Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Dead Malls and the Irony of Nostalgia

The Changing Landscape of Commerce and the Human Element Affected Therein

by J. Albert Barr

"I'm a product of my generation." - Peter Blackbird: Deadmalls.com

The very first fully enclosed and functional shopping mall opened its doors in 1956. It was called the Southdale Shopping Mall, and it was located in Edina, Minnesota. The influential architect who designed that mall was Victor Gruen. Years later Gruen would become disillusioned and even abhorred at what eventually happened to his original, allegedly more utopian and human-friendly, vision of the mall. He was quoted as saying during a speech in London in 1978 (two years before his death at age 76) that the prolific development of shopping malls had "bastardized" his ideas. It would seem that the shark-like forward momentum of dispassionate commerce and capital had other ideas for the shopping mall complex and the strategic enticement of its, mostly suburban, clientele.

Before the modern shopping mall, there were "strip malls", or shopping plazas, that featured open-air businesses all set in a row and connected by a sidewalk where customers could enter from the street and exit to continue on to the adjoining store or one located further down the strip. Even today, strip malls/plazas are still around, and almost exclusively found in suburban areas. The strip mall first developed shortly after the first World War. There was even an indoor mall prototype constructed in 1915 and officially opened the following year. It was called the Lake View Store at Morgan Park, and, like Southdale Mall, it too was located in Minnesota, in the seaport city of Duluth.

In the early to mid-19th century the first commercial, iron-and-glass covered arcades were built in Europe and opened to the public, signifying the first genuine notion of the modern consumer perusing the market-place to make potential purchases with legal tender. In Walter Benjamin's celebrated, but unfinished, book, "The Arcades Project" (from myriad notes compiled between 1927 and 1940, the year he died), he retroactively defined a certain characteristic found in a select few that were known as flaneurs (i.e., strollers); ones who would leisurely walk around the newly developing, bustling, urban city streets, and glass-enclosed arcades (in particular, the Parisian arcades), pricing nothing, but merely observing - in their ironic solitude and isolation within the fairly new phenomenon known as the "crowd" - the considerable changes to the public environment they occupied with the majority of less-conscious city denizens. Benjamin's prototypical flaneur, pre-dating mass commodity production, was the reputed father of French Symbolist poetry, Charles Baudelaire.

In one of Baudelaire's well-known sonnets written in the 1850s entitled, "A Une Passante" ("To a Passer-by"), and evidently composed after one of his flaneur-related constitutionals, he sees a beautiful woman in the "deafening", busy streets of Paris. He notices her lifting the hem of her ornate, Victorian-era dress as she gracefully weaves through the bustling crowd initially unaware of the anonymous "stroller" admiringly observing her from afar. They then make eye-contact for a brief, passing moment, which causes a sort of "lightning flash" in Baudelaire's eyes, obviously quite taken by this beauty's returning, if transitory, glance. And then, suddenly, it's nighttime, and the mysterious lady has long since disappeared from the poet's view, probably forever, as he addresses her in his mind: "Shall I not see you till eternity?" Though the poet has no idea where she may be now, his ever so brief encounter with her from a distance, and in a large crowd, has marked him profoundly and seen as a missed opportunity for love. In the ensuing 150 or so years, this kind of fleeting experience has become commonplace for modern and postmodern humans while being typically surrounded by commerce and consumerism, ubiquitous advertising and ever-present crowds - unconsciously immersed in the capitalist ideology of their time and place.

Today, the Baudelairean-type of flaneur is a relic of a long since past time and world, I should think. The kind of modern world that developed after World War II, particularly during the Eisenhower years of the 1950s when the suburban explosion happened, and the conservative "nuclear family" appeared as the standard image, especially in America, of citizenry living under the capitalist economic system, became the ontological norm, the way it simply was. This was certainly the overwhelming case for most of North America in general, as it was unmistakably endorsed and shown on a novel technological medium called a television set. Programs like: "I Love Lucy", "The Honeymooners", "Leave It To Beaver", "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet", and "Make Room for Daddy" gleefully and innocently projected strong conservative family values, politics and cultural behavior that seemingly effortlessly espoused American interests and way of life. And this included a commodity-filled deluge of the newest manufactured household items, fashions, domestic gadgets and appliances, all available at the new shopping malls suddenly appearing after 1956; and not to mention the assembly-line inundation of streamlined model vehicles for which to drive the family to said malls, and loan to one's teenager for that special date. America's celebrated "car culture" and the official arrival of the "teenager" and "teen culture", in general, coincided with the 50s; and this brought along with it the birth of rock 'n' roll too, as its own personal soundtrack. The drive-in theatre would become a cultural sensation as cinema reached new heights of popularity and consumer consumption. More and more conspicuous teens would be seen hanging out at malt shops and burger joints and mall parking lots.

It's no surprise that out of the burgeoning Cold War in the 50s was created McCarthyism and the paranoid notion of the "commies" coming to infiltrate and usurp America's collective identity and material beliefs. This kind of paranoia towards "the other" was implicitly expressed through the "U.F.O. craze" that swept across America's pop-culture landscape at that time, despite the suspiciously willful determination to maintain the apparent idyllic quality of life so overtly displayed in many a common American residential community. But even completely American-derived literary works like "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" (1955) and "Peyton Place" (1956) were beginning to expose the cracks in the smiley-face of the suburban utopia advertised on billboards, television and neighborhoods everywhere.

Shopping malls would continue to be built vigorously, and opened with great optimism and promise, throughout the U.S. and Canada during the 60s, as the culture would alter drastically from the Beat Generation-cum-Hippie Movement, to post-revolutionary comedown, 70s cynicism, drug-addled rock ' n' roll fantasies and disco/nightclub hedonism a la Studio 54. And the first true blockbuster films, such as "Jaws" (1975) and "Star Wars" (1977) would begin to change the way movies were made and marketed, for better or worse, with their endless tie-ins and cross-promotions connected with fast-food chains, original soundtracks, clothing fashions and wide-spreading merchandising and paraphernalia. Movies became more "commercially conscious" as a result. All of this would significantly contribute to what would become known in the 1980s, full-blown, as "mall culture" incarnate.

The shopping mall, its experience, and mall culture in general, would peak during the 80s. It was also during the 80s that malls, particularly their interiors, would commonly be seen in many movies, especially movies geared towards a younger, consumer conscious, demographic, such as the "teen movie". Perhaps no other teen movie, or movie in general, captured mall culture entering its zenith-period like 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High". Many scenes in the film show nearly all the principle characters either working at, or shopping/hanging out at, a mall. The aura of normalcy would be palpably seen and felt by both the film's characters and the viewing audience, who likely went to a mall theater to see "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (one of the film's main characters, Mark "Rat" Ratner, even works at a mall theater). By the mid-to-late 80s the notion of the "mall rat" (someone who spends a great amount of time loitering in malls) was beginning to enter the cultural vernacular.

The typical shopping mall in the 80s could be described thusly, using a prime example from my suburban youth, Parkway Mall, in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada: A one-level elongated structure flanked by east and west-located parking lots. Inside would feature a north-end department store, known as the "anchor store" (the heart of the mall's commercial viability); in this particular case, a Zellers. At the opposite, south-end of the mall is located a secondary department store, which is a little smaller than the main anchor store, called The Met (outside of these respective stores are a row of coin-operated vending machines filled with candy, gumballs and assorted plastic trinkets and toys). Between the main and secondary anchor stores is the mall atrium, which is architecturally-designed to facilitate the flow a large bodies of people who go there for shopping purposes (for the most part: see above paragraph for the definition of "mall rat"). As one walks from one end of the mall to the other they will notice a self-contained, circular kitchenette in the middle of the atrium for patrons to sit at in a 360 degree formation (the much older version of the "mall rat" can be found here); a drug store, like Shoppers Drug Mart; across from the drug store, a grocery store, like, say, Sobeys; further down the atrium is a baking goods cafĂ© and a flower shop, washroom facilities and an electronic store called Radio Shack (now known, collectively, as The Source), a novelty shop, and a clothing store, like Thriftys; men's and women's apparel specialty stores, like Tip Top and Le Chateau; a footwear shop; a jewellery establishment and a book mart/convenience store. At the north-west side is found a movie theater, while across from it is a laundry-mat and a sporting goods shop. At the north-east side entrance is an independent family restaurant, as opposed to the food court that is located at the south-west end, featuring several well-known fast-food outlets to choose from before making your way to the abundant seating area to eat your generically-processed food. And, finally, at the south-east end there's a video arcade for teens and video game lovers to hang-out in and dunk quarters into the twenty or so available video game units. Located outside of the main mall area are separate entrances to the liquor store and a Smitty's restaurant.

For a considerable cross-section of those born in the mid-to-late 60s and early 70s, the "mall experience" was a huge part of their growing up, and dominated much of their adolescence and social life. It became a part of their identity, of who they were as a person, culturally (though they weren't wholly conscious of this sociological understanding, of course), and how they were reflected onto others, who were usually a lot like them. Unlike kids and teens, and people in general, today, there were no omnipresent technological gadgets like a cell-phone, a Blackberry, an IPad, a portable Playstation, what-have-you, to dominate one's attention by fashionably fidgeting with it through constantly downcast eyes and hyper-active hands. The mall culture of the 80s actually stimulated the idea of a consistently active and (relatively) healthy social-life, whatever social group, or economic category you happened to fit into. That would be a "glass half-full" perspective on mall culture. The downside of it all was all the unchecked commerce and consumer-mentality that, customarily, went along with it, like the air that you breathed (Reagan's economic-prosperity plan in action, until it was humbled by decade's end); a surrogate parental-avatar for the then fading unity of the traditional family. Parents no longer "bring their kids up": pop-culture and capitalism do.

By the mid-90s everything would change and a steady downward trend regarding malls and mall culture would begin to show signs of decline, both economically and socially. To perfectly contrast, cinematically, with "Fast Times at Ridgemont High", and it's optimistic view of mall culture, Kevin Smith made a 1995 film entitled, both appropriately and ironically enough, "Mallrats". It starred Jason Lee and Jeremy London as a couple of "slacker buddies" who spend an entire day at a mall. Pop-culture references would frequently be uttered by all and sundry, and adolescent-scale high-jinks would ensue willy-nilly by characters predominately in their 20s, as opposed to the teenagers that inhabited "Fast Times at Ridgemont High". This represented a significant trend happening in the culture at that time in the 90s: pop-culture was becoming more and more self-referential and self-conscious, literally and ironically; and young people were refusing to grow-up, to mature, even as they became more culturally-informed, savvy and witty, not to mention older; their sense of restlessness and respective defenses becoming sharply honed in the process, as capitalism's ideology was showing signs of transparency and in need of a reconstitution to pacify "Generation X". By the turn of the new millennium, one could hear phrases like "30s are the new 20s" and "40s are the new 30s", and so on, as our now youth-obsessed, and increasingly immature, culture was building momentum, while being dumbed-down, correspondingly.

At one point in "Mallrats", the two main characters relocate to a discernibly older mall with lower consumer traffic and much-dated decor. This mall was clearly an 80s throwback on the decline, unlike the updated, busy mall they initially visited, which was reflected in a very tongue-in-cheek manner by Kevin Smith. This direct contrast in the respective mall's fortunes provided, unknowingly from Smith's perspective I suspect, the economic trend that was happening at that time, and would culminate by the end of the 90s in what we now call the "dead mall" phenomenon. Consequently, and fittingly so, I feel, "Mallrats" would be a box-office bomb and critical failure, as opposed to "Fast Times at Ridgemont High's" great success at the box-office and subsequent ascension to pop-iconic status. However, "Mallrats'" fortunes since its 1995 release wouldn't be all bad, as it has become a "cult favorite" of sorts, likely bolstered by its period-capturing cache. The two films provide a great bookends that encompassed the golden age of the shopping mall and mall culture, generally speaking.

By the year 2000, hundreds of shopping malls across the U.S. and Canada were seriously in decline or completely out of business; effectively "dead", in other words (self-contained "box-stores" like Walmart and Target would eventually dominate the market-place for shoppers). The Internet went commercial in 1995, along with portable cellular-phones, significantly enough; home-bound video game culture was collecting steam, and public smoking bans were coming into effect as well, which would seriously "cramp the styles" of many mall rats and patrons. The mall exodus was well underway. So, in the year 2000, two young men, Peter Blackbird and Brian Florence, started a website solely dedicated to the "dead mall" trend that they were, together, noticing more and more. They called their website Deadmalls.com. Blackbird would coin the term "labelscar" in 1998, which describes "fading or dirt left behind from a sign on or in a mall. Labelscars leave a readable marking, which is very helpful when identifying former stores". They also defined a dead mall, or grey field, as "a shopping mall with a high vacancy rate or a low consumer traffic level, or that is dated or deteriorating in some manner". Their website is replete with photos of hundreds of dead, or dying, malls, showing both their mostly dilapidated exteriors and abandoned interiors. To gaze upon these photos is to evoke an eerie sense of "what was", as you witness the ghost town-like conditions of these once bustling businesses. And there is a human element that has been invariably affected, consequentially, by all these closed-down malls across North America. That's why people like Peter Blackbird, Brian Florence and innumerable citizens and inhabitants of the respective towns and cities these malls were found in have a collective sense of nostalgia for these once thriving "social centers", besides the consumer and commodity aspect they supplied, simultaneously.

In a 2002 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interview, Blackbird was quoted as saying: "Tearing down malls also tosses away a repository of a community's memories. I want to try and preserve what they were.[who concedes he loves the old-style malls that seem dated but were once cool places to hang out] I'm a product of my generation". I too, despite myself, am one of those members of that generation that lived through the golden age of the shopping mall, and its accompanying culture, for better or worse, in all its sociological and historical irony. I too look back, nostalgically (especially compared to how much the world and culture has dramatically changed since then), when Parkway Mall, for instance, was a thriving bee-hive of social activity and commercial consumption. And life was far less complicated and jaded than it is today, especially for the young and culturally-impressionable.


  1. I like your use of Walter Benjamin's key idea.

  2. The strip mall is to North America today what the area around a Cathedral was in Medieval and early modern Europe. Even today there are often many stalls around a church. Walter Benjamin needs to be better known by people who are not experts on social theory or philosophy, etc. His book The Arcades Project is one that people should read.

    1. Cool, I will do so... (read Arcades Project)

  3. Thanks so much for your comments, Johannes. It's always great to get feedback from something you write, especially when it focuses on important and relevant issues and subject matter. I couldn't agree more regarding your point that Walter Benjamin "needs" and deserves to be better known outside of the usually insular and marginal confines of academia. I can assure you that I fully intend to cite Benjamin's thought and work again in my future blog articles. Take care, and by all means stay tuned here, because there's A LOT more to come. :-)