A Farewell to Mallrats

Malls around the country are closing, leaving teens with one fewer place to just be.

When I was a young Girl Scout I attended a yearly event called Mall Madness, at which scores of local troops were locked in a mall overnight, until 3 or 4 a.m. It was the pinnacle of my 12-year-old social calendar, and it was madness, if fairly contained—preteen girls given the run of the mall, running through Spencer’s Gifts hopped up on Orange Julius and too many Cinnabons; making their first tentative forays into Hot Topic without fear of encountering the scary, be-pierced high schoolers that were its daytime denizens; buying CDs and T-shirts and keychains with slogans and other earnest, embarrassing expressions of burgeoning identity.

The mall experience is not quite so vibrant today. A few months ago I went to a mall in Maryland, because it has an Old Navy and an Olive Garden, and I wanted to buy pants and eat pasta alone. I achieved both of these goals (it was an excellent afternoon), but the mall itself—the liminal space between stores, often peppered with kiosks—was pretty desolate. I was often the only target for vendors aggressively hawking their wares, and when I did see other people roaming the halls, we looked at each other like travelers passing on a desolate road. I can’t lie to you and say a tumbleweed rolled by, but it was pretty dusty in there.

Other malls are faring even worse. On Wednesday, a judge in Oakland County, Michigan, granted permission for the owner of Northland Center mall, outside of Detroit, to shut it down. (My mall was the Southland Center, just a 30-minute drive away.) The Northland Center mall has been open since 1954, making it, according to the Detroit Free Press, one of the United States’ oldest suburban malls. But it’s been losing around $250,000 a month, the Free Press reports, and is also losing some of its larger stores, like Target and Macy’s.

The Northland Center is not alone—since 2010, more than two dozen enclosed shopping malls have closed down, according to a statement sent to me by Green Street Advisors, a real-estate analytics company.

Overall the landscape seems uneven. Higher-end malls are doing pretty well, sales-wise, according to Green Street’s 2015 “U.S. Mall Outlook” report, while lower-end malls are less likely to see growth. The report attributes this to the widening “bifurcation in income growth between high and low earners,” and predicts that many lower-grade malls “will go dark.” (Green Street grades malls on several factors, including the quality of their tenants, as well as local competition, and economic and demographic conditions.)

It would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of the Internet, as we are so fond of doing. And while the Green Street report notes that the rise of online shopping is certainly a factor, according to a piece in The New York Times last month, the bigger problem is that there’s an over-supply of retail space, and not enough stores to fill it. As a result, vacancy rates in malls are up, The Times reported:

About 80 percent of the country’s 1,200 malls are considered healthy, reporting vacancy rates of 10 percent or less. But that compares with 94 percent in 2006, according to CoStar Group, a leading provider of data for the real estate industry.

Nearly 15 percent are 10 to 40 percent vacant, up from 5 percent in 2006. And 3.4 percent—representing more than 30 million square feet—are more than 40 percent empty.

And as malls struggle, so too does the mallrat culture exemplified (and maybe exaggerated) by Mall Madness. An iconic scene in Mean Girls (prefaced by the immortal line “Get in, loser, we’re going shopping”) portrays the mall as a “watering hole” for high schoolers. A 1985 study supports that view, calling the mall a “third place” for teenagers, “a respite from the treadmill between home and school, a place for enjoying social life.” Of the small group of Los Angeles teens the study interviewed, about half said they went to the mall to shop; the rest came to see friends, play video games, eat, people-watch, troll for dates, and—the most teen answer of all—“just to have ‘something to do.’”

That’s how I remember malls mostly, as places for aimless wandering and talking, with enough distractions to make it seem like you were “doing something.” But teens are going to malls less these days—about 30 percent less often compared to 10 years ago, Quartz reports. It seems they’re going to restaurants instead, which, those are cool places to hang out too, I guess.

While it would be reasonable to argue that hanging out at the mall is a good way for kids to jump aboard the train of consumerism nice and early, there was something comforting about the panoply of identities for sale. (I know it’s not great that stores and the things they sell are often stand-ins for identity, but they are and in the awkwardness of adolescence, you have to work with what you’re given sometimes.) Maybe today you’d enter the shadowy, cologne-soaked labyrinth of Hollister, maybe tomorrow you’d peruse rows of Manic Panic in the (also fragrance-drenched) Hot Topic. Or maybe you’d just sit at the food court and eat soft pretzels with your friends, grateful for a time and a space away from the pressures of growing up.