This past August, I was taking a much needed vacation in a place that shaped much of who I am today. It’s kind of ironic that I would find so much pleasure in returning to the Rust Belt factory town where I grew up, Flint, Michigan – a place where I had probably literally counted the weeks before my family would move away over twenty-five years ago. I love this town in a completely non-ironic way, and I’m always seeking out familiar places before they shut their doors forever. The Dort Mall, the first and only enclosed shopping mall within Flint city limits since it was built in the mid-1960’s, is usually a destination of mine. I had lost the chain for my automotive-themed wallet and needed to purchase another one from Paradise Express in the mall, which has been open since the mid-80’s.
Ah, yes… the Paradise Express, with its fairly comprehensive range of tie-dyed t-shirts, bumper stickers, lighters, and other assorted things intended to be used with tobacco, was not the kind of place that kids like my friends and me would announce around adults that we were going to. If my parents had even heard about this place when I was a teenager in the late ’80s / early ’90s, they most certainly would have forbidden me from going into that store.
I might have been less successful than Tootie from TV sitcom “Facts Of Life” in convincing my elders that a bong was a container for holding jellybeans. Really, I was a good kid and didn’t use any substance – even beer – until I was away at college. I did get my new wallet and chain from the store, and it just made me grin like a goof, thinking about the teenage me and my painstaking avoidance of punishment (which ended up serving me well at a crucial age).
Since I’ve been alive for forty-some odd years, the Dort Mall was never all that great as a shopping destination. Even though it is and was the only enclosed shopping mall within Flint city limits, there were two other malls just outside of them – with the Courtland Center (neé Eastland Mall) being literally one main thoroughfare over into the suburb of Burton, and with the giant Genesee Valley Mall out in Flint Township, not far from Bishop Airport. It went through a series of name changes – first from Dort Mall, to the Small Mall in the late ’70s, to the Mid-America Plaza in the mid-’80s (which is probably in the top-5 of my list of dumbest mall names, ever), then finally, thankfully back to the “Dort Mall” in the ’90s.
This is the place to which I used to dread going before the elementary school season started in the fall, as one of its anchors was the Sears Surplus store. I really, honestly still love Sears and its value proposition, but back in the ’80s, it just seemed so downmarket to me to have to get my house-brand Toughskins jeans from a discount outlet… of Sears. I used to plead with my mom, “But, we’re not poor! Why do we have to shop here?” Mom’s answer might have been something like, “Well, we’re not poor because we shop here.” It would be like something out of an early rap from DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. My parents just didn’t understand.
Besides Paradise Express, there were a few other noteworthy stores here, including Perani’s Hockey World, founded by legendary, Italian immigrant hockey player Bob Perani, who was the goalie for the Flint Generals. There was a Curtis Mathes TV Emporium with an adjacent video rental store. There was (still is) Star Brothers Coney Island, open in that location since 1975, which is still a wonderful time capsule with delicious, inexpensive diner food. There was once a Showbiz Pizza knockoff called Circus Time Pizza that was open for all of one year, most of which coincided with my family’s trip overseas when I was in the fourth grade. Perhaps most legendary of all, there was a large discotheque in the basement of the main, central entrance called “The Light”, which opened in ’77 and was reportedly quite the bumpin’, happening place until it closed in ’82.
Our featured ’79 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 would have been my chariot of choice to drive to The Light in the late ’70s. This car is, to me, a literal “paradise express” on wheels. I’m aware this was the era of the personal luxury car, but this Camaro does things for me that no Monte Carlo could ever make me feel. There is absolutely nothing I would change on this very period-correct vehicle, from its accessories (the Cragar louvers on the backlight; the “Camaro” license plate in the front) to its color.
The only thing that would make this example better would be tinted glass T-tops – the better through which to tan my chest with several dangling, gold chains hanging around my neck. After applying a liberal dose of Hai Karate cologne before leaving the house, my rocket-car Camaro and I would have been headed to The Light’s underlit, multicolored dance floor (yes – just like the one from “Saturday Night Fever”). Don’t call the mall – that floor’s not there anymore, with the former nightclub space reportedly stockpiled with hockey equipment and other inventory waiting to be sold.
Please pardon the aforementioned visuals… I was just getting into character. I’m probably a lot more low key than the last paragraph might indicate, but as loudly as this Camaro is “speaking” as opposed to my own, slightly more reserved demeanor, I still would rock this car as-is. How strange it might feel for someone who has not been to the Flint area in thirty or forty years, to see this Camaro in the parking lot of the Dort Mall and wonder where the party had gone.
This area of South Dort Highway was kind of like a blue collar paradise up through the mid-’80s. The nearest intersection to the mall was located less than a couple of miles from the former GM Fisher One plant (which was closed in ’87 and mostly demolished by the end of ’88), where the historic General Motors Sit-Down Strike of 1936 – ’37 had taken place. In less than a two-mile stretch, there was the Dort Mall, three bowling alleys, at least five bars, several fast food restaurants (Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Arby’s, Burger King), a K-Mart, a health club, a fancy Italian restaurant (Trevi’s), a Color Tile, Frank’s Nursery & Crafts, and a movie theater – the Flint Cinema, where I saw “Return Of The Jedi” in first-run on one of its two giant screens. Besides the Dort Mall, and of the aforementioned businesses, only Arby’s and Burger King still remain open.
Camaro sales reached their high-water mark in ’79, with roughly 282,600 sold (of which about 84,900 were Z28s), which would roughly have concurred with the golden age of the area around the Dort Mall in the southern part of Flint. Before I start to sound like Uncle Rico from “Napoleon Dynamite” with dreams of time travel, I’ll confess that thought did cross my mind as I stared longingly at this beautiful F-Body. While time waits for no one, it has been extremely good to this fine example of what an aspirational car looked like for a factory worker when GM employed over 80,000 people in the Flint area. That party may be over, but on this particular Wednesday afternoon while on vacation back home, I was glad this Camaro had stuck around long after the lights had gone up after last call.
South Flint, Michigan.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017.