This past winter, I noticed a surge in the number of articles appearing in various online publications about a certain endangered species. This species is the mall, something extremely familiar to young Americans. According to the Washington Post, “As many as half of America’s malls will be torn down or reconfigured” (“The fall—and overhaul—of the American mall,“ 01.30.15), posing a unique situation for millennials.
For those in their late teens to those approaching 30, specifically those from suburbia, the mall represents a mainstay in their young lives: the memories of hiding in department store clothing racks while parents panicked, those greasy, salty soft pretzels and begging mom and dad to go alone and essentially wander aimlessly with a group of middle school friends.
For many, the mall has been something that was always there, and something that has had many different meanings throughout different stages of life. Therefore, the news that the American mall is “dying” not only dredges up some nostalgia for this generation, but also raises questions as to the causes of this phenomenon and the new proposals for this surplus of giant empty spaces.
Taking a look at the website deadmalls.com can be a bit creepy. These enormous structures, complete with faded store logos, crumbling fountains and endless, vacant halls as far as the eye can see trigger a reaction that is different from the feelings evoked by an empty supermarket or school. For me, looking at dead malls elicited the same response as when I saw a movie about an abandoned amusement park, and I suppose that for many other millennials these malls look more abandoned than dead.
Going to the mall as a child and preteen was a special trip—even if it was such a familiar place, it was a fun atmosphere with games, rides and cool stuff to nag your parents with. A dead mall does not have the same appearance as an abandoned mill or factory because of all of the familiarity embedded within the space. The sight of a dilapidated KB Toys logo is a bit sad, as many remember shopping there with parents, choosing birthday gifts for friends and drooling over Bratz dolls and Power Rangers.
This is unarguably a result of over-commercialized American upbringings and constant exposure to consumerism, but nonetheless, it is an inextricable part of many of our childhoods. Making a purchase is exciting, especially when it is made with one’s tooth fairy or birthday money, and the mall is where a lot of us became consumers and exercised buying power for the first time; and in a capitalist nation, we cannot help but view this as a memorable growing-up experience.
The mall has another function in the coming of age experience as a place of socialization; it provides a safe environment for kids to explore their community, forming their first experiences with friends free of parental supervision or adult control.
In many suburban towns like mine, where people were spread out and parents denied their children from visiting friends alone due to dangerous roads and a lack of sidewalks, the mall was a place for preteens and young teens to hang out without parental supervision or the constraints of the school environment. There was no dress code, no bells, no strict class schedule and no one watching over our shoulders. From six to nine on a Friday or Saturday night, the mall would be clogged with 12 to 15-year-olds, some from your own school and some from neighboring towns, with whom you could mingle, flirt and eat Burger King.
This sense of freedom, I remember, sent chills down my spine the first time I went to the mall with my friends without our parents. At this point, actual shopping became a mere tertiary function. Though our parents may view the mall as a place to buy overpriced junk, millenials remember it as a space of valuable social growth. Walking past an empty Hot Topic or Claire’s is like seeing a decaying jungle gym or public park—these are places that were always full of people, where we played pretend, tried on new identities and perceived ourselves as grown-ups.
With this sentiment in mind, one might think that in the plans to repurpose these “dead malls,” developers would want to cater to these connections. While it may seem easy to say “good riddance” to these once-crowded meccas of gross capitalism and turn them into something more appealing, it seems as though these plans are not being made for this generation’s desires.
In the aforementioned Washington Post article, mall owners discuss plans to give the mall new life as a “town center” with a “’small-town, urban environment’ aimed largely at baby boomers… who grew up in cities and then raised kids in the suburbs.” This sentiment is echoed in several other news pieces on the subject in towns across America, and the idea of the town center seems to be the ultimate solution for dead malls.
Marketing the future of the mall to baby boomers seems counterproductive and overall nonsensical seeing as the youngest boomers are well over 50. Although this generation has all the buying power, especially those past retirement, what will happen when millennials are in those prime buying years and feel no connection to these areas that hearken back to their parents’ youth? Will there be a crisis for “town centers,” forcing them to rebuild the walls and add some kitschy haut décor?
It would seem that this move toward the town center is both misguided and fixed in the idea that millennials will forever remain broke and unproductive, when just the opposite is true. If retailers wish to give these spaces new life, they must accept that millennials will soon enough be the top consumers in the nation, and that if they want to convince this generation to come to a mall rather than shop online, they must update these spaces in ways that are relevant and appealing.
Integrating technology rather than running from it, incorporating independent stores rather than focusing on chains and including outdoor spaces would likely be more effective in attracting the business of this generation rather than that of its parents, and given the significance and size of the reconstruction investments, for developers, this would be the most advisable route.
In twenty years it is likely that millennials will prefer to see these familiar spaces become the inviting hubs of their youth, where they can bring their families and not just socialize, but also shop, just as they used to in years past.
—Sophia Burns ’18 is a student at Vassar College.