Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Requiem for a Dead Mall

Over the holidays, my wife and I trekked out with our daughters to my rural Nebraska homeland.  Since my spouse is a Jersey girl, and we wanted to walk a bit away from the biting plains winter wind, I took her to the local mall.

I hadn't been there in years, despite the fact that it was a major focal point of my teenage years.  I was not prepared for what I saw, although my dad warned us before going over that "you could fire a cannon there and not hit anyone."  There were only a handful of stores open, the rest just sat there empty.  The lights were dimmed, and most of the people there were folks over 50 getting in a little walking, not there to shop.

Back when I was a teenager, the mall was THE place to be.  It was always jam packed with people, making it the easiest way to come into casual contact with my acquaintances.  I spent hours in the local bookstore, bought some of the most important albums of my life at Musicland, watched some seriously formative cinematic treats at the multiplex, and plugged innumerable quarters into the machines at the video arcade.  The food court brimmed with restaurants, events were always taking place in the mall's central area, and there was always something to take in, a welcome thing in a town so isolated.  I attended baseball card shows there, broke some boards as part of a karate exhibition my dojo put on every year, and conducted demonstrations as part of the Cub Scouts.  It wasn't just commercial space, civic groups used it all the time.  In sum, the mall was our modern agora, the place where the people of my town came together as one.

Going back, I was struck by the lifelessness of it all.  The food court was barren, the promenade devoid of people, and the Kmart that anchored the mall could only be accessed from the outside, as if the rest of the mall was something to be embarrassed by.  When Kmart is afraid of being associated with you, you've really fallen as far as you can go.  Something I found especially striking was the flags lining the promenade, reflective of my hometown's reactionary, overdone patriotism that I thought could be interpreted as a subversive artistic statement.  This flag-festooned tomb of a mall might very well be a metaphor for the death of the American dream.

When I went home and talked to my parents about it, I was hardly surprised to find out that the mall was no longer locally owned, but had been bought up by a management company that obviously didn't care whether my hometown had its commercial agora or not, as long as a little rent money trickled back to the home office out of state.  Some of the stores moved back downtown, (including the bookstore), but most of the retail is out by the Wal-Mart on the edge of town.  It used to be common for cultural critics to decry malls, but at least they fostered a sense of community. My hometown mall is dead, and its citizens are much worse off for it.

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