Monday, August 27, 2012

Riding in Circles – Memoirs of a Suburban Upbringing

This is a re-post of a piece I wrote several years ago for a now defunct blog. A post that Lois over at livingsimplyfree wrote recently reminded me of it, and since I've been under the weather with a cold, I figured this might be a good time to unearth it. I also heard on the news today that Russell Scott who played Blinky the Clown died today at the age of 91, so perhaps my timing was a bit prophetic.

I'm proud to announce that my hill climbing abilities have improved significantly since I wrote this - so conquering "the hill" is not such a big deal these days... Here's to progress! Hope you enjoy this piece!

Riding in Circles – Memoirs of a Suburban Upbringing

The Villa Italia Shopping Mall.

It was the crown jewel of the 1970’s suburban shopping experience, and the center of the known universe as far as I was concerned. The Villa Italia was the biggest mall between Chicago and California.

It boasted faux marble floors, planters with fake plastic plants, a Walgreens with a penny candy aisle… it was the stuff that childhood dreams were made of.

Alas- I could not find a picture with the original floors - this is a more recent shot with  a significant facelift from the original early days

It had a Baskin-Robbins and an Orange Julius stand.

It was the place where I first met my childhood idol, Blinky the Clown.

RIP Russell Scott - AKA Blinky the Clown
The place where I took my first music lessons in the back of the Yamaha Music Store.

Oh yeah, I’m the fashion plate with the glasses and the dress that’s several sizes too small. I fear this black and white photo doesn't even give you the full impact of that outfit in all of its red white and blue glory.
And of course, the Villa housed the pet store where one could spend hours at a time lost in kitten petting bliss. (Sorry – I couldn’t resist the temptation to throw in a gratuitous adorable kitten photo).

Photo by eleda_1 on Flickr
Throughout my childhood, finding a way to get to the Villa on our bikes was an obsession for me and my friend David. Oh, David and I were thick as thieves, and we always had a grand adventure in the offing.

We spent an entire summer plotting and planning for our ambitious trip to the Villa. It took a great deal of endurance training before I could master “the hill” on my lime green banana-seat bicycle. but I was a determined child.

It was an arduous task, but we finally achieved self-propelled transportation to the Villa, and whole new world opened unto us. It was one filled with sugar laden trips to See’s Candy stand, whoopie cushions and other eccentricities purchased at the gag gifts shop, and countless afternoons watching teenagers making out behind the fake foliage.

It seemed that as I got older, my life became intrinsically intertwined with that shopping mall.

I saved up my allowance to buy my first soccer ball at the Villa.

And it was the place I cashed in my paper route money for the world’s coolest tennis shoe roller skates, complete with pink pom poms! (This is actually my Photoshopped rendition of those skates. The originals were destroyed years ago in order to protect the innocent.)

The Villa was where I got my ever-important Levis 501 button fly jeans and Nike tennis shoes. Items no teenager in the ‘80s could be without!

And of course, it’s where I conned my poor mother into spending a ridiculous amount of money so I could have the dress for my senior prom. Oh baby, Molly Ringwald had nothin’ on me!

But inevitably, the years rolled on and so did I. I left my hometown, traveled throughout Europe, lived on the East Coast, and when I finally did return home it was with a great disdain for shopping malls and all that they represented. Suburbia was a thing of my past, and I now frequented the bars and coffee houses of Denver’s underground music scene.

Paris on the Platte Coffee House - Photo by louderthandam on Flickr
I freely roamed neighborhoods I only had the vaguest inkling of as a child, in the vast netherworld “over the viaduct”… the places my mother drove through wide-eyed with doors locked and white knuckles on the steering wheel, for fear some urban degenerate might scoop us away never to be heard from again.

And I suppose the world moved on too, because they tore down the old Villa Italia, as it was quickly joining the ranks of America’s “dead shopping malls”.

But the years passed, and my coffee house crawling gave way to a primordial yearning for dirt and a garden. So I became a homeowner in the “land of cracker box houses,” a neighborhood with an uneasy mix of working class folk and recent Mexican immigrants, speckled with a few little old blue haired ladies, the original owners of their homes, who looked upon their immigrant neighbors with the same fear and distrust I saw in my mother’s “over the viaduct” expressions.

And while my neighborhood is culturally worlds apart from the one I grew up in, geographically, it is only a stone’s throw away.

So when I decided to fully embrace my “greenie” status, and made the commitment to use my feet and pedals as primary modes of transportation, it became necessary to find a nearby source of organic and locally grown food. And as fate would have it, there is now a Whole Foods and a Farmer’s Market where the old Villa Italia used to be!

Photo by bradleygee on Flickr
To top it off, the site has now been recast as the Belmar district, a model of “new urbanism.” It’s a genuine LEED certified community featuring shops, housing, businesses, a center plaza which converts to a skating rink in the winter time, its own wind farm and one of the largest solar arrays in the Western US. They even reused 88% of the materials from the old Villa Italia Mall during construction!

And so it is that here, thirty-some-odd years after David and I spent our summer trying to conquer “the hill” to get to the Villa, I find myself back on my bicycle, trying to plot a route to the same destination.

Of course there are several new hills to be conquered.

And I’m approaching it from a different direction, with mature knees and the somewhat sobering knowledge that any hill I go screaming down on the way there will have to be painstakingly pedaled back up on a bicycle heavily laden with organically grown locally produced goodies.

But the irony does not escape me. Perhaps there’s some sort of existential magnetism in that recycled concrete from the old Villa, something that irresistibly attracts the fibers of my being, forged in the crucible of that shopping mall. Or maybe it’s just that life inevitably comes full circle.

Train rides at the Villa Italia grand opening in 1966
I have to say it’s been quite a journey from suburban sweetheart to eco-warrior, but who would ever have thought that the Villa Italia Mall would make the trip with me!

Here's a fantastic video on the Belmar redevelopment if you're interested:


  1. I'm sorry you aren't feeling well, but I'm glad my post reminded you of this one as it's been a drive down my memory lane as well. I maybe a couple of years older than you, but we had a mall that opened right before my teen years, I spent countless hours there with my best friend as well. I did miss the button front jeans and nike sneakers weren't as yet as popular. Today, I avoid any malls, my one shopping venue other than food is the Ikea store when I'm in the area. It's funny how life changes as we do. Oh and I'm not as brave as you to put up online some of my childhood photos!

    1. Ha! Well, that Yamaha music photo is a real humdinger isn't it? I seriously considered burning it at one point in my life. But as I mentioned in the comments on my last post, I've come to a place where I can fully embrace my inner dork - red, white & blue saddle shoes and all!

  2. Replies
    1. Let's just hope that 80's hair never makes a comeback!

  3. One of my favorite posts that you've done. I'm noticing the full circle phenomenon so much these days, sometimes good, sometimes mortifying, always an eye-opener!

    1. Glad you liked it. It was sort of a fun trip down memory lane.

  4. Hi Cat,
    Loved that photo journey! Some prom dress! I had one just as poufy. I looked like a giant marshmallow!
    Hope you're feeling better soon.

    1. Hi Lili,

      Thanks for the well wishes... Those 80's formals were really hideous weren't they? I sort of look like a poofy purplish pink nightmare!

  5. Love this post & the photos!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I'm still bummed that I couldn't find a picture of the original faux marble floors and ridiculous planters at the Villa. Perhaps some things were just not meant to be preserved for all posterity.

  6. I love your description of the neighborhood you live it -- sounds almost exactly like the one where I bought my house. People thought -- probably still think -- that I was crazy to do so. I mean, I could've bought a newer house in a fancy neighborhood (i.e. You have to drive to get anywhere) and instead I live in a safe-but-scruffy neighborhood where I can walk to the store, post office, farmer's market, doctor's office, light rail... gosh, what was I thinking?
    I do love how my 80 year old neighbor refers to the original owner of my house as 'the old lady'. And once I start taking Spanish lessons, I'm sure I'll be able to talk to the very nice (I think) young couple across the street. There are even some frugal-but-idealistic yuppies down the street, next door to the rednecks. I love how everyone is Different! Maybe that's why I feel like I fit in.

    1. It does indeed sound like my neighborhood. I totally LOVE it here... less sanitized than the "nicer" neighborhoods for sure - but full of genuinely good folk. I particularly love that the fellow two doors down plays in a mariachi band and they rehearse in his garage. So all summer long I've got free entertainment right out my window!

  7. What a great post! I just love the old stories and photos and love the way things came back around in your story. It's fine to link this one up to Flashback Friday if you'd like. I'm not one of those freaks who will delete your link if it doesn't mention my blog or if it's an old post. This is perfect :)

  8. I was in bed this morning listening to NPR and heard the story of Villa Italia. I can't believe it's gone! I grew up on Reed Ct back in the late 60s to early 70s and my mom would take me to Villa Italia all the time. The pictures took me right back in time. I live in Seattle now but if I ever get back, I'll take a walk around Belmar. Thanks for the memories!

    1. I'm so glad you stumbled upon my childhood musings! I didn't know that NPR did a piece on the Villa - I'll have to go check it out. When I got an email that I had a comment on this post my first thought was that it was probably spam - what a surprise to find an actual person who shares my memories of the Villa!

      And if you lived on Reed Ct. I think I probably had a paper route covering the house where you grew up - although probably a few years after you lived there. I delivered the Lakewood Sentinel in the area from 1st & Carr over to 6th & Wadsworth... and I also had a route for some freebie paper covering the section just north of that up to Alameda. Cue the munchkins "It's a small world after all..."

      If you do make it out this way again you'll have to check out the old Roller City - it's been converted into a DAV thrift shop. I sometimes go there looking for jeans or something and wonder if any of the employees have any idea of the hallowed ground upon which they are sitting!

    2. Err... wait... Reed Ct. is on the other side of Wadsworth isn't it? Oh... I know why I'm confused, I knew a guy who's last name was Reed who lived in the area I had my paper route! Holy Moly! I guess the old memory banks are getting just a tad bit um... jumbled! Anyhow, call back the munchkins! :-)


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Thanks, and have a fabulous day!