IT’S A THURSDAY afternoon in July, and I’m expecting a ghost town at my local mall. But it’s not exactly that: When I walk in, past the splash pad where kids run barefoot and the gigantic coworking space that replaced the Brit-punk gastropub where I used to grab a pint, the air conditioning blasts me with the best kind of welcome. The stores aren’t crowded, but they are also nowhere near abandoned. There’s a wide age range of shoppers and strollers, from older adults in docksiders and pastel polos to children wearing tulle skirts with Crocs, swinging their mothers’ hands as they peer into the pastry case at Starbucks. A playground for all generations—the motto for our mid-sized Midwestern city.
But now, as a thirty-seven-year-old mom of a young child, I know no one at all. At the risk of sounding completely out of touch, I couldn’t even tell you what most of the stores are or what they sell without a peek in the windows. I think this is what they call a “dark night of the [elderly millennial’s] soul.”
For me, going to a mall these days is like entering a distorted fever dream, where everything is slightly off-center. As a teenager in the late 90s, I knew exactly where to go. Which kiosks to avoid if I wanted to avoid a smirk from a detested classmate, the fast-food joints that would willingly load me up with teriyaki chicken samples. I’d swoop into the stores where friends worked, making the rounds as if I were formally calling, the way Victorians once did. The more people you knew at the mall, the more cachet you had. And if you worked at the mall, that was the surest way to know you’d arrived.
Our mall boasts a trampoline park and a selfie museum, where people can make themselves into objets d’art. There’s a hair salon where girls show up in limousines to be glittered within an inch of their lives. It’s a world unto itself. Despite the oft-repeated claims of the decline of malls, people are still shopping and still socializing, though not to the same fever-pitch levels I remember.
Multiple “anchor” department stores, like JCPenney and Dillard’s, have closed, one replaced by a sprawling recreation center with an arcade. There are empty storefronts with placeholder signs optimistically promising, “Coming soon…” During the pandemic, large gatherings in and around the mall’s perimeter were canceled, such as the holiday craft fair and summer music festival that drew hundreds. Last spring, there were a couple of gun-related incidents in and around the mall, which created a sense of communal unease, though neither incident resulted in casualties. As in many public spaces around the world, things fell quiet at the mall. The impacts of COVID seem most extreme for many of the smaller, mom-and-pop run kiosks that couldn’t quite recover, like a beloved embroidery personalization stand that no longer exists. And though our mall still sputters along, there’s a boutique mall just six miles away that feels like a genuine retail graveyard. Chillingly bare, with more darkened displays than open doors. The mall scene in our town isn’t the worst—but it’s certainly not the best.
The longtime “anchor” department store for many malls, Macy’s closed 20% of its stores in 2020. (Photos via JJBer/Jonmallard/Creative Commons)
One explanation for this mall-aise is the disappearance of groups of teens huddling in walkways or laughing loudly in the food court. Inarguably, teens are the heart of mall culture; without them, the mall goes through the motions, without that strident emotional heartbeat. Sure, the teens are still there. But they aren’t gathered en masse the way they once were. One or two young women pop into a store. A couple orders something icy and whipped from a coffee shop. Yet, there’s something missing. A certain energy; a certain promise. Going to the mall is no longer a collective activity, but one reserved for small, detached groups. There seems to be no semblance of a “mall hang” anymore.
And everyone who’s here is on their phones. Even I’m on my phone, typing notes while perched on one of the uncomfortable folding chairs that have replaced the massage chairs of yore. I wonder if this is a purposeful shift of design to prevent teens and older adults from overstaying their welcome.
The mall is now a holding place, rather than a destination. Once, I would have been chased down by attendants brandishing tiny bottles of perfume. Now, they stare into their phones while I walk past, without a whiff of sales pitch. As an introvert, I can’t say I miss the attention. Yet the thing that made the mall the mall—that simmering intrigue, the glorious lift of possibility—has been replaced by a bloodless transaction. I feel like I’m at a grocery store, picking up a sleeve of toilet paper.
It has been years since we’ve taken our daughter to the mall. Our family last visited when she was a toddler climbing the giraffe-shaped slides at the play place. These days, I daydream about how she will grow up, transposing some of my past onto a vision of her future. In my mind, the mall was always going to be a part of that future. I saw her grabbing a buttery pretzel with friends. Doing the runway walk in a department store dressing room. Maybe even holding hands with a crush on the way to the movies. My fantasy of childhood—especially teenhood—coincided directly with the experience of congregating at the mall. But this 2022 version of mall culture feels far removed from what I once knew, and I can’t help but mourn my vision, no matter how unrealistic.
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. It can convince us of a candy-coated vision of “the good old days,” making us myopic to the wider schema of structural inequities, resistant to progress’s pull. And yet. We seldom speak of the grief about our nostalgia for vanishing public spaces; but it smarts all the same. For many among us, our distress is one of stolen inheritance. We pictured ourselves handing down certain experiences to younger generations, moving for a time in the same, warm psychic spaces. Connecting, despite our differences.
I’m already barreling through time, thinking about a future version of my daughter, grown desperate for her own version of teenage independence. Where will she spend her formative years, if not at the mall?
THE AMERICAN MALL is dying. With the rise of online shopping and effects of an ongoing pandemic, malls have suffered what appears to be an irreversible decline. In 2020, J.C. Penney and Brooks Brothers announced bankruptcies, with ensuing store closures across the country; Macy’s closed 20% of its stores. That same year, Coresight Research, a data firm with a focus on retail, estimated that 25% of America’s 1,000 or so malls would close in the next three to five years—250 malls across the country, though the ones most at risk are less affluent ones that bring in fewer sales per square foot than thriving luxury malls. However, the pandemic isn’t solely to blame. Many economists guess that the malls’ decline has been exacerbated, but not created, by COVID. Monthly revenue for malls has been dropping since 2010, a full decade before the onset of the pandemic.
Filmmaker Dan Bell has been documenting shuttered malls across America in his YouTube series “Dead Malls” since 2013, with the aim of creating an archive for future generations. I’m struck by the language we use around public spaces that have closed: dead malls, retail graveyards, ghost towns. I’d say that the collective reach for the morbid is, in part, a consequence of the unspoken mortality we face, as individuals and as a society poised on the brink of all sorts of potential disasters. We experience this mortality most vividly in the closure of spaces that carry the most cultural weight.
What’s most interesting about Bell’s films aren’t just the eerie scenes of wide-open spaces fallen into disrepair. It’s the juxtaposition of those dreary images with buoyant commercials of that same mall in its technicolor heyday. Toothpaste-ad smiles, big hair, big shoulder pads, and an irreplaceable retro glamor that marked the zenith of mall culture. About this jarring combination of imagery, Bell says, “[The mall of the past] was lively, bubble-gum, happy. And then, boom, you’re in a dead space.”
WHEN WAS THE pinnacle of mall culture? Some may identify it as the ’80s; others, the ’90s. Modern media depictions can be nostalgic, as in the 1980s-era opening scene from the 2016 third season of Stranger Things, where the camera pans across the mall atrium, food court, and movie theater. One of the main characters lobs the “mall rat” insult at his sister, who sits near the fountain with her friends. Cameron Crowe’s 1982 movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High likely inspired the shot, with its wide pan of the Ridgemont Mall that narrows to a scan of teens on escalators and at movie theaters. Mononymous pop star Tiffany once filmed herself jamming in a denim jacket at a mall in her music video for “I Think We’re Alone Now.” The famous mall scene from Clueless immediately transports me to the bright and beckoning drama of those tiled retail corridors. If pressed, most adults can name at least a handful of mall representations in media, which makes sense, since the mall became synonymous with the teenage experience—at least, until recently.
Now, when we see malls represented, it’s with a slight veneer of irony and distance. In her recent book Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, architecture critic Alexandra Lange explains why we are now captivated by trends of the ’90s (scrunchies, butterfly clips, and skater culture, for starters): “In history, there’s a concept of when things become historic, and typically that’s after 30 years.” As painful as it might be for millennials like myself to admit, malls are now viewed through historians’ rear-view mirrors. They exist in a strange place in time, where they are neither contemporaneous nor totally outdated. They represent the theater of teenage imagination and possibility.
IN THE ’90S and early ‘00s, I was a mall rat. Even now, when I talk about how I grew up in the coastal suburbs of central Florida, in a town with very little to do besides cruise the beach or bop through the mall, I proudly detail my experiences working at our local, one-story mall. It’s now completely abandoned, and when I drive past the empty lots with my mother, she mourns along with me: “You spent your childhood there.” My parents have to drive 30 minutes away to get to a mall in the town next to theirs, though they usually don’t, preferring to hit Walmart or Amazon. Yet, despite the closure of my beloved childhood retail space, mall rathood is still a part of my identity. It acts like a kind of shorthand for who I once was during the good old days, or something like that.
In the late 1990s, I worked in four places in a three-year span (McDonald’s, the coffee shop Barney’s, Macy’s, and Kirkland’s), and felt ambivalent about each job, more interested in being at the mall than in doing any of my paid tasks. I was making minimum wage and wound up spending almost all of it right there at the mall on some drapey tank top I had to hide from my parents. In that way, the mall is a self-sustaining economic system. You work at the mall so you can continue to exist in and partake of the mall.
When I walked the mall, breathing in the scents of Sbarro’s congealing pizza and cologne seeping out from under Abercrombie’s shuttered windows, nodding to the smarmy kiosk attendants and waving to my friends folding shirts at GAP, I relished a sense of belonging I didn’t possess in my own home, where I felt often misunderstood, or at school, where every second of my day was determined by teachers.
The mall was a site of miniature dramas that simmered under the surface. I nursed crushes on the cell phone guys—always slightly older and swimming in their own urbane self-possession—and mildly antagonistic rivalries with some of the other teens, like the Spencer’s punks or the impossibly cool Hollister girls, both of whom also existed outside of my social strata at school. As teens, we brought our biases into the mall, rearranging the rules to mimic the ones we followed elsewhere. The mall, it turns out, is a self-sustaining emotional ecosystem too.
JO ANNA ALBIAR, a mother of one and college professor who grew up in the ‘90s in Texas, remembers her experience in her hometown mall in Lubbock, “We would get all dressed up—at that time, bodysuits and Daisy Dukes were in fashion. Scrunched-up white socks and Cole Haan or Dexter loafers. Curl your bangs and fluff them up and hair spray them. One time I wanted to go to the mall so bad. I just felt it in my bones that everyone was there that Saturday.” That feeling of FOMO is inherent in the mall experience. You always suspected someone was having a better time somewhere, and if only you could get to that place—the mall, in this case—you, too, could be transformed into a person Who Belonged.
For this story, I interviewed over a dozen adults who were teens in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and they each had their own experience of the mall to offer. None of my other social media requests had ever led to as many enthused, emotional responses as the simple prompt: Tell me what the mall meant to you as a teen.
At the mall, you escape the parental panopticon to experience a taste of freedom. Until the last decade or so, when the term “helicopter parent” became a shorthand in certain circles, parents seemed comfortable dropping their preteens and teens off, setting an established pickup time a few hours down the line. In summer, these hours spanned the entire workday, formulating a kind of makeshift daycare where ten bucks could get you a meal and some magazines, plus a buffet of teenage hormones and experiences. “It was a slice of freedom in a time where I didn’t really have any,” says Ojus Patel, a mother of three and writer in Seattle.
Some describe the mall as a kind of performance theater, like Brooke Melrose of Columbus, OH, an aesthetician and fellow former mall rat, who says, “The mall really helped form relationships outside of the home. It could be a safe haven, a place where no one knows you.”
You could experiment without any real stakes. In the dressing rooms, you might don a leather jacket your mom would never let you buy. At a coffee shop, you could buy a bitter espresso drink and pretend that you were old enough to guzzle coffee. The minute decisions of what to buy, and how to display yourself buying it, becomes a part of the freedom in a mall. For a time—until you ran into someone from school or, horrors, an adult you knew—you could pretend to be anyone: mysterious or cool, or any combination that fulfills your desire to “try” an identity on.
If you had said [that] mall would be gone in thirty years, they would have called you crazy. They thought it would last forever.”
— Filmmaker Dan Bell
As much as teens enjoyed their wrestled freedom, parents were reassured by its opposite: the promise of surveillance at the mall. Overwhelmingly, the millennials I interviewed talked about how safety became a selling point for guardians. The mall security cop, as popularized by the 2009 film Paul Blart: Mall Cop, is a curious figure: both lawful and, at the same time, strangely helpless. Though they are trained security officers, they do not substitute for law enforcement. They can detain you and make “citizen’s arrests,” but their authority is rather limited despite that. Some are retired police officers or ex-military, while others receive fewer than 50 hours of training total. These days, many veer through the wide avenues of the mall on segways, making them look more comical than an authority figure should.
Lange describes the role of authority figures at the mall, “The mall was built to relieve the social and community pressures of the [more isolated] suburbs. The mall cops, store owners, people in the kiosks provided that [sense of safety], but not equally for everyone.” She identifies the level of pointed surveillance and judgment that teens of color receive when they gather in a public space. Safety can be a comforting umbrella—but it doesn’t necessarily shade everyone.
One time, while I was spending too much time in the food court with my boyfriend and, admittedly, exuding too much teenage rowdiness, a mall cop approached to suggest that it was time for us to move along. I still remember the hostility in his expression, as an implicit reminder that no matter how much we might think it, some teens didn’t really belong. Many stores employed their own security guards instead of relying on greeters. I felt their eyes travel down my outfit, marking my $2 Old Navy sandals, the size of my bag, the unkempt bikini strap peeking out from under my tank top. That’s the kind of surveillance I don’t want for my daughter, even under the guise of safety.
Nothing is uncomplicated, especially nostalgia. A place that felt “safe” or “happy” for some could be an extremely fraught experience for others. Even in all my utopian imaginings at the mall, many of the stores were a reminder of all I couldn’t access. When I walked into a Saks, the associates gave me the Pretty Woman stare. I’d never dream of grabbing lunch with a friend at a Nordstrom—something I did quite frequently in my thirties, after I learned to tuck my bikini strap in. Malls were a place where I learned that public access was not the same as a public invitation.
MALLS HAVE ROOTS that extend to Rococo-era Italian shopping arcades designed to display both goods and people. But they were shaped by an American concept. Professor Lisa Scharoun, Head of the School of Design at Queensland University of Technology, traces the emergence of the mall in America: “One could live out the ‘retail drama’ as characterized by Victor Gruen—a Viennese shop fitter who migrated to the US during the Second World War. ” In the 1950s, America experienced an economic boom that shaped the experience of family recreation and youth culture. In 1956, Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, prompting the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways that connected suburbs to the cities where many worked. This development, along with the mass departure of white populations from more diverse urban centers (commonly called White Flight), led to a migration into the suburbs where an entertainment gap emerged. Gruen saw an opportunity to fill that gap with malls, or what he called “indoor downtowns.” By the 1960s, there were 4,500 malls across the country.
Interestingly, the architecture of a mall was designed to recreate a sense of an urban neighborhood, with stores tucked closely together and interspersed with nail salons, snack stands, and even park-like spaces for kids, like the themed play places often set at the center of the malls. In some malls, the atriums incorporate large skylights to let sunlight filter in. Large potted plants are arranged to replicate nature in an otherwise unnatural environment. There are often cushioned chairs, bistro tables, and other places to gather. The fountain, too, with its dramatic display and concrete seating, allowed teens to gather and showcase their outfits. When I was a teen, there were some nights where it was impossible to find a place to sit at the mall. Everyone was already seated for the “retail drama,” as they would at a live theater.
Visiting the food court and exercising minute decisions of what to buy, and how to display yourself buying it, becomes a part of the freedom in a mall.
Some identify the cause of mall decline as a problem of overbuilding. “I was an observer as well as a participant in the explosion of the great American shopping mall,” says Mark A. Cohen, Director of Retail Studies at Columbia University. “I’ve witnessed its behavior in its heyday as it began to peak, and as it declined. A lot of it has to do with the failings of a free market system when investment went amok.” In many cities and towns, there are multiple malls, including at least one “upscale” version, with a sleeker design and more high-end stores. Those malls tended to outlast their more homely kin, the local spot that always seemed a little dirty, a little too chaotic. Even in the search for community, it seemed that families would choose a more elite experience, willing to drive an hour out of the way for access. Further back in time, the Great Recession of 2008 hit local malls harder than expected, speeding up the inevitable fall.
DURING THE PANDEMIC, malls lost much of their remaining luster. Teens began finding their community in smaller groups in their neighborhoods, or online—through social platforms like Discord and Roblox, meant to mimic the immediacy of in-person hangs, where select groups could gather around a common interest. And even when people did go to the mall, they never left their phones far behind.
For my part, as a working mother frequently occupied with carpools and assignment deadlines, I would sooner click over to everyone’s most hated and unavoidable online retailer for the quick hit of a one-day delivery, than go to my local mall for anything I need. When my friends and I meet up, we’re not lunching at Brio or Cheesecake Factory on the perimeter of the mall, preferring to support one of the local restaurants or just host in our own homes, where it’s more convenient. If I need caffeine or a snack, I drive to our local coffee shop to greet the baristas that actually do know my name. The social draw of the mall isn’t there for me anymore—nor is the convenience. So for all my mourning about the mall, I am unequivocally an active player in its decline.
But at the risk of sounding like a repetitive crank, the mall just isn’t what it used to be. Bell, the filmmaker, remembers a mall opening from his youth: “They had a robot serving drinks. They dropped big feathers out of the ceiling. There were models walking around. You couldn’t find a parking spot. Now that mall’s gone. If you had said [that] mall would be gone in thirty years, they would have called you crazy. They thought it would last forever.” That promise of forever—forever young, forever healthy, forever enfranchised to shop—is one that kept the mall alive, like the liquid fuel running a thrumming machine of commerce.
Some have posited that Gen Z will be the saving grace for the malls of America. But those I interviewed were less certain—and some, downright derisive—about the prospect. “There’s no hope for revival,” Bell said. And maybe that’s okay.
Melrose has a slightly more melancholy view: “When I enter a mall now, it brings back so many memories. It makes me think of my youth. Then I see it so empty. It’s sad. Like a long goodbye.”
BUT WHAT COMES next? I can’t help but worry that we have not found a satisfactory alternative to mall culture. Will teens be able to reclaim a public space for themselves?
To answer those questions, I ask myself where I see teenagers now. One unexpected space is our local library, where the teen room takes up a significant footprint. In a corner by windows that stream in natural light, there are comfy chairs, computers, and study cubes lined with shelves for textbooks and hooks for backpacks. There are no shushing librarians or side-eyeing patrons. The teens are left to their own devices, allowed to make themselves at home in the space. And while there’s some conversation and laughter, they are a respectful lot.
Lange, who has also written on the topic of public libraries, describes how they have become thriving spaces that have adapted beautifully to the needs of young people. “I talked to a lot of young adult librarians, who turned out to be amazing humans who hung out at the malls in their youth,” she says. “[Now] they create spaces for teens without judgment about whether they are reading a book or playing a video game. And that’s going to be huge.”
I also see teens at the playgrounds where I take my daughter in the evenings. They are sprawled on the merry-go-round exchanging gossip, or skateboarding on asphalt. Sometimes, they have swinging competitions, where they fly so high that my daughter gapes at their daring. When I take morning walks in the summer, I see them biking precariously, using only one hand to steer themselves to the park around the corner where groups play basketball, even in the torrid heat of a June afternoon. And of course, there’s the community pool, always packed with splashing, deeply tanned youths. The green spaces have become places to congregate again, signaling an unexpected return to a more bucolic past.
“When I enter a mall now, it brings back so many memories. It makes me think of my youth. Then I see it so empty. It’s sad. Like a long goodbye.”
— Brooke Melrose, aesthetician and former mall rat
Chris Phillips, VP of Sales & Strategy at Realtor.com, has a six-year-old son in Brooklyn. About his experience, Phillips says, “We’re lucky to live in a neighborhood that might be the real-life version of what the malls were trying to recreate. He sees friends on the sidewalk when we’re heading to the dry cleaner and play dates. We see friends down the grocery store aisle and at church.” Certainly, in larger cities, families are finding social outlets in their own neighborhoods, returning to a hyper-local model of community from pre-suburban history.
I wondered if the gathering spaces would become mostly virtual, like avatar-centered games The Sims and Second Life. Cohen disagrees. “At the end of the day, there’s a human connection that has to be there at some level for people to become productive and happy,” he says. “We can’t live our lives through the interaction of avatars.” He remembers the community centers of his youth, and how they provided a safe place for young people to interact after school.
And suddenly, I remember a post I saw on our city’s Facebook page, announcing the new community center opening this coming year. The caption read, “Our children are our community’s greatest treasure. We owe it to them to invest in them and their families.” Reading that, I felt a glimmer of unexpected hope, and like that, my homage to the malls of yore, filled with bittersweetness and affection, is replaced by something more immediate—a small yet dauntless optimism for the future ahead.
Nothing is meant to last forever. Not youth, or fast-fashion purchases, and certainly not capitalism as we know it today. The evolution of spaces is as natural as the evolution of people and their needs. So, it was never a question of whether the mall mania would end. It was always a question of when. Turns out, the “when” may be now. And where will we land in the aftermath, among our archives of suburban decay?
For my part, I hope—wildly, I admit—that we can all meet in the great open spaces again, under a sun made milder by a magical reversal of climate change. We’ll laugh and argue and gossip, surrounded by swirling bees who’ve managed to reproduce despite the dismal conditions of their failing ecosystem. Nature will have healed; we will have, too. And maybe, as we survey the people and landscape around us, we’ll remember ever so faintly a time when we managed to find such joy and power in a long-dead institution that promised so much. It might feel like walking through a pair of great sliding doors, into the staggering warmth of real life.
This story was made possible by the support of Sunday Long Read subscribers and publishing partner Ruth Ann Harnisch. Edited by Kiley Bense. Designed by Anagha Srikanth.