A raw fog and stubborn drizzle couldn’t dim the grand opening of Yonkers’ Cross County Shopping Center. On April 28, 1954, celebrities including Jackie Cooper and Jackie Robinson lined up to welcome one of the nation’s first open-air shopping malls. As F.W. Woolworth, John Wanamaker’s, and Gimbels (the latter two serving as the mall’s anchor stores) opened their doors, one local newspaper trumpeted, “The world’s largest and greatest shopping center becomes a living reality.”
In many ways, the Cross County Shopping Center embodied Westchester’s mid-century growth. At 885,000 square feet, it was a new type of outdoor shopping center for an evolving postwar suburb. Real estate tycoon Sol Atlas handpicked an unassuming plot at the intersection of the New York State Thruway and the Cross County Parkway. The former site of an Algonquin trading post, the location proved perfectly suited for the malt-shop, lawn-mower, baby-cradle needs of a car-bound county.
The “shopping mall” didn’t become the main street of 20th-century America by chance. Many historians attribute the concept to Austrian socialist and architect Victor Gruen. The unconventional young émigré was a firecracker of ideas.
Although multi-store developments had already been built, Gruen envisioned a way to save suburbia from itself. He feared sprawl was corroding society’s civic heart. Highways and strip malls fragmented the old public square, where shopping, new ideas, and a cultural exchange converged. Gruen’s cure: bring the urban density of his native Vienna to the greenbelt.
Gruen’s designs were clean and modern. Glossy colonnades and display windows would house retailers, community centers, libraries, childcare centers, and post offices under one roof. The mall could protect consumers from the city’s crime, weather, and noise.
Gruen is best known for designing the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota—the country’s first enclosed mall, which opened in 1956 and was filled not with fast food franchises, but extensions of local shops. By 1960, 4,500 malls attracted the country’s dollars. In 1975, that number was 16,400. By the late ’80s, 30,000 malls accounted for more than half of all retail dollars spent and about 8 percent of America’s workforce.
Unlike enclosed shopping centers, the Cross County Shopping Center retained its open-air design. But, like other malls, it lifted surrounding property values and became a local hub—a place where kids acquired their first Sunday suit, teens their first kiss, and adults their first job. The parents of the Cross County’s former security director met at the Cross County Hospital, and one maintenance worker is said to have been born on-site. The shopping mall would join antibiotics, computers, and smoke detectors on Consumer Reports’ list of the most essential modern advancements.
By the turn of the century, shopping carts began to move elsewhere. Aging baby boomers, fewer new highways, and a saturated market left little room for growth. Today, a third of malls are struggling to stay in the black as high store turnover, a dwindling number of luxury retailers, and growing e-commerce plague their bottom lines.
The Cross County Center, built on a former peat bog, also started to show signs of aging. Dirty streaks ran down the storefronts, and sidewalks cracked due to harsh New York winters. Still, the Cross County wasn’t leveled and enclosed like other open-air malls.
Instead, in 2007, a $250 million renovation was launched to update all exteriors and refurbish the pedestrian mall. The construction of playgrounds, fountains, and 245,000 square feet of new stores and restaurants created more than 1,000 county jobs. Trendy new retailers like Zara, Steve Madden, and H&M opened shop next to decades-old staples like Suzette’s Lingerie and Sterling Optical. The mall’s annual events calendar now features seasonal concerts, a film festival, and partnerships with nearby Empire City Casino and Sarah Lawrence College.
The original Cross County was ahead of its time. Outdoor malls are experiencing
a rebirth—catering to young healthy families who seek an urban feel amid suburban sprawl—giving the Cross County a distinct advantage. It now boasts the largest retail space in Westchester and more than 250,000 drivers-by each day. It is, in many ways, Victor Gruen’s vision of the lifestyle mall, revisited.
Dan Robbins majored in history and American studies at Cornell University and remains an unabashed history buff, particularly when it comes to his own backyard.