This week, it finally ends for the handful of shops still operating in what’s left of Highland Mall. The mall closes to the public for good Thursday after years of decline. Austin Community College will soon take over the rest of the site.
Walking around the giant, mostly empty space, with Captain and Tennille playing in the background, you might think this is a relic of conspicuous consumption’s past.
But this isn’t about what Highland Mall is now. This story is about what it used to be.
You wouldn’t know it today, but there was a time when Highland was the destination for all of Austin: A late-20th-century mass of concrete and steel, where dreams came true.
Highland was the city’s first indoor mall when it opened in 1971, and it swelled with Texas pride.
Anchored by Dallas’ JC Penney, San Antonio’s Joske’s and Austin’s own department store Scarbroughs. Later, Houston’s Foley’s would anchor an addition.
Combined with a Luby’s, Mr. Gatti’s and countless other mall staples — it was glorious.
My brother and I saw Santa Claus and the Easter bunny at Highland Mall. Everything we saw on TV was there, too: toys at the Toy Box, video games at the Gold Mine, movies on only two screens with no stadium seating — a day’s worth of entertainment.
It was a social network and marketplace long before we did any of that by phone or computer.
“Maybe it was just a false sense of safety, but we just hung out and never thought anything bad would happen to us,” says Thanh Duong Biehl, who grew up near me.
“You had to coordinate with your friends,” she remembers. “‘What time do you want me to pick up? Or should I meet you there?’ But actually hanging out at the mall and seeing each other. It’s just that whole experience of growing up.”
Highland provided Biehl with her first jobs. She says it was training for real life, which has since taken her to Michigan.
My dad worked at Highland Mall. My mom worked there. My girlfriend worked there. I worked there.
Another person I grew up with, Rodrick Williams, had one of the best jobs, selling shoes at Foot Locker, just as the mall, and we, were entering our prime.
“Public Enemy came to town, and Terminator X, who used to deejay for Public Enemy, came to do some shoe shopping. So that was pretty cool,” he says. “You know if celebrities came to town, they were coming Highland Mall.”
Life revolved around mall. And lives changed at the mall, as it did for Williams:
“We only had one restroom. Our assistant manager, Eddie, was in there. The next closest restroom on the first floor was probably about five or six stores around the corner. So I said, ‘I’m going to use the restroom real quick.’ I get out of the store. I make that left. And who comes around the corner but Michael Hardeman, fresh out of boot camp, and a recruiter. He starts doing his spiel. I’m like, ‘dude, I don’t have time. I have to go to the restroom.’ He gets my information somehow. He uses Jedi mind tricks. He’s like, ‘I’ll meet you at your house tomorrow at 12.’ I’m like, ‘Whatever.’ I think two weeks later, I joined the Marine Corps.”
Two people have seen the mall from its heyday to its bitter end, all from the Food Court.
Abdul Alim owns Great Wraps, a gyro shop. He knew when he bought his first food court franchise 20 years ago, Highland was the best mall to buy into. And then there’s the smoothie shop nearby, owned by Robin Robinson.
“I’ve been here 24 years. It used to be Thirsty's. It’s Blenders now. Before Thirsty's, it was Sundae Expressway. There used to be a piano over there…That’s how busy we were. We had four lines that went out to the poles, we were so busy. “
ACC is looking out for these longtime tenants. Alim is taking the gyro shop to the school’s Cedar Park campus, while Robinson will be slinging smoothies at the South Austin campus.
Neil Vickers, vice president of finance and budget for ACC, assures me this isn’t the end of Highland Mall, but just the next leg.
“There’s been a lot of efforts to make sure that we honor the, kinda the legacy of Highland Mall being, you know, the first and original indoor mall here,” says Vickers. “So you know, there’s going to be a lot of efforts to, you know, throughout the development to kind of as you say, kind of, have homage to that history. But the existing structure will be dedicated to educational uses.”
Just as it was, in a way, for its first 44 years, and just as it will always be for a generation of Austinites.
“You just heard those magical words, ‘we’re going to the mall,’” Williams says. “It was our everything — especially being in Austin, especially in that part of town, nothing else came close to that feeling you would have knowing you were going. The day that you would have, or the three or four hours you would have, walking the mall. It was unexplainable, really.”