American malls are on the decline. Payless ShoeSource is the latest victim, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month and announcing the immediate closure of 400 stores in the United States and Puerto Rico. A few months ago, Forbes cited a U.S. Department of Commerce study finding that sales at U.S. department stores—which have served as traditional mall anchors—declined from $87.46 billion in 2005 to $60.65 billion in 2015. Macy’s has announced it will close 68 stores by mid-2017, while Sears has declared its intention to shut down 42 stores by the end of the year.
Many who view malls as the paradigm of soulless suburban culture will say good riddance, though to the extent that these places are replaced by e-commerce distributors like Amazon, their disappearance may be worth mourning. To clarify what we Americans are losing, consider a comparison to malls in Thailand, where I’ve lived for almost three years.
It seems most of the malls in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, cater to the upper-class elite. “Hi-so” Thais, members of the country’s “high society,” find everything they could possibly want to validate their nouveau riche status at luxury shopping centers like Emporium, Em Quartier, and Central World. Wealthy Thais and expats can find every high-end designer brand there, including Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, and Tiffany & Co. The places are packed—a place to see and to be seen.
What is perhaps most strange about these malls is that they exist in communities surrounded by poverty. One has only to walk out onto the street to find scores of people hawking cheap food and various other bric-a-brac, people who exist somewhere between poverty and lowest of the lower-middle class. You’ll never see such people actually coming inside the Thai malls: the extensive security, frequently dressed up in the most ridiculous old-school European-style costumes (think Windsor Castle meets the Nutcracker), ensure that only those who can actually afford anything inside actually make it in. The malls serve to reinforce the severe stratification of Thai society.
This isn’t to say that America doesn’t have boutique malls oriented toward the most affluent of society. As a suburban Virginian, I grew up near Tysons Corner and Tysons Galleria, centers that also cater to the upper and upper-middle class. But this is not the typical experience in the U.S. For most of us, malls, for better and worse, represent one of the most plebeian, if also egalitarian, aspects of American culture.
The malls my family frequented were places where rich and poor alike rubbed elbows. The mall closest to my home in Virginia featured not only higher-end department stores but also the kind of cheap vendors populated by teenagers with only five bucks in their pocket. Indeed, in the local Chick-fil-A one was just as likely to see an older, moneyed southern couple, wife decked out in her Sunday best, as one was to see the redneck family of six with the father sporting camouflage and a John Deere baseball cap. Sure, some few rich folk might visit a custom tailor for shirts and suits, but the rest of us were renting our tux from the Men’s Wearhouse or Joseph A. Bank at our local mall.
Moreover, malls were the place where people hung out. They were, in their own weak, terribly imperfect way, a humanizing factor in what were in other respects disconnected, soulless suburbs. I remember in high school every other Friday one of my best friends and I would stop by the country club where we did maintenance work, pick up our checks, drive over to the mall to drop our money on CDs from our favorite bands, and pick up some Wendy’s for dinner. Maybe we’d check out a movie. Along the way, we were bound to see some friends, or if we were lucky, some cute girls—maybe from a different school, so that we wouldn’t feel so self-conscious about saying “hey.” So much suburban “coming of age” transpired in those air-conditioned monoliths.
I was reminded of the strange importance of these malls a few years ago when I was inspired to volunteer at a tutoring center located within walking distance of a suburban mall. One of my students was a first-generation Pakistani teenager—bright, energetic, and totally surrounded by bad influences. Yet we would walk over to that mall, grab something to eat and wander around, talking about life. I encouraged him to find work: he got his first job at the mall selling those cheap plastic wristbands then so popular among teenagers. The mall, oddly enough, was central in this kid’s upbringing—albeit not an ideal one, by any means.
As malls continue to die in America, what will take their place? As more and more people buy online (with, I acknowledge, many good reasons), there is an unfortunate side effect: we spend even less time wandering around in public spaces where we connect with people in our neighborhoods, both seeing people we recognize but also encountering new faces, new ideas, and maybe even new cultures. The echo chambers online are showing that the web falls far short of the kind of interconnected pluralist society that it fashions itself to be. Check out most website comment sections, and you’ll get a flavor for how online conversation is weakening, not strengthening, social bonds. Would two kids at a mall record store who disagreed over their favorite artist curse each other like they now do via YouTube?
Yes, malls reflect a certain societal degeneration from the old Main Street culture of Leave It to Beaver, where residential and commercial spaces so fluidly intersected, where most every store was family-owned, and where folks were caring neighbors whom you knew and who knew you. But at least malls maintained many of the positive social aspects of that more classic America. Indeed, as one Washington Post article argues, the loss of “anchor stores” like Macy’s and Sears leads to a decrease in foot traffic and the closure of smaller, family-owned businesses. As we move further into the digital age—and deeper into stratified sub-cultures where we have so little knowledge of “how the other half lives”—we may find ourselves wishing to return to something like the American mall.
Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand.