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Why I Mourn the Death of the American Mall

American malls are on the decline. Payless ShoeSource [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] by mid-2017, while Sears has declared its intention to shut down 42 stores [4] 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 [5], 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.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Why I Mourn the Death of the American Mall"

#1 Comment By Jen On April 17, 2017 @ 11:35 pm

Are malls actually dying, or are malls in already dying towns dying? Important distinction.

In my big city in Blue America, malls are booming. In my small-city hometown in Red America, the mall is booming because the economy is good.

Sounds lile the dying malls are a symptom of bad economies in flyover country, which is not an overall picture of malls in general.

#2 Comment By Lee On April 18, 2017 @ 1:34 am

Appreciated the mention of old Main Street culture. When I was a kid we knew the individual at the family owned shoe store, who actually helped properly fit a shoe and slip it on. Never mind all of the other local family owned retailers, one knew from church or the surrounding community.

Mexico actually has an expanding retail sector.

Sometimes I wonder if the online shopping boom, is more so driven by what we’ve lost as a formerly homogenous culture vs. price and home delivery. Humans after all are ultimately social creatures.

#3 Comment By Winston On April 18, 2017 @ 2:35 am

Money is become scarce:
“A report from McKinsey finds that in developed economies such as the United States two-thirds of all households experienced “flat or falling” incomes over the past decade, from 2005-2014. In the U.S., the portion was even worse: 81 percent.”
[6]
An Entire Generation is Likely to See Its Standard of Living Regress

#4 Comment By David On April 18, 2017 @ 6:13 am

There is however a sense of community over the internet larger than cursing over YouTube. You name one’s interests and one can find peers also interested via message boards, etc. If your interested are esoteric then you may need the global community to establish a discussion group. They can thus be pursued in greater depth.

This is a helpful change for those of us less passionate about common interests like expensive perfumes, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Ralph Lauren.

More sad, and not mentioned in this article, is the eventual loss of low skill job that will result from the decline of retail. It may also be due to a decline in living standards rather than just Amazon.

#5 Comment By Indian Summer On April 18, 2017 @ 9:47 am

The food is sometimes okay, some relief from jacked up high prices, but a number of violent instances makes for an uncomfortable and unpredictable experience. I can live without the mall destination.

#6 Comment By Geeta On April 18, 2017 @ 10:43 am

It is truly sad to see the decline of Malls. They are a social outlet without the pressure of direct interaction.

#7 Comment By Chris in Appalachia On April 18, 2017 @ 11:22 am

What I have seen is Walmart setting up shop in small towns, destroying the existing businesses, then trying to run a disordered and poorly staffed store with a skeleton crew because they think people have no other place to go so they will endure it. Then the middle and upper middle class have to shop online to get what they need. In McDowell County, WV Walmart came in drove smaller stores out of business, then closed the Walmart, leaving people with almost no shopping options.

#8 Comment By Conewago On April 18, 2017 @ 11:30 am

My goodness, it is truly a sad indictment of the triumph of the automobile (which Russell Kirk, correctly, referred to as a “mechanical Jacobin”) over sensible uses of space that we are now pining for the shopping mall.

#9 Comment By Matthew Cole On April 18, 2017 @ 12:01 pm

I remember many mom and pop stores in my hometown being dreadful. High prices, low selection, and oftentimes low quality when dealing with general merchandise. Local butchers were good though.

Community doesn’t have to depend on who owns the store. My dad still chats with my friends’ parents at Walmart, just like they would at another shop.

#10 Comment By JonF On April 18, 2017 @ 1:43 pm

Re: Sounds lile the dying malls are a symptom of bad economies in flyover country

I work in an office in a Baltimore suburb called Owings Mills. Next my office building they have recently finished tearing down the defunct Owings Mills Mall. The last two stores, a Macys and a Penneys, closed at the end of 2015 (in this case the anchors outlasted the smaller mall stores). The town around us is certainly not dying however. It’s a very middle place suburb, with decent housing and plenty of still-functioning retail. The mall’s main problem was simply that there were too many other malls competing for business: Security Square Mall a very few miles to the south, Towson Town Center about ten miles to the west and Westminster Mall about fifteen miles to the northwest. Plus too much competition from big box stores like Walmart and Target.

#11 Comment By SillyBaby On April 18, 2017 @ 3:11 pm

The mall concept of condensing an urban area’s retail operations to a single, highly social location is very desirable. A stimulating architectural layout and a variety of dining options are equally desirable.

Regrettably, that’s not the experience the average mall conjures. I don’t think I need to describe the acres of asphalt, the boxy tan structures, the reeking fast-food food courts,the same 50 chain stores carrying a limited selection of overpriced imported junk.

Still better than strip malls though.

I’d like to see the showroom concept several online retailers have adapted spread across malls nationwide (think Ratio Clothing or Bonobos for apparel, Windows to an extent for electronics). Smaller store footprint, higher selection, in-store purchase, home delivery, easy returns. Hey, you could even make it a local store that partners with a number of online retailers and acts as a RL showroom on their behalf.

#12 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 18, 2017 @ 8:13 pm

“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.”

No song (and video) tells of the decline of “the old Main Street culture” as poignantly as Alan Jackson’s “The Little Man“(1999):

[7]

#13 Comment By Tag Murphy On April 18, 2017 @ 8:29 pm

I enjoyed your piece, but are you sure about Bangkok malls excluding the less well off? I’ve been to Emporium and Siam Paragon any number of times and I’ve never seen any one turned away for looking scruffy. (As I recall, security was put in place after the bombings during the Red Shirt demos a few years ago.) One reason I like these places (aside from the air conditioning and escape from tuktuk fumes) is that one does indeed rub shoulders with a cross section of at least Bangkok society, if not folks just arrived from Isarn with nothing in their pockets — the food court downstairs in Paragon is always mobbed — it seems in the late afternoon that half of Bangkok’s of high school kids are down there doing their homework — for 50 baht you can buy an ice coffee and sit for hours.

There is that snootier mall between Paragon and Central’s flagship department store (the one that connects into Chit Lom BTS ) — I’ve passed through it a few times — BORING. Maybe if you look as if you just got off the bus from Isarn they won’t let you in.

But you’re right about the States. For someone like me mired in Jane Jacobs, I always tended to sniff at American malls and what they had done to street life. I take your point, though, that we may come to regret their passing.

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 19, 2017 @ 5:56 am

Malls are not the public square so essential to once-democratic America, but private economic fiefdoms that regulate free speech out of existence. If you dislike cops who are supposed to serve the public but don’t, how about Mall Cops who are dedicated only to serving the corporation? The only purpose of an American shopping mall is to create a safe space for nothing else but material consumption of corporate products imported from foreign countries just like Thailand. I don’t agree that community can be boiled down to, “Just keep shopping.”

#15 Comment By Ken T On April 19, 2017 @ 9:32 am

They were, in their own weak, terribly imperfect way, a humanizing factor in what were in other respects disconnected, soulless suburbs.

Talk about grasping for straws. If you were to rank the social value of shopping experiences on a scale of 1-100, where 100 is the iconic small town “Mayberry Main Street” and 1 is Amazon, then suburban malls rank somewhere around 5. This article is akin to crying over the death of the last tree that was left standing in the middle of 1000 acres of otherwise clearcut forest.

#16 Comment By Chris D. On April 19, 2017 @ 4:21 pm

Gee whiz. There are some real mall-haters out there (at least as evidenced by these comments).

I too have been fascinated by the decline of malls. I wasn’t a “mall rat” growing up, but I did enjoy it frequently. I think the more important question is whether a new social-shopping space is emerging to replace the mall in the way it displaced main street.

For the urban bourgeoisie, they have reinvented the old main street as walkable shopping districts with boutique shops. I also see that outlet malls have been thriving. But, those feel less like local destinations and more like places you stop along the Interstate to stretch your legs. I’ve seen some old malls become booming Hispanic marketplaces.

I like to stroll the rundown mall where I grew up. The original anchors are long gone and the pavement is rougher than the Moon, but Target, Dick’s, Burlington’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, and a movie theater shore it up. Low-end local retailers, independent food operators, a church, and arcades fill most of the smaller slots. Turnover is high. I don’t buy much, but I enjoy it.

In some sense, I think the new social-shopping experience is simply more distributed. Both main street and the mall represented types of centralization dictated by the evolution of product delivery (i.e., train and corporate truck), customer mobility (i.e., walking, mass transit, and cars), and–in the case of malls–air conditioning. Now that commercial logistics and personal transportation are completely decentralized (and air conditioning is ubiquitous), there’s no need (or demand, maybe?) for a centralized shopping experience.

Old and new malls will still have their places, but only as part of a more balanced diet of shopping experiences.

#17 Comment By Matthew Kilburn On April 23, 2017 @ 8:09 pm

“Malls are not the public square so essential to once-democratic America”

I don’t think the point is that *malls* are essential to “once-democratic America”, its that the decline of the mall reflects a decline of…something…that IS essential.

And I think I would agree with that.

So much of the American ideal throughout the 20th century was built around the idea of “mass _____”. You did what your neighbors did, and everyone did more or less the same thing. You ate the same foods, attended the same public gatherings, worked roughly the same types of jobs, etc. We mass produced and mass consumed until the cows came home.

Much of what is wrong with America today can be traced back to the loss of a common identity and common value set. Everyone feels free to do their own thing and throws a fit at the suggestion that anyone else might tell them its wrong or misguided. But it used to exist. We used to make together and buy together and worship together and celebrate together. And our willingness to go walk through linoleum-encased corridors to sit in food courts around big plastic fruits and dine on compressed pre-frozen-and-thawed bits of meat was part of that.

Sitting around with a small group of your familiars discussing the latest political developments is obviously a democratic experience. But so was sitting on the hard multi-colored plastic McDonalds booths circa 1997 digging into a Big Mac in the same room as anyone else who happened to be out on the road.

#18 Comment By DCE On May 12, 2017 @ 9:09 am

While a bad local economy might be one factor in the decline of some malls, but others declined even during a good economy.

One of our local malls never had 100% occupancy, even after it first opened. A large number of downtown retailers left Main Street because the new mall had more space and a lot more parking.

But over the years quite a few of those retailers returned to Main Street. The mall occupancy declined, with a lot of it taking place before the Great Recession. The recession merely sealed its fate. Today its food court is empty, less the 50% of the retail space is occupied, and of those stores still in operation,most are teetering on the edge of oblivion.

In the mean time, the downtown district has been thriving, with both retail shops and restaurants doing well.

I don’t know all of the reasons why the mall has failed, be it the location (quite some distance away from downtown), timing, or some combination of other factors.

Another mall located about 30 miles south of the failed mall is doing well, with full parking lots, full occupancy, and a very busy food court.

Why did one mall fail and the other has been successful for over 35 years? That is the question.

#19 Comment By Steve On May 12, 2017 @ 9:54 am

I hate malls. Going to them is akin to walking naked through the ghetto. Too many punk a** kids trying to impress each other with their “mall cred”. Social interaction? Heh, that’s some jerk bumping into you to the delight of his gang.
Nope, give me the safety of the interwebs for my shopping.

#20 Comment By Andre Kenji On May 14, 2017 @ 12:57 am

“What is perhaps most strange about these malls is that they exist in communities surrounded by poverty.”

It’s not strange. In low income countries, where the population does not trust the institutions to provide them with security, malls are seem as a safe haven. That’s not a feature of malls, and that does not make malls desirable in the United States.

#21 Comment By Rosalee Adams On May 19, 2017 @ 10:43 am

I don’t mourn them at all.
You cannot mourn something that never was reality.