.A Mall Evolves

Once angsty teens and free cars, Oakridge Mall now holds 99 Ranch

From fish heads to Slayer albums, the present merged with the past during a recent revisit to Oakridge Mall.

As I’ve said, the suburban traveler’s journey is not just a spatial endeavor. It should also be historical and literary. And since the Asian grocery store 99 Ranch is easily the best addition to Oakridge Mall in a zillion years, I just had to revisit my old neighborhood.

Upon arrival, I saw whiskered catfish on ice, a “hot deli” with hanging roasted ducks and dim sum, and more than a few shelves of pu’erh tea. Canned piano and strings emanated from the speakers. Fishmongers, masked-up and animated, netted live goods from aquariums. 

As I expected, the muses of memory were quite active. Interior experiences are often more colorful than external ones and history puts the current landscape into perspective. So away into the past I went.

Oakridge opened on March 1, 1973. Back then, the entire southeastern part of San Jose was not a cancer of subdivisions like it is now. Fruit orchards and cattle ranches still held sway. Highways 85 and 87 were just pipe dreams. There were no elephant-sized trophy trucks in every cement driveway.

According to several old Merc stories, Oakridge was originally going to be named Mabie Mall, after the Mabie family that previously owned and farmed those parcels of land. Old Mrs. Mabie was even present for the grand opening, replicating what happened at Valley Fair; that is, the family who was pushed out in order to build the place then got invited to the ribbon cutting. 

For the opening ceremony, Orsini the Magician officially opened the mall with puffs of smoke, kicking off a six-week celebration that culminated with a grand prize drawing for a 1973 Chevy Vega. When the mall debuted, Oakridge featured San Jose’s first-ever six-theater complex, with each theater holding 250 people for a total of 1,500. Walgreens came on board later that year, including two trained beauty consultants working full-time. All of which was unprecedented in San Jose.

Initially, the whole interior featured one carpeted promenade. Montgomery Ward and Grants were the two anchor department stores, with Macy’s eventually replacing the Grants. Then as the suburbs exploded, producing more generations of bored teenagers, mall expansions proliferated.

By the time 1983 came around, a Merc staff writer wrote a story about teenage mall rats from Gunderson and Pioneer high schools, who were “popping” and “break-dancing” in the mall, putting those terms in quotes, of course. Rambunctious kids were thus no longer limited to inner cities. Ever since the dawn of the shopping-center age, wrote the Merc, teens were now doing their thing, loitering, blasting their radios, playing arcade games or just sitting around, but in a temperature-controlled environment with food. There was simply nowhere else for them to go.

“Oakridge Mall in San Jose may not possess the romantic toughness of a street corner in an early Brando flick,” wrote the author, “but it serves the same function: It’s a place where kids can go for fun and, more importantly, for free.”

The article then quoted one of the security guards, who said, of the mall rats: “They’re not your elite type, not your rah-rah, real jock type. They just kind of hang out.”

That was 1983. Two years later, I took the 27 down Blossom Hill to Musicland in Oakridge to buy Slayer’s Hell Awaits album, soon after it came out. I fondly recall tearing off the plastic before I even got out of the mall. The band hailed from the suburban wastelands of SoCal, which looked exactly like Blossom Hill and Santa Teresa.

Oakridge did evolve, of course. The Walgreens later relocated outside to a free-standing building across the parking lot, where it hired one Mr. Dave Chai, right around the time I was trying to buy beer underage every weekend. Chai is now faculty at SJSU, where he runs the Animation/Illustration Design Program.So as I stood there admiring the whiskers on the iced catfish, I could not help but feel a tremendous sense of gratitude. Thanks to 99 Ranch, Oakridge has finally arrived in our globalized world. I am not bored at all.

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