Dead Malls

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I was driving through the north suburbs of Chicago the other day when I noticed something unexpected: Every mall I passed had at least one closed store, in many cases one, or both, of the anchor stores. Dead malls are a not uncommon sight in the areas hardest hit by the Great American Recession. There’s even a website devoted to them. Seeing malls struggling for survival in the relatively affluent northern suburbs of Chicago was surprising, however. One would assume that these malls will recover once people start spending again, but there’s a good chance that at least some of the malls may die despite a recovery.

The decline of the American shopping mall didn’t begin with the current recession. The beginning of the end can be traced back to 2000, when Montgomery Wards declared bankruptcy. In the last two years more than 400 of the 2,000 largest malls in the US have closed. Another 100 are expected to close in 2009. Macy’s and J.C. Penny stocks are now junk. Sears closed 23 stores early this summer. General Growth Properties, operators of 200 malls across the country, filed for bankruptcy in April.

Shopping malls have lost many of their customers to online retail. Internet sales reached six per cent of total retail spending in the fourth quarter of 2013, nearly doubling their share from 2006. Malls are also losing customers to big box retailers like WalMart and Target, which usually operate in gigantic stand-alone stores. Big box stores are nightmares of sustainability; generally speaking, they can’t be repurposed. If a Target closes, the entire building has to be bulldozed. Considered purely as retail structures, though, big box stores seem like a retreat. Shopping malls aimed to be experiences. Ron Johnson, the ex-Apple store executive and former C.E.O. of J. C. Penney. He reënvisioned J. C. Penney stores as places for people not only to shop but to hang out, drink coffee, and surf the Internet. His remodelling blueprints called for a “street” inside each store leading to a spacious “square” that could host yoga classes and other events. Even though that vision was never realized, it would never have been devised in the first place for a big box store, which is just one shopping aisle after another. If shopping malls disappear—and all the indicators point to their eventual demise—something will be lost in the culture. People will always needed gathering places. Amazon will never replace the souk. Can you imagine Paul Blart, Wal-Mart Cop? Will there ever be Dawn of the Dead zombies roaming Target?

If the shopping mall as an economic entity begins to systematically disappear from the American landscape, some profound cultural questions should be raised. In his Arcades Project Walter Benjamin claimed that the Paris arcades, the first covered shopping malls, were “the hollow mold” from which the image of the modern was cast. If the covered shopping mall is dead, then what happens to the culture that it formed?

NB: This post was updated with details from this article on March 12, 2014.

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