Cover Photo: Nicholas Eckhart
Nicholas Eckhart

Hot Topic: Why Are Shopping Malls Dead?

“That tidy dream of ours has had to give way.”

My mall was Lloyd Center. It was not, as its ads crooned, in “the center of the city,” but rather in what used to be Portland, Oregon’s plebeian East Side. Like most malls of the early 2000s, it was the site of The Body Shop and Pac Sun and Wet Seal and Cinnabon and Nordstrom, but it was also home to our own Meier & Frank department store, and the ice rink where Tonya Harding practiced her triple axels, and the Claire’s Accessories where, within eyeshot of the greasy food court and the Orange Julius, mothers brought their daughters to get their ears pierced by plastic guns.

In the seventh grade, Lloyd Center was a place of thin escape, a Soviet bloc-style cement compound sealed off from the outside world. It was where you communed with peers because you hadn’t yet figured out a better place to do so. It was the outlet for my friends’ shoplifting addictions, and where I paid for but did not watch several terrible movies with a boy in the sticky back row of the theater. There were, it seemed, regular news reports of sweaty men carrying knives, shootings and bomb threats. The gloom of the gray Portland winters trickled in from narrow skylights onto the dirty tile. And it was, by then, a place where most of our parents preferred we didn’t spend our time, opting for the safer option: ironically, the city streets.

Recently it seems that we’ve reached a consensus: the suburban shopping mall is on its way out. The last few years has seen its share of swan songs for that American phenomenon: “A Farewell to Mallrats in The Atlantic,  “The Economics (and Nostalgia) of Dead Malls” in The New York Times, “Are Malls Over?” in The New Yorker, as well as the brimming archives at DeadMalls.com.  In January of this year, The New York Times reported that nearly one-fifth of the nation’s 1,200 enclosed malls have vacancy rates of 10 percent or more, a figure considered “troubling” by real estate experts. And those don’t include the 3 percent of malls that are deemed to be “dead” or “dying”—up from 1 percent in 2006. These have vacancies of 40 percent or higher, totaling an estimated 30 million square feet of blank space.

I’ve been trying to understand their demise, as the answers readily given lack a certain depth. Online shopping, for example, accounts for only 6 percent of retail sales. And if it’s that nearly all malls share that battered, Reagan-era aesthetic, it’s nothing a renovation couldn’t resolve. And while, yes, cities have become stylish again in the twenty-first century, there’s still plenty of people in the suburbs to support business.

*

In 2011, after graduating from college, I spent my days wandering the checkered landscape of Providence, Rhode Island where, jobless and without savings, I’d followed my boyfriend to grad school. We lived in a food desert, at the top of a three-family Victorian in an old neighborhood overshadowed by a giant luxury mall. I didn’t drive, and Providence’s steep hills made biking difficult, and so I found myself relying on that mall for many of my small errands: ATMs, underwear, cell phones, CVS.

At the time, Providence was pocked by recently polished commercial centers which butted up against districts that had been abandoned since the 1970s, and were now slowly recovering. This contrast of ruin and reconstruction was especially true in “downcity” where, one day, just a short walk from the gleaming Providence Place Mall, I wandered past a giant, lifeless Greek Revival complex. I paused to consider the remote grandness of this mysterious building, its vaulted roof girded by Ionic pillars.

I walked up the steps and peered through the row of locked glass doors. There were tiny, empty storefronts, lace-like iron railings rimming the edges of the upper floors, and a glass atrium filtering sunlight onto white porcelain tile. When I stepped back again, I looked up at the building’s name etched into the entryway: The Westminster Arcade.

Photo from the Boston Public Library

A month earlier, I’d been sitting in one of my final undergraduate classes, reading Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the German critic’s posthumous collage of writings (compiled from thousands of index cards) that examined the cultural and economic histories embedded in the early shopping pavilions known as arcades. They debuted in late eighteenth-century Oxford as a covered marketplace that organized vendors into discrete shops under a distinctively arched roof—  “passages” beneath vertical residential space. And they appealed to the emergent bourgeoisie by tidying up the grit and anarchy of street stalls. The form proliferated across Western Europe over the next several decades, thriving especially in the streets of pre-Revolution Paris—the site of Benjamin’s study.

To Benjamin, the arcades marked not only an aesthetic shift, but a philosophical one as well. They embodied the disorientation caused by the “urban commodity capitalism” of fin-de-siècle France, and thus signaled an entirely new relationship between the urban center and its residents. Thus was born the flaneur—that curious, analytical dandy who, without destination, strolled as a means to experience a city. But the flaneur, and therefore the arcade, became political, too.

“Flânerie was not without its ideological opponents,” says writer and psychogeographer Bobby Seal. “[A]uthoritarian regimes in particular objected to any expression of loitering or idleness, seeing it as a manifestation of subversion; Hitler, for example, banned both prostitutes and vagrants from the streets. The loiterer refuses to submit to the social controls of modern industry.” After the 1848 French Revolution, the infamous city planner Baron Haussmann renovated Paris, constructing its wide boulevards that prevented future working-class barricade uprisings. In so doing, Haussmann destroyed many of the arcades, which were thought to possess in their very structure the means of popular revolt.

Depressed and wandering in Providence, I had stumbled upon the object of Benjamin’s obsession. It was a comfort to me for a couple of reasons: it recalled my identity as a student, which I’d painfully just given up, and it gave purpose to my post-graduate listlessness by aligning it with the tradition of the flaneur. In a corner of the arcade, under an outdoor staircase, one business remained: a tobacco shop in a room the size of a closet. I started buying cigarettes there so I’d have a reason to go back, to feel the strange pressure of contesting centuries playing out in this space, and to figure out why this arcade had fallen into disuse.

Built in 1828, the Westminster Arcade (originally named after an adjacent street) espouses to be the first enclosed shopping center in America. However, as architectural historian Richard Longstreth, author of City Center to Regional Mall, told me, there were others before it that have since been demolished, so it’s really the earliest remaining arcade of its kind. Longstreth stressed that American cities lack the continuity of their European counterparts that would have allowed arcades to prosper for any longer than a few years at a time.

The Westminster Arcade was under threat of demolition for most of the twentieth century, with short, shifting phases of occupancy. By the 1940s, as middle-class flight transformed the city’s demographics, plans were drafted for the arcade’s removal. It was saved and finally landmarked in the 1970s, but it still struggled to establish commercial viability for retail businesses. Of course, by then and throughout most of those intervening years, retailers had already found profit in the arcade’s descendants: first, the galleria, and then—the suburban shopping mall.

*

Southdale, the first modern American shopping mall, opened in 1956 in Edina, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. Like the old-style arcades, it was inspired by the urban landscape of Europe. Its architect, Viennese socialist Victor Gruen, tried to bring to suburbia “better versions of American downtowns,” writes Mark Byrnes for CityLab. But Gruen’s Continental vision was no contest to American capitalism.

Southdale, which all future indoor malls were modeled after, included plans that were never realized. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2004 New Yorker feature on the history of malls revealed Gruen’s original design for Southdale, including apartments, schools, medical offices, and even a park. The Economist describes Gruen’s dream as a space where “shoppers were expected to sit and debate over cups of coffee, just as they do in the Piazza San Marco or the Place Dauphine.” But when Congress passed new corporate depreciation laws in the late 1950s, incentivizing the use of  all square footage for retail, the simulation of the people-centered “downtown” Gruen had imagined was cast aside. Malls weren’t about the civic good—they were about making money.

Disheartened by his legacy in America, Gruen returned to Vienna in the 1960s. Later, he disowned American shopping malls, accusing his successors of having compromised his vision: “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.” Gruen had unwittingly provided the blueprint for a virtual capital bonanza, during a moment when the nation’s economic legislation neatly aligned with the cultivated values of American suburbanites. And moreover, Gruen’s dream of a Piazza di Minnesota, where folks might sip espresso and have political discourse, could not exist in McCarthy-era America.

Cities emptied and suburbs expanded with tracts and tracts of single, isolated homes. The compelling message of the American suburbs was that of safety, and the contained, autocratic self-sufficiency of the singular family. The mall reinforced those values by enlarging their identities as consumers, providing the means to accessorize their fortresses (just as the arcades had reinforced the flaneur). Plus, relegated to tidy houses in remote cul-de-sacs, consumers needed some kind of outlet, a pressure release valve, and the mall was, even without Gruen’s humanistic flourishes, that place—for the housewife or the teenager who had no place to walk. Malls were climate-controlled. They were clean. They provided the feeling of order post-war America so raged for.

But by the time I was of mall-going age, it was that very sense of enclosure that made shopping centers dangerous. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the mall was where you got kidnapped or gunned down. At least that was the fear. Bad guys and boogey men had you trapped and chartered in a sort of panopticon. There was also then an emergent backlash against what malls represented. In a 1995 New York Times article about the unveiling of The Westchester, an upscale White Plains mall, journalist Paul Goldberger derails himself from a critique of the building’s design, and begins to speak like a man who believes his country has abandoned him: “[T]he real issues here are not architectural. They involve the notion of public space in our time, and the declining role of cities. To people who believe that streets and public places represent a high civic ideal, every mall, no matter how handsome and prosperous, represents a kind of compromise, a takeover by the private sector of what was once a proud part of the public realm.”  

Of course, twenty years later, cities are sexy again. “Public space,”“green space,” and “community” are urban planning buzzwords. The perceived cultural vacuousness of the suburban mall has reached its logical conclusion.

So what can we learn about such change from the Parisian arcades of yore? In my conversation with architectural historian Richard Longstreth, I pressed that the design differences in the arcade and the modern shopping mall might tell us about the shift in cultural values. Longstreth objected. “The fundamental difference between the arcade and the shopping mall was not one of design. It was the business structure. The shopping center stores are planned, and hand-picked to complement one another, to reinforce complementary characteristics.” The arcade, on the other hand, was much looser in its planning, “more of a miscellany,” and open to the streets.

This clarification reminded me of Gladwell’s analysis of Gruen’s accidental mall legacy. He wrote, “[B]y putting everything under one roof, the retailer and the developer gained, for the first time, complete control over their environment.” Here, Gladwell describes the suburban shopping mall as operating a state of surveillance which smacks eerily of Baron Haussmann’s totalitarian renovations of post-revolution Paris: the wide visibility of the boulevards—and the demolition of many arcades—made the public easier to survey and control. While arcades resisted authoritarian influence, the latter was an authoritarian tool.

The dreams of safety through seclusion, and the perfect public order that malls embodied have been foreclosed through the realities of isolation. To have a dynamic society, we are learning that we have to allow for a certain lack of control: wandering, bumping into and about other people, allowing dissonant business models to clash. That tidy dream of ours has had to give way again for that dirty, bumbling pluralism. Which is to say, maybe American suburban malls are falling apart not because of online shopping, or because of the fashionableness of cities, or safety threats, or bad lighting, but rather because they threaten democracy, because they are inherently undemocratic spaces.

Adrian Shirk is the author of And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy , narrative expeditions of American women prophets and spiritual icons, from Counterpoint Press. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Atlas Obscura, The Morning News and others. She teaches women's studies and creative writing at Pratt Institute, and lives on the border of the Bronx and Yonkers, with her husband Sweeney and Quentin the cat.