It’s a big room–maybe three thousand square feet. Where there used to be tile, the floor is now scraped clean, down to hard brown mastic. The walls and ceiling persist a very 1980s palette of hot mauve and battleship gray. Each side of the space still has one long set of track lighting, its bulbs intact, trained on the wall as if the space was most recently an art gallery or framing shop–possibly a dramatically-lit purveyor of boutique clothing or novelty gifts. At the back of the former store a single checkout island remains, its electric service dropped through conduit from the ceiling like a lifeline to the outside world.
This big empty space is a mystery–but it’s not alone. Pick a direction and there are many more like it: this one with colored tile and mirrored walls; that one with rectangular scars on the floor where heavy shelving used to be. An old A&P in glorious minty green and candy-apple red; an ex-Radio Shack with placards still advertising home theater, batteries, and wireless phones. In a former Chinese restaurant a grocery buggy is incongruously parked where diners used to eye up menu photos of Szechuan beef and General Tso’s Chicken.
On November 1, 1956 an entirely new experience greeted citizens of the commonwealth. With some sixty-five retail spaces–many of them gigantic, sized for furniture or department stores–spread out over three separate, long, low-slung buildings and hosting free parking for four thousand automobiles, Northern Lights Shoppers City must have felt every bit of its believable claim as Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center.
The new uber-plaza wasn’t in Philadelphia or its expansive suburbs, nor did it serve metro Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, or Harrisburg. It was located twenty-some miles northwest of us in Beaver County.
The terrific all-things-Beaver County blog Ambridge Memories has a great post on the opening (and, seven months later, Grand Opening) of Northern Lights. In this pre-mall era, the “shoppers city” monicker (it would be renamed Northern Lights Shopping Center some time later) turns out to be remarkably on-target. Unlike indoor malls we’ve come to expect, Northern Lights opening array of retail reads like a quintessential Main Street for any small town in America.
In addition to mall staples like department stores, restaurants, shoes, clothing, cards and gifts, there were two pharmacies, three supermarkets (A&P, Kroger, and Star), plus a butcher, green grocer, and bakery. Northern Lights offerings also included a bank, furniture store, optometrist, appliances, laundromat, hardware, automotive, dry cleaner, and beauty salon.
The little Ohio River town of Conway (pop. ~1,800 in the mid-1950s; a little larger today) might seem a strange choice for the location of such a gigantic development. In fact, the footprint for Northern Lights is just about identical in acreage to Conway’s lower street grid. Imagine a shopping plaza equal in size to your entire home town, with parking for cars numbering twice the total population.
The location was inevitably aimed at drawing from the larger Ohio Valley region, then still booming with active mill towns. Conway sits just about half way between the substantially-larger Ambridge to the south and the quad cities of Rochester-Beaver-Beaver Falls-New Brighton to the north. Across the river and easily accessible are Aliquippa and Monaca.
Today, it would be unfair to call Northern Lights a dead mall. There are definitely still enough open businesses to fill a lesser destination. Giant Eagle and a Wine & Spirits store alone make the location viable, but the shopping center also includes Dollar Tree, Napoli Pizza, and Avenue Boutique, a dialysis clinic, laundromat, a couple doctors’ offices, barber, and police substation.
But take a walk around and it won’t feel like Northern Lights’ property owners see a lot of future here. The former Ames (which was a Hills before that; we don’t know what the space opened as) is being readied for demolition with all the construction fence and heavy equipment to prove it. A number of glass storefronts are covered in protective plywood. Looking through the windows of other spaces yields an eerie view–not of available retail space, but rather one that reads as closed-and-left-town-in-the-night, leaving a pile of junk behind.
There’s no one factor that led Northern Lights to this point. We know retail in general and shopping malls in particular have suffered for years. This is a national trend affecting city, suburb, and small town alike.
Northern Lights would have to deal with serious competition–first from the more modern Beaver Valley Mall (opened 1970), then The Internet. Couple that with the loss of thousands and thousands of well-paying steel industry jobs and the massive buying power they once provided all evaporating.in short order in the 1980s.
Perhaps the cruelest plot point is that Northern Lights Shopping Center–itself a ruthless aggressor in the retail war with various Main Streets up and down the Ohio River Valley–was ultimately cannibalized by the same buy-cheap-and-convenient economic forces that brought it to life.
In 2014, WalMart opened a new megastore on the hillside just above the plaza, despite a major legal fight with Giant Eagle. The route to get there is a brand new road, created via eminent domain, right through the demolished space where J.C. Penny used to be. If no one shops at Northern Lights anymore, at least they drive through its enormous parking lot to get to WalMart.
 Source: http://ambridgememories.blogspot.com/2013/11/northern-lights-shoppers-city-opening.html
 Actually, Southdale Center, the “world’s first modern shopping mall,” opened in 1956–the very same year as Northern Lights–in suburban Minneapolis. Source: https://gizmodo.com/the-worlds-first-modern-shopping-mall-5114869
 Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway,_Pennsylvania#Demographics
 Source: https://archive.triblive.com/news/pittsburgh-allegheny/work-on-wal-mart-supercenter-set-to-begin-in-beaver-county/