Dead Mall Society

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There are some sects that believe – actually entire religions if the writer is not mistaken – that we are not born with a soul, or perhaps believe we come to life with an imperfect soul and it is life and the tests and how we rise to the occasion, handle the challenge, and even how we deal with victory and success that bring us to become “more human” to create for ourselves a soul, or perfect that immature spirit we were first provided with.
Whether this is true or not is a matter for the theologians and reader of certain Gnostic texts.
It is a belief of this author that a city develops a soul and does so over time. This takes place over decades. Often centuries. Once this pathway is set, the way of this soul the character or nature of this soul cannot be changed outside of an enormous effort by man, or nature, or both.
It is fitting that one of the fist zombie films took place in a shopping mall. Early on, one of the characters had to actually explain it to the others at what they were seeing, this huge warehouse, that this was one of those “new covered shopping centers” or some such expression. This was The Mall, and the covered shopping center was a new development before I was born and is the only fixture of civic life my contemporaries and antecedents know. The mall has been an expression of the Modern Landscape for more than a generation, the vast territory of nowhere that we have frantically been building for decades is in just about every town of any note. We have parking lots capping former fields, we have blasted hills to make room for commercial strips to house nail salons, bail bonds, and the TottosUnoPesoUnMas store. Those early strip malls were built on the outside of town or the city and were the ancestor of the Mall. They were meant for those people who could afford cars. Those places we see today used to house the most contemporary and refined stores. As the mall grew from strip to the enclosed zombie-space we all grew up, the strip malls became dull and vacant, as the Main Streets that they worked hard to replace.
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My first memory of a mall was being bit by a goat in the petting zoo on the middle space the mall used for events. This was a sunken pit surrounded by large steps that served as bleachers in the center of the mall where the two wings like a transept intersected. This space was used for performances and I assume the steps down created a natural barrier so us kids did not rush Santa or so small children could fall and hurt themselves since this was an age where no one yet had 1-800 Lawyers to sue for trips and falls. To me the mall was a special place to go and we never knew what circus may be in town, such as the pit served as as close to a town center as we knew then. It formed the center axis to the transepts of the mall’s sacred space hummed to sleep by gentle muzak(tm).
As a kid, I loved going to the mall. But kids also love fire, the yummy blue bottle of poison under the sink, sharp objects that seem made to run and jump with, eating too much powdered pudding and worming medication, biting the kid you are playing with and sundry other little monkey behaviors. There was a store that sold discount stuff. Also had a lunch counter. Perhaps it was a Woolworths perhaps not. Of the two toy stores, we could afford toys in the discount bin of one. It also sold models, parts of space ships and such that you glued to your fingers or sometimes together to the corresponding part as intended in the directions. The other toy store specialized in plush very expensive stuffed animals. Or maybe I am remembering some other place. I know there was a place that sold candles. Boring, unless they were giving a special demonstration of those multiple layer candles popular at the time. Just thinking of that candle shop fills me with boredom and self-loathing. I remember a frightening den of teenagers that sold black light posters, jokes and novelties, and things like Pet Rocks(tm) and Wacky Wall Walkers(sm). It was full of teenagers and as a child I had a healthy mistrust of these beings in Kiss teeshirts. I believe we once went in. I don’t know why but this was the tail end of the sexual revolution and some rather adult toys were on display proudly behind the counter. Not that I remember exactly what they were. Probably something tame like a sexy nurse costume… or batman thong…
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A few little shops that sprung up in the hall, this was a new an exciting addition. A small glass shop in the center of the large enclosed shopping space but apart from the other stores lined up next to one another. It contained Smurfs, Hello Kitty (or whatever the hell she is), and other figures the name and brand of which have been lost to history and found only on the endmost and most distant corners of Ebay or alleyway comic book stores open only at certain nerd equinoxes in the calendar of Thor. We kids would often split a conoli we bought from the bakery. Sometimes this was the only thing we would buy for the entire trip.
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The mall was built on top of potato fields. We knew this since our mother used to ride her horses through those fields on the way to take them to the beach. The Long Island of pastures, beach houses of simple construction, and men fighting for space on the LIRR to get to their offices in New York were a thing of the past long before my arrival on this earth.
The mall has, since, in my lifetime, started to die and in many places is is dead. A better blog (deadmalls.com) documents this transformation of food courts and keystone stores into the new American slum needing revitalization and a new form of urban renewal, which I can only imagine is to take down these ugly structures and spread their ashes over the ocean, or New Jersey or wherever they dump toxic shit. I have been to the Mall of America. I have been to the Edmonton Mall. They are yet too big to fail. The others are starting to fill with zombies. In the city I have been to of late there is a great many malls, and it appears most of them dead or dying. Some are boarded up and grass grows in the cracks of the parking lot. Even in ruin they are ugly and dismal. This demise of the mall, however, does not mean that Main Street or the strip malls are back. No, those too are forever dead. For the most part outside of museum-quality wealthy enclave Main Street USAs and ironic re-purposing of 1950s roadside crap-o-la the way that some motels, diners, and drive-ins have found new life, the center of Amerikan cities and towns are still rotting away as ever.
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The mall seems a doomed affair too. The mall I wandered about in Sparta was dismal. A few zombies wandered by as I walked the halls. Of the keystone stores, both had vacated. One pretended to be “temporarily closed” but it read like the story that “oh, the dog ran away and he’s living with a new family now, dear…” Nope. It was dead. I remember when my first large store died. A place called Grants went out of business. The child me could not imagine such a huge place going out of business, forever. It was frightening. My first taste of the concept of death and mortality. The interior of the mall contained silent halls. Most shops were gone or the sort of places you may see in slums the nation over. Towards the far end, a man was yelling at another who stood behind the counter. The fight echoed throughout the calls and like a small village, the other shop keepers came to the “street” to view. We have reinvented the dead Main Street yet as climate controlled. I moved away from the yelling man. There were carts and little counters in the halls like before, but these were strange offerings and small men and women from distant shores were stationed about as if some agent had tricked them to tending shop in such a silent place. I could not imagine a space being busy. The food court was worse. Each shop, the few still operational, each had a bored individual on their iDevice or starting into space as the oil boiled needlessly. Two young men, both with face tattoos wandered by. A rather large family, and mean volume not numbers, sat at a table. Silently as if the tacos had been filled with some paralyzing agent or made from poison dart frog meat.
The other keystone store had left and in its place a huge Antique mall – supposedly the largest in the state. This huge space was filled with all manner of items from the ages, from collectible to disposable. While this collection was indeed interesting, perhaps more so than whatever former store had been there, there was something indeed strange… not like a museum. Not like an attic one had discovered. But a tomb, as if through the sliding electronic doors I had entered a strange world of pharaoh except pharaoh collected qupee dolls and depression glass.
I left the mall. Yes I bought something. A movie poster from 1971. From Italy, to be exact. I made my purchase from an old woman at what had once been perhaps the service desk for the former store. The other tenders, the keepers of the tomb were also elderly and spoke of how quiet the place had become since as one put it, “the young aren’t into antiques.” Face tattoo guys were nowhere to be seen.
I thought back to the mall of my youth. I wondered what stores yet remained. Was Wicks-n-Sticks, the candle shop still active. Shit, I hope not.
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One thought on “Dead Mall Society

  1. Editor’s Note: Passing this on from a reader who wished not to trace back his or her IP Address to a Chucky Cheese in Omaha.
    Right on. Malls (and casinos and zoos) were among the first places environmental design researchers looked to as behavioral laboratories. Early plans focused on simple manipulations such as keeping out clocks, positioning seating always in view of retail merchandise etc. to nudge certain behaviors among visitors. That was back in the day when malls contained a mix of independent local business and regional chains. They were seen as a more controllable, hygienic and modern take on Main St. Time moves on and local shops move out to be replaced by national chains who gorge themselves on personal data. We face a homogenization of choice in terms of manufactured need for low-cost disposable items made by exploited workers, direct marketing, pop-up ads, “lifestyle brands” and the almost complete saturation of technologies looking to monetize our every action. One could argue the grand vision of the mall didn’t fail. It instead broke free of it’s walls and wraps around us like a friendly boa trying to squeeze us till we pop.

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