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A Shopping Mall by the People for the People
Article first published in Vol. 14, 1996.
By Sharon Celum
If you are bored or just need a place to spend some time, the local mall might be what you are looking for. While stopping in for ice cream or a movie, you might see teens hanging out, families socializing and others taking a brisk stroll during their lunch hour or free time. People-watching is always fun, and what better place to do it than the mall?
William S. Kowinski, who spent two years traveling cross-country studying the phenomenon of the shopping mall, notes in his book The Malling of America that shopping malls have more than financial significance in America: they have become a way of life. He says, "There are more shopping centers in the United States than movie theaters (and most movie theaters are now in shopping centers). There are more shopping centers than school districts, hotels or hospitals. There are more malls than cities, four-year colleges or television stations."
Only since the end of World War II has the shopping center industry really exploded. Many factors played equally important parts in this development. Congestion in downtown areas sent the population migrating to the suburbs, causing rapid expansion of these new areas. Under the Eisenhower administration, the country was undergoing a nationwide project of building the Interstate system with the purpose of connecting east and west coast cities. In addition, the number of television sets in America grew from 6,000 to 15.5 million in just the first five years after the war. All of these factors combined fueled the explosion of shopping centers. The public could now see on television all the wonderful products available to them, and they could drive on the new highways to the sparkling, modern shopping centers in the suburbs to buy them.
During the 1960's, regional malls were publicized as being complete entertainment packages with emphasis on the special events taking place at the malls. This marketing philosophy would have a great influence on the social aspects of the American lifestyle. It helped draw the community into the shopping centers and even allowed the idea, however fleeting, that possibly the malls were not there just to make money; they actually wanted to be an active participant in the community.
Shopping centers today range from cozy, small and simple to gargantuan and outrageous. But no matter the location or size, one concept that holds true for the malls in America is the belief that they affect the lifestyle of the community. To the citizens of El Paso in the 1960s, Bassett Center was not only a shopping center but also a community center. The premise of community was not just marketing philosophy for the Bassett family, which included Oscar T. Bassett and later his son Charles N. Bassett -- it was a long-standing way of life.
The tradition of community involvement began with O. T. Bassett, who came to El Paso from Clinton, Indiana, in February 1881 and immediately set out to make his new community a better place in which to live. Establishing a lumberyard business which nourished El Paso's need for building materials during the growth of 1881, O. T. Basset was also one of the founders of the State National Bank.
After O. T Bassett died in 1898, his son Charles carried on the family lumberyard business as well as the family's reputation of community service. Charles Bassett concentrated on learning the business thoroughly before he became the Vice President of the State National Bank in 1908 and then President in 1921. In 1929, he built the Bassett Tower in downtown El Paso as a memorial to his father. Charles Bassett preferred to continue the family tradition of community service from behind the scenes, doing a great deal of charity work. On his 50th birthday in 1930, Charles Bassett said, "I don't know of any way that a man can do something out of life without also contributing something -- in effort, in time, in money, in thought. The more power a man gets, the more responsibility he gets."
The Charles N. Bassett Center became a permanent tribute to this El Paso citizen who died in 1944. It is known to most as simply Bassett Center. In 1954, the construction site was sand -- vast, seemingly endless quantities of sand -- but that did not hamper the building efforts. As events unfolded, it was the sand that was the basis for an agreement with the State Highway Department in which the builders of Bassett Center and the state, who wanted the sand for the construction of the Interstate overpasses, were both winners. The state removed the sand and leveled the land, and in exchange received the sand free of charge. Charles Gagnon, a local retired District Fire Chief, recalls, "The interstate wasn't completed around Bassett yet, and the road going through the area was known at the time as the Sand Hills Freeway."
According to Daniel Boone, the mall's current Assistant Marketing Director, who has been employed by the Bassett family for the last 41 years, Bassett Center was planned to be in the hub of the city so it would be easily accessible from all parts of El Paso. Even today, as El Paso continues to grow, Bassett Center remains in the geographic center of town.
When Bassett Center was built, it was El Paso's first and only regional shopping center, a retailing term meaning that it contained two major department stores. Both of Bassett's major department stores were locally founded -- the White House and the Popular. It was also advertised as being the largest shopping center between Dallas and Los Angeles.
The original 56-acre mall was approximately 700 feet long and 50 feet wide, consisting of six separate buildings blended together. The buildings shared a common roof, with the center of the mall open, providing the perfect environment for lush greenery and flowers surrounding numerous fountains and ponds. The first to sign leases at Bassett were the White House, S.S. Kresge and the Popular. Other original stores included Walgreens, Singer Sewing Center, Kinney Shoes, Lerner Shop, Baker Shoes, National Shirt Shop, Aaronson Brothers, Thomas Paint Company, Cherry's Barber Shop, Hardy Shoes, Tony Lama, Melody Shop, Franklin Optical, Dauphin House Gifts, Feder's Jewelers and Stehling's Linen Shop. After being opened only one year, Bassett was such a success that the number of stores increased to 48 from the original 19. Today there are approximately 85 stores in the mall, but five of the original stores remain: Baker Shoes, Kinney Shoes, Franklin Optical, Walgreens and Lerners.
True to Bassett family tradition, the spirit of community involvement was continued with the shopping center. When the original mall opened, it included a community center available for public use, both by clubs and private parties. Bassett was not just a place to shop; it was a civic center as well with dog shows, gymkhana car races, sewing and ceramic shows, art exhibits, FFA displays and many other local and national events. Bassett Center integrated itself into the life of the El Paso community. It established yearly events, such as the annual Sidewalk Sale and the Moonlight Sale that are still part of El Paso's shopping tradition. And what El Pasoan could forget Jett's Petting Zoo or Safety Town, where thousands of local children learned bicycle and home safety in the summer?
It was not only the special events that brought the people out to the mall. Just as the rest of the nation was discovering, the malls were a community gathering place. Many times families had a night out on the town at Bassett Center. Teresa Chilson, a lifelong El Paso resident who grew up near Bassett Center, recalls that one of her favorite memories is of "the whole family going to S.S. Kresge for banana splits and getting to pop the balloons to see how much they would cost. We would sit on the little round, red spinning stools at the counter and get a balloon. Inside each balloon was a slip of paper that would have a price from 1 to 99 cents, and the price on our paper was how much the banana split would cost."
Bassett Center was an important part in the life of the El Paso community in the 1960s. From the opening of Bassett Center in March 1962, to the addition of the movie theater in December 1965, the mall was right on the target with nationwide trends. Although the days of community involvement are past, the mall is recognized as a social gathering place in the community and has replaced Main Street as the place to be seen. Many locals still prefer to shop and socialize at Bassett, even though it is only one of many malls. Most long-time El Pasoans have pleasant memories of the various events at Bassett Center. The community events are sorely missed for they help to recall more nostalgic times when neighbor knew neighbor and the world was a much safer and saner place. The younger generation not only cruises the streets but also the malls, to be seen and definitely to see who is there. Older generations shop and use the mall as a place to exercise, a safe, climate-controlled environment devoid of pollution which provides the ideal location for a lively walk. Maybe the attraction of the mall to some is that it gives the notion that it is almost the perfect world.