winter Wonderland” for kids from the Milwaukee Boys and Girls Club. The video has more than 7 million views.

Marcoux says break-ins became more popular after that. Another YouTube channel – The Proper People, an East Coast-based duo who make their living exploring and recording abandoned spots – uploaded a 26-minute HD video last September showing what’s left inside. More than 2 million people have watched that.

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The Proper People, who spoke with MilMag for this story but didn’t provide their full names for fear of legal action, came to the same conclusion as Marcoux. “The area probably can’t support a mall anymore, though, otherwise it wouldn’t have gone out of business in the first place,” one of the explorers says in the video.

The YouTubers spent one day filming last spring. As they were wandering, guards were simultaneously boarding up the entrances, part of Black Spruce’s promise to crack down on trespassers. The Proper People soon realized their original exit had been blocked off while they were hiding from the fuzz. While searching for a new exit, they chatted with a worker. They think it was Diaz. You can hear their conversation at the end of the video, and the brief glimpses of the man in the video sure look like Diaz.

He died a couple months later.


Photos

In September 2019, I had the opportunity to legally take pictures inside the abandoned Northridge Mall on Milwaukee’s North Side. I was interested in its nostalgic late 20th-century interior designs and the history it holds, acting as a time capsule apart from the dynamic world surrounding. What’s shown inside is the illusional beauty of time standing still, a time not too long ago in which shopping spaces were physical, not virtual.

Rachel Semanski

Once a thriving destination for people to gather and socialize, Northridge’s main lobby now sits empty.

Soda and popcorn haven’t been available for years at the mall’s theater, rendering its signage a false advertisement.

Shards of glass are scattered throughout the mall, as many of the store windows have been shattered by vandals throughout its years of abandonment. More glass is on Northridge’s floors than in its original windows.

Two empty chairs are dwarfed by a towering wall.

Some vandals use the drywall shielding many of Northridge’s storefronts as a canvas.


 

 


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s February issue. 

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