Wednesday, March 10, 2010

South DeKalb Mall: Decatur/Candler-McAfee, GA

South DeKalb Mall will be unofficially celebrating 40 years of continued success this year.  That's not bad for a mall that has been largely written off since the 1980's because of white flight.  It seemed everybody had this mall on a dead mall watch list before one even existed, and it shows from the fact that of all of the malls from the city, this one has been updated the least.  It is all pretty amusing considering the mall is in a good location near the convergence of I-20 and I-285, it is visible from I-20, located on a main highway and survived both the white flight in the late 70's and direct competition from a bigger, newer mall in 2001.  Granted, I will say the mall has changed over time, however.  Its store offerings cater exclusively to an urban clientele in lieu of most major chain stores found at other malls.  That was not exactly a bad idea, however.  The mall was positively packed on a mid-week visit and looked to be over 80% leased.  With that, the four decade old mall seems to be aging gracefully.


DeKalb County decidedly has an enormous amount of malls.  Five are operating today with six briefly in 2001 before the county's first mall closed for good.  Because of this, South DeKalb is generally overshadowed today by enormous upscale Perimeter Mall and sprawling, contemporary Stonecrest.  South DeKalb first opened in 1970, built by Rouse Co. and originally anchored by a three-level Rich's, two-level JCPenney and Morrison's Cafeteria.  In addition, like Greenbriar a line of shops also front the mall that otherwise have no mall access.  This seems to have been typical up to 1970.  It was also originally very similar in layout to Greenbriar Mall with the notable exception that Greenbriar had a subterranean level mid-mall.  Both still hold true today.  When the mall opened, it was the third in the county behind Columbia/Avondale (1964) and North DeKalb (1965).  Of those first three it was the biggest and the best, but that changed within only one year when Northlake and Perimeter opened.


This image from AJC shows the mall on opening day in April 1970.  The mall will turn 40 next month.

 

  

Scenes along the main mall do not change much.  On bottom is the marble floor and on top, it looks like upside down dominoes.  I imagine this scene had much more appeal and presence when the mall included trees and fountains.  The first image shows the most detailed view of center court, which is nothing but elevated panels and a crossroads with the front and rear entrance wings.

The first six years of the mall were still enormous for the mall.  A new retail strip surfaced on Candler Road (GA 155) to accompany the new mall.  However, the honeymoon was over quickly was when the mall was greeted with enormous competition far too close.  South of Atlanta, Southlake Mall eroded the customer base, primarily white shoppers, that left for the newer, much larger mall.  Worse than that, as white flight progressed from the late 70's into the early 80's, the income levels around the mall dropped substantially.  In fact, the decline was substantial enough that it also adversely affected nearby Belvedere Shopping Center and Columbia (Avondale) Mall far more than South DeKalb.  By the late 1980's, South DeKalb emerged as mall catering predominately to an African-American clientele.

 

The food court is found along the front entrance wing.  While small and roughly built in, it did decent business.  This was probably added in the 1997 renovation.


Across from the front entrance/food court wing is this very narrow back entrance wing which originally served only as a back entrance.  Today, there is still an entrance there but straight ahead are the theaters that were added to the mall in 2006.  This was undoubtedly a boost to the mall and definitely the wing.  I do not like the kiosks there much, though: they make this look cluttered.

Through the 80's and 90's, South DeKalb was far from dying, but unlike other area malls it received no new anchors, upgrades or improvements whatsoever.  In fact, in the late 1980's the mall was struggling and people feared its demise.  While shoppers remained loyal, the owners and mall developers saw no interest in such modifications, making the mall roughly a cash cow.  Something happened during this time that was not expected, however.  What that was is that the area did not exactly turn into a ghetto.  In fact, it remained a mostly middle-class area that began to be recognized in the early 1990's for the reason that it was was curiously void of many white residents.  Owners Rouse Co. recognized this and began gearing stores to the market by 1993.  In fact, the local population is today the second most affluent African-American population in the entire United States.  Moreso, in 1998 it was discovered that the Rich's at the mall was the most profitable location in the entire chain.  Even with these kinds of demographics, the mall continued to get more and more run down.

 

  

Views of the northwest entrance (rear).  This is probably the most vintage part of the mall.  If it still had the linoleum faux brick tiles it would be impossible to distinguish whether this was 1970 or 2010.  While the floors look nice, I sure with they had not stripped out so much of what was nice from that time.
 

South DeKalb has a very basic layout, so it is not likely that the mall would ever have broad mass appeal even if the area was otherwise still the same as it was in 1970.  The mall tried for years to add a third anchor, but they pretty much had to settle on a theater.  The mall still maintained both of its original anchors for 30 years.

In 1996, the mall was sold and changed hands several times before finally landing in the hands of Thor Equities in 2003.  When it was first sold, the mall finally received a renovation a year later.  While nearly every other mall in the city had a new look by that point, it took 27 years for the mall to escape some of its early 70's trappings including the faux brick linoleum tiles and poor lighting.  All of that was replaced with new skylights, marble tiles and all dark woods removed.  South DeKalb Mall also gained a new name, "Gallery at South DeKalb", though that name has never caught on.  With renovations complete and the mall filling up again, the mall was finally getting some respect.  However, trouble was brewing for the once insulated community jewel with a brand new mall.  In other words, the rise in prosperity in the area led to demands for a better mall than South DeKalb had ever offered.

 

A store like this is not helping much if they are hoping to shake a ghetto image.  This store, which obviously came as a compromise since Burlington Coat Factory fell through, only takes up 25% of the original JCPenney space.  In contrast, Greenbriar has 100% of the old JCPenney occupied by Burlington Coat Factory.  Of course, Greenbriar also never had Stonecrest to worry about.  "Amazing Rooms" also took up this anchor for a couple years, and mall owners hoped to put something like Lifetime Fitness on the second level.

 

Macy's, however, has remained the true strength of the mall.  Without it, the mall would have died years ago.  However, the store is among the most popular in the region and maintained much of its customer base even after Stonecrest opened.  It was previously Rich's, which opened with the mall.


Another angle of the Macy's mall entrance with the court and northeast mall entrance wing to the right.  This once was full of trees with a fountain approximately where the circle is.

 

Flashback to day after Christmas 2004 with the original Rich's mall sign.  They sure made it look bland repainting that solid white.  The store inside, however, still looks straight up Rich's with flooring like the old Cobb Center store.  It has been renovated, but I am so glad they kept some of old Rich's intact in there.  I wasn't exactly enthused about the "renovations" of the other stores.

A look at the outside of Rich's from the east entrance.  They could do a better job maintaining this.  Water was dripping through a corroded light fixture under the canopy at the door.  For a high volume store, they could invest in it a little better.  Rich's made a beautiful courtyard on this store, though!


I am not sure who to credit this low resolution photo to, but I believe this is from the mall's own website.  This shows the Rich's mall entrance when the mall still had trees and fountains.  When were these removed?  It is a terrible shame that this is gone.

After completely reviving from the dark times the mall faced in the late 1980's, people in the area were once again fearful that the mall would die with Stonecrest opening.  Owners desperately tried to lure Magic Johnson Theaters to boost the dwarfed mall.  The new mall featured five anchors, two levels, a lifestyle wing, large food court and two of the anchors were the same as those operating at South DeKalb.  Unsurprisingly, this would have an effect, but the owners of Rich's did not forget how successful their store had been.  While JCPenney ultimately decided to leave as soon as the new store opened, Rich's stayed and continues to operate a three-level store.  Nevertheless, mall owners have had enormous difficulty filling the old JCPenney.  Burlington Coat Factory committed to the store, but it is not clear that they ever opened there.  When I visited in 2004, the store looked to have been closed for quite some time.  The store sat vacant for around five years before "Amazing Rooms" took over part of the store.  Amazing Rooms ultimately failed, and was replaced in 2009 with Conway, which only takes up 25% of the old JCPenney space.  Rich's also changed names in this period, becoming Macy's in early 2005.  Mall owners also added a 14-screen theater in 2006 on the back of the mall, effectively adding a third anchor tenant.  In addition, very aggressive marketing and direct community input have resulted in a mall geared very specifically for the community.  For this reason, the mall has remained extremely popular locally despite the presence of substantial competition and a less than ideal retail corridor surrounding the mall.

 

The theater opened in 2006, offering a boost to the one of the oldest malls in the region.  I am impressed on how they made the theater blend in architecturally with the rest of the mall!


Close-up of the outside entrance to the theater.

 

Outside of the former JCPenney in 2010.  A small off-center Conway sign marks the one tenant making use of the hulking brutalist monolith.  I would have loved to have seen this store before it moved to Stonecrest.  I bet like the Rich's it still looked vintage.

 

The front of the store as it looked day after Christmas 2004.  This has to be the most outlandish JCPenney ever.


 

A view of the south side of the JCPenney also in 2004.  At that point, it looked like it had been abandoned longer than it actually had.  I'm guessing this was a customer pick-up area?

  

Now for the outside of Rich's.  Yes, that is the classic green sign.  Those Rich's green signs were a thing of beauty for me.  I wish they had put them on all their stores to the end.


West entrance, big caddy and handsome green sign.

 

Closer view of Rich's than the photo above.  I believe this was the pic I once put on Wikipedia.  I wasn't sure if I removed it or someone else did.


The front of Rich's on a Sunday morning on January 9, 2005.

 

  

Night shots of the west and east entrance.  This would be the last time I ever saw this store as Rich's.  Photo taken January 14, 2005.

As the mall prepares to celebrate 40 years, I can say that whatever they did, it obviously worked.  Considering the mall could have died on two separate occasions, it proves that the success of a mall is just as much local support and management as it is location and competition.  However, I can honestly say that this was also the most vintage mall I have come across.  Despite its renovations, the mall itself still maintained many vintage trappings, especially along entrance corridors.  The domino-like hanging white panels from the ceiling which have been there since the mall opened.  The Macy's as well seems to be the last store to hold onto its true original design elements, which is actually quite pleasing to me since little remains today of the Rich's stores I knew.  While I do not expect to see any massive changes in the near future, I hope the mall remains just as successful when it reaches its 50 year anniversary.  It would be not just a victory for the mall itself, but it would be symbolic on many other levels as well.

 

South DeKalb Mall's road sign appears to have been there from day one.  I hope it stays there forever.  70's mall signs were simple, yet classy.  I think Rouse did all their mall signs in this style.  However, they do need to repair this sign a bit.  It is looking a little rough.

  

 

Both JCPenney and Rich's had auto centers at the mall originally.  While Rich's Auto Center is now Macy's Auto Center, the JCPenney ones were, of course, sold off in the 70's to Firestone.

  

View of the front entrance and somewhat of the outside shops.  The entrance is the most up-to-date part of the mall and sports its newer, though unpopular, name.  Only the local news stations call it "Gallery at South DeKalb".


Lengthwise view of the front of the mall.

29 comments:

  1. Too bad JCPenney left. The circa 63 Penneys logo fit the outlandish design of the store to a tee. Had a friend who worked at the Rich's in South DeKalb back in the 80's. I often asked her if she was afraid to work there, but she laughed and said we have security, plus the clientele is generally of a better demographic than most people suspect. Prior to that I was skeptical about venturing into this mall, yet had been into Greenbriar and Shannon malls on several occassions. At that time the mall was still vintage in its appearance, and to a degree, it's good to see that some of that has survived.

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  2. DeKalb is relatively affluent, overall, but the immediate area around South DeKalb is a mix, at best--lots of old garden apartments that have trouble finding tenants and 1950s houses that have been turned into neglected rentals. OTOH, it's recently attracted infill development targeting middle class African-American families and is in the path of gentrification from Decatur and East Atlanta. The immediate area has a surprising amount of undeveloped land, probably a legacy of development that stalled with teh advent of busing and white flight in nearby areas of Decatur and Atlanta. This area may eventually attract office or institutional development, which would help the mall and lift the residential areas. The idea of building a mall so close to Avondale/Belvidere (and to some extent, North DeKalb) was a dumb idea which probably handicapped it from the beginnning, although it was dominant enough to outlast its near competition and it probably will outlast North DeKalb. DeKalb and other jurisdictions around Atlanta are "developer-friendly" with little consideration of the future, which may be why Atlanta has a lot of ailing retail despite an economy that was pretty robust until recently. If the mall can hold on for another 10 years or so, it may see an upgrade as infill and gentrification build a stronger base. The kind of people drawn to places like Decatur and East Atlanta are much more willing to shop South DeKalb than the people who fled, although an upgrade to the nearby retail strips would help.

    I seem to recall another furniture tenant in the JCPenney (not "Amazing Rooms") for a short time in the early '00s.

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  3. The area on the side of Penney's was once a garden center. The store at Cloverleaf Mall in Richmond, Va., which is almost as bizarre as this one, has the same detail.

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  4. The surrounding strips do make the area appear more blighted and downmarket than demographics suggest.

    Belk has stayed out of DeKalb County since their return to metro Atlanta, and it would have been a good candidate to have gone into the old JCPenney. Or perhaps Kohl's in the immediate area. BCF seems to be the kiss of death to a mall that they enter to fill empty anchor spots, so it's a good thing they didn't move into the old JCPenney.

    Macy's has not put a lot of money into remodeling most of its inherited locations from the heritage chains they eliminated. While this leaves some vintage 60s and 70s elements intact, it doesn't send the message of being a contemporary store to the average customer. How do you justify the prices with such stores and declining customer service and a growing dependence on private label. Dillard's remodels may be bland but they are contemporary and do convey a consistent image throughout the company.

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  5. Back up! "Macy's Auto Center"? Here? 2010? I'd love to see what it looks like today. The idea of Macy's maintaining an auto center in this era is kind of like if an Abercrombie & Fitch out there somewhere still stocks big woolen blankets and picnic baskets.

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  6. I always thought that a good candidate for the old JCPenney space would actually be a Target. It would give the Wal-Mart up the street on Flat Shoals Road a good run for it's money and will give the mall a great economic boost. The only unfortunate thing is that it would most likely require the demolition of JCPenney, which is a unique piece of architecture indeed.

    I live on that side of town (when I'm home from school) and actually the Candler Road corridor has gotten a little better. It definitely looks a little more cleaned up and I think with some more work and redevelopment, the South Dekalb area could become an important area in the near future. Also, the mall's proximity to areas that are being sort of "re-discovered" by yuppie populations like East Atlanta Village, Kirkwood, and East Lake helps too.

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  7. BTW, does anybody actually call this area Panthersville? LOL

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  8. LOL...No, J.T., I've never really hear anyone refer to the area as "Panthersville". There is a Panthersville Road that begins just down the street from the mall, but nobody ever refers to the area itself as Panthersville. It's pretty much just considered unincorporated Decatur.

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  9. Must be one of those lost communities that kind of faded away with suburbanization...much like Blackwell and Fair Oaks in Cobb County. I do know it is treated as a census designated place like Belvedere Park. It was always shown so prominently on the maps right in that area, so I thought I'd be daring and wait for somebody to say something LOL. Should I just remove that name from the description?

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  10. This was a great piece. really gives perspective and history of the mall and area. Though the area is suffering right now, I can see a rebirth happening around the mall area in a few years.

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  11. We used to go to this mall when I was kid in the late 70's, before Georgia Square Mall opened in Athens. My fondest memories are eating Chick-Fil-A there when it was the only one anywhere near where I lived.

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  12. I worked at this mall for quite a bit, at the Theater 1985-1987 (pre-renovation), then at Circus World Toys next to Rich's 1987-1988. Getting up on that marquee, there wasn't a ladder like that back then... omg. That mall was getting messy then. Loved Revco, and Dipper Dan's Ice Cream, and the Subs place, and the Monkey Barrel arcade, and CFA.

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    1. I was a young kid when Dipper Dan's was there! My brother worked there. Ours wasone ofthe few white families that stayedin the area, and I lived there up until 10 years ago, and haven't been to SD Mall since. Holds great memories for me

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  13. I've only been to this mall once and that was in 2005 when we moved back to Atlanta from Nasvhille. We had to get our driver's licenses changed back to Georgia ones. South Dekalb Mall actually houses a very large DMV center inside the mall. I don't think you can take a road test there but you can do just about anything else.

    When I was there, it was truly chaotic. Every race and nationality seemed represented. Nearb Clarkston is a big hub for newly-arrived African and Slavic immigrants. The signs saying "no food or drink" were blatantly ignored. The guy at the counter next to me had had his name changed and couldn't get it changed on his license for some reason.

    Out in the mall, there is very little in the way of stores. Anna's Linens is probably the only one I recognized. It seems like a sad place altogether, a shadow of what it probably once was.

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  14. I used to work at Lerner Shops (1982-1984) and Rich's (1984-1990) and have such fond memories of my years there. What a shame that the mall has lost its original beauty. The trees inside the mall were very charming. I revisited my old Rich's store, now a Macy's, back in 2006 and couldn't believe how run down the place had become. The only really cool things I saw at the store were the original floors and a lot of the original fixtures from my years there. However, a great deal of floor space is now gone and the current Macy's is much smaller than the Rich's store used to be. If anyone who is reading this worked at the South DeKalb Lerner Shop in the early-mid 1980's and/or Rich's in the mid-late 1980's, I would love to hear from you. You can reach me at moonaluna at yahoo dot com.

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  15. Hey, I lived down the road from that area and I've been in Atlanta my whole life and I'm yet to hear anybody call that area Panthersville. I think the CDP is actually McAfee-Candler I believe. As a kid, I visited South Dekalb on occasion when we would visit Dekalb for sports games and that J.C. Penny's is a huge store. I would like to see some store take over the old Penny's location. Target would be great, Kolh's too, but opened a location in Stonecrest. That theater was a great addition and it's very nice.

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  16. Okay, I finally gave in and changed the "Panthersville" reference. Apparently that is a quaint historical name that appears only on maps, but I would really love to know the history and origins of it. According to Andre above, I changed it to Decatur/Candler-McAfee.

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  17. I lived in the snapfinger area and went to towers , my best friend and I use to love to hang out at SouthDeklb mall, I think the foot court back then chick- fil a was near Jc pennys.. it does look better now, but that area.. twin oaks, emerald estates looks really bad, back in the day you would kill to live over there, now people just kill period over there. the area looks really bad. glenwood area.

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    1. Though I wish that there were more in the South Dekalb community, will have to disagree with you about the killings.Honestly some people have been killed here,but some people have also been killed a lot in good looking affluent areas,but it rarely make the news because its a NIMBY(not in my back yard) community.Youll have to see the crime rates on sites that have them.Emerald Estates may be the same neighborhood you once lived in but it doesn't look as bad as you make it. The only place I will concur with your with is the lower end of Glenwood Rd.It does look bad.

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  18. I grew up in Gresham Park before the insanity of white flight set in - yes it was known as Panthersville, there was a high school stadium there used by Walker HS (now McNair), the new SW Dekalb HS, and Gordon HS (defunct I think) jointly. I remember when the mall opened in 1970 - it quickly became the hangout for "white punks of dope" and the focal point was the Spencer's Gifts and their lineup of pot smoking accessories, lava lamps, black lights and posters... Many a wide belt and pair of boots were purchased at Chess King! The cool fashion statement was ultra-wide white jean bellbottoms. The area is doing well now, with lots of middle class black folks and new generations of whites who are not afraid of the "boogie man".

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  19. I grew up in Gresham Park in the 70's and 80's...one of the few white families that didn't "flee". Great memories of hanging out at this mall. My sister worked at Zales Jewelry and my brother worked at Dipper Dan! I remember that fountain so well.

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  20. In comparison to some malls like North Dekalb Mall ,South Dekalb is doing just fine.

    Though SDM isn't the worst mall,Ive ever been to,there are somethings that can be better in terms of having more quality shops in there. This is one of the reasons that I barely go to that mall. If there is one thing I've noticed about malls in mostly Black communities are that a lot of stores are geared towards teens with urban wear shops.Dont get me wrong,they should have place to shop in,but if you want to run a successful mall,it cannot only be about one demographic or you'll see it die.

    I once read a commentary from a young Black shopper who remarked about Stonecrest Mall. One of the good points she made was that Black shoppers were not monoliths.I may be Black,but it doesn't mean that I only want to frequent urban shops(as Im too old for many of them).Stonecrest a,Cumberland ,Northpoint malls are example malls that have some stores in them .Im not saying that they always have to be expensive to be good quality stores,but it should be good enough where every demographic shops in it. So far ,the mall looks ok,but I agree with the blogger with Conway and respectfully being in the anchor stores,it does give off a "ghettoish" vibe to it. It would be nice if we had something like Kohls,Belks,Best Buy ,Victoria Secrets or other quality shops around the South Dekalb area.

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  21. I think time changes but But I think eventually the area will come back up …like Kirkwood… like little Vietnam east lake meadows.. not sure how long it will take stone mountain, some parts of lithonia , westlychapel and memorial drive to come back up. You could find anything on memorial drive.. I use to work at the sgt singers.. but every good thing comes to an end and has its own special time.. But things change for a reason.. a lot of times people don’t care, they make the property value go down.. do you think that’s why we have white flight… I go back to the area and it has changed so much.. now you have section8 and people can go anywhere, its not the property it’s the people who don’t care to keep up the area. A lot of them are uneducated and don’t care.. . black people wanted something back then. We have got to educate our kids.

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  22. I agree with everything you said..especially about Conway.

    Unfortunately,the deal with Burlington Coat Factory fell through..at least that is a rumor about it because of a dispute about who was going to clean the asbestos from that part of the mall.A beauty supply house opened up since then..Yeah,looked forward to that being there (sarcasm)

    Though South DeKalb have come a long way, it still has some ways to go.My problems with that mall in other shipping centers in the Black communityis that they don't meet everybody's needs/desires. It's like the owners of these places and shops are thinking we're monolithic thinkers..that we all like the same products.


    Too often, you'll either see non name urban shops,athletic wear shops or young girls shops,but not any shops that will benefit people within and out of our communities. Another problem with South DeKalb Mall is the outside of it.Though I love how the inside of the mall is designed,the outside of it is dreary and dead looking to the point that youre not attracted to it.

    If South DeKalb want to be a more successful mall, they should get the person who is responsible for cleaning that part of the mall and get a hazmat team to clean the asbestos out of there (if the rumor is true), do something about the outside of the mall and make it look good and provocative and try to lure shops where every demographic shops in and is well know. It doesn't have to be expensive, but like as mentioned,Burlington Coat Factory,Kohl's, Target or Dillard's. Conway and other frugal unknown establishments isn't going to cut it.

    As a long time resident of South DeKalb,I've learned somethings about the people here.Some are upper class middle class and low income and one thing they all share in common is that they don't want stores or shopping centers that reminds them of being in a stereotypical Black community (e.g.Con way).They wantsomething that is nice, reasonable and that meets every demographic.

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  23. Forgive me for my errors.For some reason, the blog wouldn't let me edit my post.

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  24. Seems like every mall in metro Atlanta is covered on this site except for the newer Mall at Stonecrest near Conyers,GA. Any plans to do a write-up on this mall? Just curious....

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    1. This is unfortunately a unique situation in that the amount of security in the mall is so heavy and so restrictive about photography that I failed to get any photos of the mall other than the Rich's. I have also only been there twice. If you would like to attempt to get photos, I will make a post for the mall, but I am highly frustrated about this mall because I usually find a way to obtain the photos I need without much problem. Last time I was in the mall they had as much security as a prison.

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  25. OMG!!! This was MY mall as a teenager in the 1970's!!

    I learned to drive in the parking lot on a Sunday.

    My best friend worked at the JC Penny Auto Center...

    We moved away in 1977 and I thought the mall had pretty much bit the dust...what memories it has for me.

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  26. My grandparents lived off Columbia Drive near Columbia High School in the early 1970's, and moved to Marietta, GA in 1977. I have great memories of them taking me to this mall and to Columbia Mall for shopping and ice cream on Saturday nights when I would come and spend the night with them. Nice to see this mall is still alive. I was sad to see Columbia Mall torn down. Great pictures and article here JT!

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