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Remember Huntsville’s Shopping Centers? Part One: The Brown Times

When I was a kid, there were lots of bright colors. Comic books, picture books, clothes — they were all as bright and loud as they could be. Color television was still pretty new, and when they flashed those words “IN COLOR!” on the screen, you knew you were in for something pretty trippy. People weren’t going to cough up a month’s pay for a color TV to watch a bunch of beige.

By the time I reached my teens, however, brown and its fellow travelers, red and orange, had taken over.

Even Krystal, whose black, white and chrome had been the hamburger joint’s signature since 1932, adopted red and orange for their branding.

Something about the 70s made people uneasy about institutional, cold colors. It seemed like blue, green, black, gray and white had disappeared from the public palette. Even blue jeans got a run for their money, as brown corduroys appeared alongside their indigo denim cousins. 

Building on a Prime Location 

Since March of 1957, notes Huntsville DeadMalls contributor Evans Criswell, Parkway Center had held down a choice location “on the east side of Memorial Parkway between Mallory Road, which became Bob Wallace Avenue, and Donegan Lane, which became Drake Avenue. 

“Since Memorial Parkway opened to traffic on December 1, 1955,” Criswell continues, Parkway center had been “the hot spot for new development, and it began the relocation of shopping from the downtown area.”

Like downtown, Parkway Center was a hodgepodge of mostly local businesses serving the needs of Huntsville’s southward-growing population, with no real focus or anchor store. There were clothing and shoe stores, a cafeteria, a Walgreens, the dime store, G.C. Murphy Co., a hobby shop, two supermarkets and even a delicatessen — Marlin’s.

By the time The Mall opened in March of 1966, Parkway Center was showing its age, and it declined markedly in prominence until the evening of April 3, 1974. 

A Night to Remember

If that date sounds familiar, it’s because it was one of the most traumatic nights in Huntsville’s history. An outbreak of 147 tornadoes ripped through 13 states, with the Tennessee Valley taking much of the brunt.

As dusk approached on that Wednesday evening, my dad’s family was celebrating a cluster of April birthdays, including my 14th and my Uncle Hal’s 59th. I was terrified of storms, but Hal was an old pro and not one for overreaction. He was looking out my grandmother’s patio door at the last glimmers of coppery light in a sky that looked like smoke from burning tires. 

I asked, “How does it look to you, Uncle Hal?”

Unusually for him, without a shred of hope or optimism, or any effort to protect me from the truth, he said, “Brad, it looks stormy.” 

The National Weather service determined that Alabama lost over 200 mobile homes, numerous motor vehicles, and 1,100 buildings on that night. One of these was Parkway Center.

Mercifully, there were no casualties at the site as the tornado struck well after business hours. But the roof was  severely damaged, and a number of businesses were essentially gutted. Photos of the scene show vans and pickups backed up to exposed businesses, salvaging what they could.

A substantial renovation ensued, and Parkway Center rose from the rubble as Parkway City Mall. A nondescript, low-rise pile of beige brick, it would nonetheless become a landmark on the parkway for which it was named. It would also become a centerpiece of Huntsville retail, routinely outselling its flashier rivals — and ultimately outliving them. 

About the author

Brad Hall

Brad Hall

Brad Hall is a pastor and the author of "Lousy Roger and Other Tales: A collection of Lectionary-based Sermons," available on Amazon.com. In 2014, after 27 years of courtship, he married pop culture scholar Deborah Ann Miller. They share a place with two dogs, Glancye and Scotty, and two cats, Quirkie and Brucie.

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