America's New Ghost Towns: Dead Shopping Malls
Inside a Dead Mall
Maybe you haven’t noticed, but the landscape of America’s cities and suburbs is changing. Not all change is good, not all is bad--I leave it to the reader to decide if the end of the shopping mall is a sad affair or a brand new day. But I write these words just to inform you, if you’ve been too busy to notice, that it is indeed happening. Year by year, more shopping malls are dying all around us, boarded up, locked up, outlets vacated, products moved to another location or liquidated, customers and staff exiled to Walmart, leaving nothing but dead hulking structures to mar the landscape. Shopping malls, which have long functioned as watering holes for entire urban communities, sometimes for as long as fifty years, are imploding all over the place, turning valuable pieces of real estate into bloated architectural corpses, fracturing towns they once glued together. Many of these once proud showcases of middle class opulence now seem ugly and in the way, new American ghost towns which are, ironically, right in the middle of town.
This trend is not new. Many of these malls have been dead and sealed off for over a decade. But their mortality rate has definitely grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. For the archaeologists of the distant future who unearth them, these dead malls will not be nearly as exciting as the digs of King Tut’s tomb. Instead of gold and exquisite artifacts, all these poor scientists will discover is abandoned food court furniture, lonely mannequins, and cracked flower pots containing long-withered tropical plants. If they’re lucky, they might even find a few of those big salty pretzels, long discarded and petrified beside an empty water fountain filled with dusty pennies.
Indiana Jones---don’t waste your time!
I happen to live by one of these tombs of modern retail. Its called North Ridge, a now defunct shopping mall on the north side of Milwaukee. North Ridge was born in 1973, lived a short, uncertain life, and died in 2003. Every time I drive by it now, I think of what it must be like inside of that hulking mass of brick, plaster, and silence: a veritable post apocalyptic graveyard of American consumerism.
Long gone is the gentle cacophony of hundreds of padding feet, some shuffling, some power-walking, yet all circling at their own pace the North Ridge commercial donut. Nor does the hum of idle chatter still mix with Muzak, drifting out and upwards towards colored banners and decorations in the rafters. Mothers no longer push strollers, while looking for that one special purchase that will, for a few hours, distract them from the ever growing mess back at the house or workplace. Nor do hurried and worried men rush through crowded walkways in the days before Christmas, or before their umpteenth wedding anniversary, trying to make their way as fast as possible to the nearest perfume or jewelry counter. I can still see these poor guys in my mind, desperate to find the right gift for their right gal, and do it both economically and briskly--so they could get the hell out of there! I can still imagine all those teens and tweens of North Ridge, back in the day, taking over the food court in waves, moving in and out of their cliques, eager to find a warm spot for their angst to take root in. If just for an hour.
No, no, keep driving. That’s all gone now. The feelings, the movement, the chatter, the money: all gone. North Ridge is dead, and no one, try as they might, has been able to resurrect it as of yet. Not even the Chinese--and they tried! But at the last moment, they backed out too. These days, when driving by this dead mall, I turn my head, just like those Asian investors did, and step on the gas. Nothing to see here. Keep moving.
The sight of all that peeling paint and overgrown weeds can depress me a bit. And no, its not because of all those mediocre mall memories I just dredged up. The truth is, I couldn't care less whether I ever set foot in a mall again. Ever. Despite my maudlin sentimentality, I find malls dreadful places. Still, I must admit, they had their day in the sun, fulfilled their purpose, and if you still enjoy going to a living mall in your area, more power to you. I don’t expect a world tailor made to suit my tastes anyway. But what saddens me about the death of malls, and in this case, North Ridge, is that after all these years, almost a decade, it still has not been transformed into some new kind of useful enterprise. And America needs new enterprise.
Only One New Job Created
The only sounds of life these days in many of America’s giant dead shopping malls are from the lonely footsteps of a security guard. Ten dollars an hour to walk a beat round and round a gigantic nothing of a building, a nothing that no one could steal or deface even if they wanted to. Lost in a sea of thousands of empty parking spaces, this security guard, believe you, me--he is a guy just itching to see his relief person come so he can hoof it back to the other side. The “other side” being the mile and a half of chain link fence that keeps this desolate wasteland from merging with the living part of town. And the only reason a lone security guard is still needed is to protect the unfortunate owners of this vacuous space from liability. Anything could happen in a space this large and wild. What if some vagrants broke in and burned the place down or, worse, began to run a mini-drug empire from such a prime location? What if some kid got in and broke his neck and his parents sued the Universe? This is why the security guard job still remains: because dead shopping malls are the retail equivalent of black holes in space, and we don't want our citizens to get sucked into one of those. (Though the lawyers might.)
So all that brick and plaster and tiled floors and unused plumbing and prime real estate, and all those man hours it took to achieve---it just sits there. Rotting. The only contribution to society this dead monolith provides now is paying one or two guys a daily babysitting fee. What a pittance for such a grand structure, what a total shame. North Ridge Mall needs an economic purpose. The dead mall in your community needs economic purpose. People in America, maybe even you, need an economic purpose. That’s why I find dead malls like North Ridge so depressing. Its all such a waste.
Some of the dead malls around the country are being transformed into something new. Some reincarnate as luxury apartment communities with a few retail stores inside. Still others are turned into local government offices. A few dead malls are scrapped altogether, bulldozed and turned into parks or community centers. And while I can find no objection to any of these short term solutions, I still can’t help but think that we should be aiming for long term solutions, ones that build upon all the time and effort already invested, further enhancing the economic life of the community they are a part of. After all, there are no shortage of parks, apartment buildings, and government offices in America. There is, however, a shortage of jobs, and it would be wonderful to see some of these dead malls transformed into factories that build lots of American products made by lots of American workers. Even if its just “out of business” signs.