The Death of the American Mall
It is hard to believe there has ever been any life in this place. Shattered glass crunches under Seph Lawless’s feet as he strides through its dreary corridors. Overhead lights attached to ripped-out electrical wires hang suspended in the stale air and fading wallpaper peels off the walls like dead skin.
Lawless sidesteps debris as he passes from plot to plot in this retail graveyard called Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, Ohio. The shopping centre closed in 2008, and its largest retailers, which had tried to make it as standalone stores, emptied outby the end of last year. When Lawless stops to overlook a two-storey opening near the mall’s once-bustling core, only an occasional drop of water, dribbling through missing ceiling tiles, breaks the silence.
Gazing down at the motionless escalators, dead plants and empty benches below, he adds: “It’s still beautiful, though. It’s almost like ancient ruins.”“You came, you shopped, you dressed nice – you went to the mall. That’s what people did,” says Lawless, a pseudonymous photographer who grew up in a suburb of nearby Cleveland. “It was very consumer-driven and kind of had an ugly side, but there was something beautiful about it. There was something there.”
Dying shopping malls are speckled across the United States, often in middle-class suburbs wrestling with socioeconomic shifts. Some, like Rolling Acres, have already succumbed. Estimates on the share that might close or be repurposed in coming decades range from 15 to 50%. Americans are returning downtown; online shopping is taking a 6% bite out of brick-and-mortar sales; and to many iPhone-clutching, city-dwelling and frequently jobless young people, the culture that spawned satire like Mallrats seems increasingly dated, even cartoonish.
According to longtime retail consultant Howard Davidowitz, numerous midmarket malls, many of them born during the country’s suburban explosion after the second world war, could very well share Rolling Acres’ fate. “They’re going, going, gone,” Davidowitz says. “They’re trying to change; they’re trying to get different kinds of anchors, discount stores … [But] what’s going on is the customers don’t have the fucking money. That’s it. This isn’t rocket science.”
Shopping culture follows housing culture. Sprawling malls were therefore a natural product of the postwar era, as Americans with cars and fat wallets sprawled to the suburbs. They were thrown up at a furious pace as shoppers fled cities, peaking at a few hundred per year at one point in the 1980s, according to Paco Underhill, an environmental psychologist and author of Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping. Though construction has since tapered off, developers left a mall overstock in their wake.
Currently, the US contains around 1,500 of the expansive “malls” of suburban consumer lore. Most share a handful of bland features. Brick exoskeletons usually contain two storeys of inward-facing stores separated by tile walkways. Food courts serve mediocre pizza. Parking lots are big enough to easily misplace a car. And to anchor them economically, malls typically depend on department stores: huge vendors offering a variety of products across interconnected sections.
For mid-century Americans, these gleaming marketplaces provided an almost utopian alternative to the urban commercial district, an artificial downtown with less crime and fewer vermin. As Joan Didion wrote in 1979, malls became “cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes”. Peppered throughout disconnected suburbs, they were a place to see and be seen, something shoppers have craved since the days of the Greek agora. And they quickly matured into a self-contained ecosystem, with their own species – mall rats, mall cops, mall walkers – and an annual feeding frenzy known as Black Friday.
“Local governments had never dealt with this sort of development and were basically bamboozled [by developers],” Underhill says of the mall planning process. “In contrast to Europe, where shopping malls are much more a product of public-private negotiation and funding, here in the US most were built under what I call ‘cowboy conditions’.”
Shopping centres in Europe might contain grocery stores or childcare centres, while those in Japan are often built around mass transit. But the suburban American variety is hard to get to and sells “apparel and gifts and damn little else”, Underhill says.
Nearly 700 shopping centres are “super-regional” megamalls, retail leviathans usually of at least 1 million square feet and upward of 80 stores. Megamallstypically outperform their 800 slightly smaller, “regional” counterparts, though size and financial health don’t overlap entirely. It’s clearer, however, that luxury malls in affluent areas are increasingly forcing the others to fight for scraps. Strip malls – up to a few dozen tenants conveniently lined along a major traffic artery – are retail’s bottom feeders and so well-suited to the new environment. Butmidmarket shopping centres have begun dying off alongside the middle class that once supported them. Regional malls have suffered at least three straight years of declining profit per square foot, according to the International Council of Shopping Centres (ICSC).
The trend is especially noticeable in the Midwest, a former blue-collar bastion where ailing malls have begun dotting suburban landscapes. Outside of Chicago,Lakehurst Mall was levelled in 2004 and the half-vacant Lincoln Mall is costing its host village millions in botched redevelopment plans. Dixie Square Mall sat vacant for more than 30 years after serving as the backdrop for the iconic chase scene in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. It was finally demolished in 2012. Many others will similarly lie dormant as they wait for the wrecking ball.
These hulking monuments to American consumer culture make up the subject of Lawless' book Black Friday. The work includes photographs from Randall Park Mall, a Cleveland-area shopping centre being demolished after five years of vacancy, and Rolling Acres, to which the tattooed, mohawk-sporting photographer returned in late May.
Vandals have left none of the mall’s glass storefronts in tact – “kids coming in and breaking shit,” Lawless explains. Shattered skylights allow rain to fall inside and douse the musty hallways. Coupons offering $10 off at Radioshack, a retailer that announced the closure of up to 1,100 stores last year, are still scattered about the tile floors.
Built in 1975, when times were good, Rolling Acres and its 1.2 million square feet once boasted 140 stores. “All of Akron shopped at the megamall,” the Cleveland Plain-Dealer recalled. “Gone are the glory days.” A man was electrocuted in 2011when trying to steal copper piping from the structure, and the body of a serial killer victim was found in a shallow grave behind the mall that same year.
The shopping centre sits on the nondescript outskirts of Akron, a shrinking city of 200,000 that’s a short drive south of Cleveland. Dubbed the “Rubber Capital of the World”, it hosted much of the country’s tire manufacturing industry in the 20th century. But it has faced economic hardship and a 30% drop in population over the past 50 years, just as nearby Cleveland took an even deeper plunge.
Formerly home to a slew of big-box stores, the area surrounding Rolling Acres has more recently attracted discount shops, storage warehouses and a recycling centre. The structure itself is drowning in a sea of cracked and fading asphalt, a parking lot that looks naked without the thousands of cars for which it was paved.
“Everyone has good memories of the malls. It was a happier time, essentially,” Lawless says over lunch in Cleveland, whose Arcade shopping centre downtown fell into foreclosure after the financial crisis. Initiatives to improve feeble malls often prove palliative, he adds, “because it’s about the communities, not just the malls.”
Various estimates project dozens to hundreds of struggling US shopping centres will close in the next 20 years. It’s the “natural lifecycle of any business”, says Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the ICSC trade group. And it often mirrors the natural lifecycle of the surrounding community. “Demographics dry up,” he says. “Everyone felt the effects of the recession, but some places felt it far more than others. Does it mean that it’s difficult for retail to come back [there]? Yes. Does it mean that it won’t come back? No.”
Leaders in many towns that once fought for malls now grapple with how to inter their remains. Highland Mall in Austin, Texas, is being converted into a community college campus, and Lakeland Mall in Florida now houses a megachurch. Others have been redeveloped to include housing, offices and even green space. But it’s hard to envision many ageing malls, especially those in the Rust Belt, mustering demand for such transformations.
Driving past Northland Centre in Southfield, Michigan, unfamiliar passersby would have been hard-pressed to judge whether the mall had a pulse on recent afternoons. Located just past Detroit’s racially charged border at Eight Mile Road, the shopping centre opened to great fanfare in 1954. A New York Times article the next year estimated that it attracted 30,000 daily carloads of shoppers who “stroll about and window-shop just as they do on Fifth Avenue in New York”. The mall “created a new downtown”, the piece concluded.
That may be true, but not without helping destroy another. Some locals todaypoint to Northland as the symbolic beginning of the end, an emblem of the postwar sprawl that gradually decimated Detroit. Indeed, the shopping centre heralded a new wave of malls in nearby suburbs – a dozen were built in southeast Michigan over the next 20 years. They drew consumers away from downtown shops like Hudson’s, once the second-largest department store in the world. The 410-foot titan was demolished in 1998, leaving young Detroiters with a block-long expanse of concrete as the only clue to its former grandeur.
For middle-class white people who fled Detroit in the boom years, Southfield was a prime destination: its population quadrupled between 1950 and 1980. But the well-off have continued sprawling to more distant suburbs – a trend that accelerated after 2000 – and poorer Detroiters have continued moving in to replace them. Northland Centre likewise stagnated; its last major update came in the early 1990s. Only two anchor stores remain, with the shell of another set to house a local church. Many local shoppers have turned toward more lustrous megamalls in outer suburbs.
There used to be life in this place. It used to be where families would go on Christmas Eve for last-minute holiday shopping. It used to be where teenagers cutting class would dodge mall cops so they could pick up Dr Dre’s latest single. And it used to be where young, middle-class Detroiters like Betty Booth, wearing their Sunday best, would come for weekend outings. “It was an all-day event,” says Booth, who was a teenager when the mall opened. “This is where you met people.”
Booth is the president of the Northland Pacers, a mall-walking club that gathers for morning exercise around the shopping centre’s one-mile perimeter. The club reached nearly 1,000 members in the 1980s, even garnering sponsorships from retailers. But the Pacers have withered alongside their namesake.
Northland was sold to a private real-estate investment company in late 2008 for a reported $31m, just a hair over its construction cost a half-century earlier. Though Northland’s occupancy hung near 70% at the time, the new owners Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp saw “great potential” in the mall, citing its location among a web of highways crisscrossing the densely populated metro area. Buthope for the impending renovations has since dimmed. Five years after the sale, the management has yet to release any plans for Northland, and did not respond to a request for comment.
The mall’s structure, meanwhile, is growing increasingly antiquated. Its monstrous parking lots are crumbling. And its three- or four-level anchor stores have proven less viable than they once were, according to Terry Croad, Southfield’s director of planning. “The new owner has a good track record. They’ve got a portfolio with some big-ticket projects that are more in that lifestyle, pedestrian-oriented, indoor-outdoor sweet spot … But we haven’t seen much movement on their part here.”
And it shows. Employees at Northland’s stores appear to outnumber shoppers on a warm May afternoon, and Eminem’s Sing for the Moment blares from overhead speakers and bounces off the worn floors. Many of the mall’s tenants have departed over the years, leaving behind dark, vacant storefronts sadly reminiscent of the once-proud city on the other side of Eight Mile.
But Booth still arrives at Northland at 9:30 every morning to meet friends, most of them elderly women, and hold court. They meet in the food court, no less. For three or four hours, they share the latest news and gossip, including occasional whispers that the mall might close. “We always hear rumours about it happening, and it always scares us,” she says.
Those rumours may be premature. There are no immediate plans to close Northland. But factors that could ease any sort of recovery seem unlikely to improve. While Detroit is no longer in socioeconomic free-fall, it has entered a prolonged slump with no end in sight. The same goes for many nearby suburbs that likewise relied on the motor industry. Five megamalls sit within a 45-minute drive of Southfield – all at least 20 years Northland’s junior – in addition to several smaller competitors. Violence in the shopping centre won’t help matters. One patron died this year while fighting security guards.
Such signs only fuel Booth’s worries. Sipping coffee at a long line of tables surrounded by unlit shops, empty restaurants and the painted-over entrance to a former anchor store, she addresses most people who pass by name. Booth came of age when Americans went to malls not only to buy things, but also to shop. The pastime had its own peculiar type of social value, helping friends and strangers alike stay connected before the days of the internet.
Booth still needs that connection. She hesitates to walk in her northwest Detroit neighbourhood due to safety concerns. And while the city’s inner core has seen a modest revitalisation in recent years, it’s driven by young professionals of a social breed far different than hers. For Booth, Northland is still downtown, and the linoleum jungle is home. The mere mention of adapting to a new environment makes the 75-year-old shake her head.
“If this mall closed, I don’t know where we would go,” she says. “Where would we go?... This is where I meet my friends. We’ve been sitting here all these years, all in the same spot.”
Liz Abrom, a former president of the Northland Pacers who’s next to Booth and wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with their group’s name, adds: “This was Detroit’s mall. And over the years, a lot of people picked up and left the city. The same thing happened to the mall.”
David Uberti is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti
Black Friday: the Collapse of the American Shopping Mall, by Seth Lawless, is available here.