Crossroads: Memories of a Pioneering Mall

People's Drug Store coffee shop in Crossroad's Mall

When Roanoke’s Crossroads Mall opened in 1961, it was like Christmas and Fourth of July combined. This was the first enclosed, suburban shopping center in all of Virginia. It drew customers and curiosity seekers from miles around. According to Steven Swain, a blogger who traced the mall’s history, “Developer T.D. Steele and his designers created a unique and popular shopping experience for an eager public. Throngs of shoppers left the long-dominant downtown to stroll through a grand two-story interior shopping hall.”

By 1962, two more suburban malls had opened in Roanoke, and around the same time, they popped up in cities and towns throughout the Appalachian South. Crossroads ushered in a new way of living, one that prioritized convenience and comfort. Shoppers no longer had to worry about weather, wind, or mud puddles. Their world was being primped and paved, and it was built to a new scale–one that fit the automobile. Errands were measured in miles not blocks, and walking would soon become outmoded.

Decades later, there is a lot of buzz about what was lost when we suburbanized the nation, but fifty years ago, Crossroads was groundbreaking. It helped mark the dawn of an era.

To commemerate this anniversary, The Roanoke Times asked readers to share their memories about the mall. Surprisingly, only two have been posted. The first commenter, a fellow named Greg, glows over Crossroads:

“Crossroads was where we always went to see Santa and I remember him arriving by helicopter near the J C Penney’s warehouse which is now Gold’s Gym. There were so many cool things at the mall. The water fountain outside Penney’s, TIMEOUT arcade, Orange Julius, Michaels Bakery, etc. etc.”

The second post (which is currently pending review) is mine, and it takes a different tone. I remember most of the stores that Greg names but in a less cheery light. I grew up about a mile from Crossroads Mall. We moved to the area when my parents divorced. My mother left her three bedroom house, the first and only property she ever owned, for a third-floor apartment near a rough and tumble drag called Williamson Road. This was the early 1980s. By this point, both the mall and the neighborhood had passed their prime, and some days, it seemed like my family had too. The Roanoke Times probably wasn’t expecting memories like mine, but for me, Crossroads wasn’t filled with wonders. It was a reminder of all that we’d lost.

*

I grew up one walking mile from Crossroads Mall. I say “walking” because that’s how my family got there. We had no car, so on the day that food stamps arrived we hoofed up Roanoke’s backstreets; across Hershberger Road’s buzzing six lanes; and over forty yards of parking lot, which sizzled during the summer and swept wind like the plains all winter.

Most any time of year, we rushed for Kroger’s automatic doors. Inside, we’d acclimate, wiping our foreheads or stripping off winter gear. We always had a carton of empty Dr. Pepper bottles, and I’d beg to slide them into the tall, metal deposit rack. It enthralled me, because from my height, it looked dangerous, like some mammoth glass-filled cage. When we had the change from our deposited bottles in hand, we’d begin to shop. Cost Cutter frozen broccoli. No-name butter cookies. Bagged breakfast cereal with poorly drawn mascots that no one recognized. Nearly expired meat. My brother and I would beg for names we knew from television–Snap, Crackle, and Pop; Pop Tarts; Pepperidge Farm–but Mother would tell, “This tastes just the same.”

Our generic boxes and cut-rate finds would fill one, sometimes two, grocery carts. Mother wasn’t eager to come back and do this again, so by the time we headed for a checkout lane, we’d have enough food to last all month.

Most cashiers smiled as we approached, overlooking our heap of discount groceries and the brightly colored, pretend money that paid for it. Occassionally, though, one would raise her brow or roll her eyes. That’s when Mother turned fierce. After hauling two kids and clanking soda bottles for a suburban mile, she wasn’t going to be judged. She’d jut her neck out, cock her head, and stare the woman down. I don’t recall a cross word ever being uttered, but you could cut diamonds with her glare.

God love her; Mother gave surprisingly little thought to how we’d get all of that food home. Usually, we carried it in our hands–her hauling as many as eight bags, my younger brother with two, and me dragging three or four, whining about the taunt plastic that dug into my palms. Some days, Mother couldn’t endure my complaining, so we took the bus. It reduced our walk to just a few blocks, which was better, but nothing compared to the few, glorious occasions when she threw her hands up, headed for a pay phone, and said, “Cost be damned. We’re taking a cab.”

With tip, I remember it ran about ten dollars. That was enough to force Mother, days later, to haggle with the electric company because our payment came up short, but it seemed well worth it at the time. After she called the cab company, we would stand at the curb outside Kroger, eyeing the long lane that extended clear to Kmart. We’d scan back and forth like any other family. To passersby, I figured it looked like we were waiting on some father-figure to pull the mini-van around. I could even convince myself of that. I’d block out the long walk there, the food stamps, and the coming cab. For those few minutes, I’d pretend that we were as normal and nuclear as anyone.

Then the yellow Mercury Grand Marquis would show. As soon as I spotted its unmistakable checkerboard pattern, my fantasy would shift. Where we were all-Americans a moment before, seamlessly blending at the mall, the cab gave us a mysterious edge. I imagined that we were set apart, that we were sophisticates who were always being driven around. The cab’s trunk would spring open, and a friendly stranger would load our groceries. All we had to do was sit down. I took my time, now hoping to catch shoppers’ eyes. I’d hold the door for my mother and brother, lingering outside the cab until one of them said, “Mark, git’ in!”

I would ease onto the cushioned seat, and leave the door ajar, inviting shoppers to peek inside. They did so every time. Cabs picked people up in New York, in London, in Paris but not in Roanoke. It was a novelty. For all they knew, we were visiting from one of the world’s great cities, shopping for provisions to take back to our downtown hotel where, later, we would dawn formal wear and wave for another cab. We’d be off to dinner with the mayor, local gallery owners, and perhaps a TV news anchor. We were guests. We might even be stars. Our dinner companions would coo whenever mother slipped me sips of champagne. They’d give use private tours of their galleries at midnight. One would offer us his French countryside home for the summer, saying, “We just don’t make it out there enough. Go. Go,” and then he’d lean down to my height and wink at me. Whispering so that only I could hear him, he’d add, “Don’t worry. I’ll have the house staff fill the kitchen with all of your favorite brands.”

 

15 Comments

  • Linda

    That story had nothing to do with Crossrads mall. I think you just wanted to mention how you went to the grocery store. A lot of people have hard times. Don’t use the mall as an excuse to whine. Crossroads was a great mall for so many people with lot’s of fond memories.

  • Ben

    Linda, I think it has more to do with Crossroads than you think. Realize the time period Mark is referring to here – the early 1980s, when Crossroads – and the neighboring Williamson Road neighborhood, began a severe decline. Having grown up in the Roanoke Valley myself during this time period, I too have strongly unpleasant memories of Crossroads Mall – the creepy, dingy interior with half the stores missing; the worn aesthetic of the surrounding neighborhood; the faded 1950s architecture of the mall itself. This time period is as much a part of the mall’s history as the early days were.

    More to the point, Mark’s post touches on the class divide between the wealthy and poor in Roanoke – a topic that most Roanokers religiously avoid. It’s not the sort of place where you think of rampant homelessness or poverty, so it’s easy to lead your whole life forgetting those aspects exist in the area – but those elements are in Roanoke just as much as in other cities, merely confined to areas that more well-to-do residents never visit. (For example, consider how few affluent folks would even consider driving Melrose Avenue end to end, and you’ll begin to understand my point.)

    I don’t mean to imply that Roanokers are not generous or inclusive – growing up I saw and aided first hand many of the comunity-driven support programs that aid the less fortunate in the Valley. But Mark’s perpsective of living on Williamson Road and shopping for groceries at Crossroads Mall in the 1980s, post decline, is a valuable part of Roanoke history that deserves to be captured alongside the fond memories many older residents from my parents’ generation have of the mall in its 1960s heyday.

    Linda, I appreciate you – like my parents – may have fond memories of the mall, and I’d encourage you to share them with the world. But those of us who grew up in Roanoke more recently have a story to tell, too, and it’s not always a rosy one.

  • Mike Ferguson

    I dont post often but I am Marks little brother who in which he refears to in this story and now at 33 I can very vagily rembier that part of our life in fact I did not reimber it till I started to read this story anf for Mark who is older and has a clearer memory of these times witch crossroads where a major part of our lives for it was the only stores close enough for use to get to.Now im not wineing nore was my brother just shareing our memoires whitch differ from a lot of others but yet if you really ask around so many from that time.But anyhodule I rembier going to crossroads to see santa kmart to bye close and shoes which got my picked on a great dill in school so I hated kmart for the longest time but to move more into the reasent future i can also talk of times when i was a teenager and would go hang out at the arcade timeout and shooting pool runing up and down the emptiy halls riden my skateboard down them too and haven some poor little old securite gard chase me and my friends around . got into a couple of good fights there to won a nice amount of money hussaline pool from older kids and even a few bikers ,,,,smoken pot in the parting lot taken m,y driven test there ,,,,doing donutds in the rain and snow almost trowing people out the bed of my truck doing so .We used the large emptie parking lot to turn around in and some times drag race on weekend nights. now these are some of my exspierens of crossroads im not as articultae as some nut there there none the less and real even if not the same as others

  • Uncle

    I can’t say I have a lot of Crossroads memories except for taking your mom up there once I got my license. Of yeah. And standing in the longest lines in the world at the old DMV office. Mom and Dad rarely took us up there and when I got older Tanglewood had already opened. I have a couple funny memories of that place. Went there with Eric and his Dad. As I recall it he bought an axe and as we were walking back to the car we got ahead of him and started hollering “Don’t hurt us mister, we didn’t mean it!” Thank goodness everybody realized we were goofing off and just laughed. Today they would be calling the cops. I also recall a kid sticking his hand into the fountain that used to be in the middle of mall scooping coins up out of there. One of my buds hollered at him and the kid looked up and lost his grip. Yep! He went swimming. His mama was chasing him out through the mall, yelling and spanking his butt the whole way.
    You know it is funny how memory works. I would have never guessed that would have left such a strong impression on you Mark.

  • Tim Beasley

    Tim Beasley here, Northside High class of ’70. In the early 1960’s, Crossroads Mall to my 9-10-11-12-13 and 14th years old self was always the bright spot of the week! Having been a youngster living way back in the boonies of Mason’s Cove ( down in the dark shadowy valley squeezed in behind the huge Ft. Lewis Mountain and flanked by Catawba and Brushy Mountains) my Dad was a construction worker who was gone all week except for Friday eveings when he’d get home…As the middle brother of three boys, I was the most precocious, and literally demanded that he, mom and brothers all load up and “go to Crossroads!”

    When I was about 11 I remember on the rides out dad would have the local rock station WROV AM on his brand new ’64 Buick Wildcat (fall of ’63) radio, and Beach Boys’ hit song “Fun Fun Fun” or Four Seasons’ “Sherry” would be blasting on the rear speaker…God, I loved it! Just before we’d get to the Mall you could see the red and blue lights on that beautiful silver arch rotating like ‘welcome” beams above the sign ….

    1966 – 1967 as I got older, about 14, and , Mom and Dad would do the grocery thing into Kroger, and with about a buck two or three Dad would give me, and free of them and my brothers, I’d race on ahead, deep into the cool concrete floored mall area. I’d hang around on the slab seating around the huge planters, hoping to meet teen-aged girls from Northside and the other schools. Sometimes I’d luck out, get a kiss or sometimes a bit more, get a phone number and meet them later that weekend at the Skate -A -Drome. But when that wasn’t the game, I’d enjoy shopping fopr a new “ringer” T shirt, or ‘Monkees’ shirt at Penney’s and also a new model car there. The AMT model cars were always cheaper at Penney’s than at Cssroads Hobby….if I had any change left, I’d go hang out at Globe Records…there was one older girl, about 17 at the time named Pat Ball working there…I thought she was gorgeous, like a movie star! Wondering whatever became of her, my long lost love interest….When I had enough money saved from whatever enterprise I’d come up with, I’d wait and shop the “sidewalk sale” at Davidson’s! Now, Davidson’s was class! Mind you this was before hippy torn jeans, tie dye shirts and beads. Thius was 1966, and the Beatles still reigned as rulers of rock, so I had the bushy moptop and boots, that almost got me kicked out of school back then. Oh, yeah, almost forgot the great eclaires that Michaels’ Bakery had. Anyone reading this remember when they opened the Terrace ‘Twin” Rocking Chair Theater? I was there, and the movie premiere was Casino Royale, I beleive…anyway, local radio WROV’s DJ, the late great ‘Fred Mugler Freelance” was there in a blue crush velvet tuxedo for the grand opening, standing on the tailgate of a pickup truck to elevate him for speaking to the gathering (hundreds of people!) and he pointed out some lady in the crowd he knew , who proceeded to give him the finger! Funny stuff, great memories. Crossroads Mall was to me a wonderful place, a place I fondly go back to in my memory.

  • John Cunningham

    Summer winter spring or fall it’s always spring at the Crossroads Mall! A great little jingle that goes well withe the Evans Drug store jingle and the Automobile Exchange jingle! Anyway I grew up on Round Hill and Graduated from William Fleming in 1970 and “the mall” was a huge part of my life. Loved Petes deli that man gave you a ton of meat on your sandwitch and I saw him give many a down and out person a free meal. We met our friends there had Duncan top spinning champion tournaments! Had wonderful milkshakes at Highs Ice Cream!

  • jo dunbar

    i really enjoyed peoples memories of the mall and was happy to learn something of the history that i had forgotten.

  • jo dunbar

    i was wondering when k&w opened at crossroads mall

  • Anonymous

    I remember the Crossroads Mall fondly. I grew up on Mansfield Road, not too far away. I remember going to the movies just for kids on weekends. Mostly the same movies every year, but pure magic each time! King Kong vs a mechanical Kong was my favorite every year.

    I remember a fancy gourmet restaurant down a stairwell. My parents would eat there on occasion, having our grandparents pick us up.

    Going to Crossroads Mall was an event: an adventure. Along with Lakeside Amusement Park and the Mill Mountain Zoo, it provided me with hours of fun and a lifetime of memories.

  • Steve Sexton

    I no longer live in Virginia but trying to find out if the Terrace Theater is still at Crossroads Mall? My Father built the Terrace and in 1967 they buried a time capsule to be opened in 2017. I’m wondering if it is still there and will it be opened ? Any help appreciated. Thanks

  • Bob Lackey

    Steve. The Terrace Theater closed years ago. I think.the building is still there. I’ll check next time I’m out there and look for the time capsule. I remember seeing “Once Upon A Time In The West” there first run in 1968. And I had to pay to get in!! But I wanted to see the new Sergio Leone Western with Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson. You see for several years I worked as an usher, movie poster and marque changer at the American, Jefferson and Lee Theaters. I got to know the American employees from regularly showing up every Saturday for the kids show at their Roanoke Theater next door. ( How many remember Mr. Peanut tapping on the silver dollar taped to the window next to the Roanoke Theater box office?). Well when I got to the Terrace in 1968, working at the other theaters didn’t matter…I had to pay. First time I had paid to see a movie in 10 years:) As to Crossroads Mall, it was neat for the first few years but was the beginning of the decline of Downtown Roanoke.

  • Mark Lynn Ferguson

    I contacted the malls current owner about the time capsule. No reply. Steve, I’d reach out to The Roanoke Times.

  • Ray Bentley jr

    My father managed WBLU radio in Salem and eas selling radio advertising to Carter and Steele when Crossroads was preparing to open in 1961. They ended up hiring him to be their promotions director for the mall’s opening and it was, indeed, an amazing event for Roanoke. I also remembr that Kroger sponsored the Big Show movie on Channel 7 and my dad would often bring me home one of the movie posters from their display. I only wish I had saved them.

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