Dead Malls, Reborn Cities

A closed Sears retail store sits vacant at Crossroads Center mall in St, Cloud, Minnesota
A closed Sears retail store sits vacant at Crossroads Center mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota (Nic Neufeld / Shutterstock)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

We can all think of things that have gotten worse about journalism, in the era of continual distraction and internet-borne hysteria and info silos.

Here’s something I’ve continued to appreciate as an improvement, ever since The Atlantic became one of the first publications to establish an online presence back in 1995.

How long ago was that, in technological terms? It was forever. Google didn’t exist, to say nothing of Facebook; Amazon was a start-up based in a garage; “mobile” phones were too bulky to fit in a pocket and too primitive to do anything except make phone calls.

But for all the unrecognizable differences in technology (and reading habits) since then, the process I have in mind continues. It is the ongoing cycle of in-public, crowd-sourced, step-by-step education that online forums make possible.

Of course people could have done something faintly similar in the pre-electronic age, by sending physical letters to journalists, and waiting to see an in-print response. But speed and scale make the modern feedback loop entirely different. And of course the cycles of in-public misinformation and fearmongering are so obvious as to suggest that putting people in closer touch with one another has mainly destroyed everyone’s power to think.

But not really! Andrew Sullivan marveled at the power of in-public incremental education in his  “Why I Blog” cover story for The Atlantic, back in 2008. The cycles of publicly asked questions, with a public search for answers, was a crucial element in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s relationship with his vast and devoted audience, “The Horde,” during his years as an Atlantic blogger. For me, when living in China, when writing about politics or the military or technology or aviation, and while traveling across the United States these past few years, I’ve continued to marvel at how many people within The Atlantic’s force field, have such a range of knowledge and experience, which they can share in such (usually) relevant and well-expressed ways.

This is a long buildup to the latest (unexpected) example: what happens to buildings after they die.

In a post last week from Fort Wayne, I talked about the fates of buildings that had outlived their original economic or civic function: factories, warehouses, corner stores, even churches and synagogues.

In a follow-up item, a reader described why some people might miss a kind of structure I had considered a blight: the mid-20th-century shopping malls that displaced many earlier downtown businesses, and that themselves have in many cases been abandoned and bankrupted.

Here’s the rest of what I have learned on this theme, from mail just over the weekend.

1) There is a book (and probably more than one) on this exact topic by my friend, the estimable polymath Stewart Brand. A reader writes:

I was wondering if you’ve read Stewart Brand’s very interesting book, “How Buildings Learn”, that he published many years ago.

If not, it’s directly applicable to your comment today about how older free-standing buildings in downtowns tend to be re-born and re-used again and again.

I have ordered the book, and look forward to a physical copy arriving in two days. Update: a nice, related video featuring Stewart Brand is here.

2) There is a video series on the same theme too. Another reader writes:

I don’t believe you’ve mentioned this shortlived documentary series “Abandoned” from Vice so you may not be aware of it. [JF: I wasn’t.]

It had, I believe, six episodes, each of which you would enjoy (they replay frequently on the Vice channel), but the episode on Ohio’s abandoned malls was particularly memorable.

The premise of the full series sounds odd - a skateboarder visits abandoned spaces and skates their remaining flat spaces, but in spending time with the locals in each case he does an extraordinary job of exploring the sociological sense of loss, and the episodes are truly deep and haunting.

The California Water System (abandonment of the Great Salton Sea) episode is incredibly powerful and should be shown in that state’s schools.

I can’t encourage you enough to view them - you’ll be glad you did.

3) Here is a story about a failing mall in Los Angeles being converted into a Google office space, and here is another feature about seven doomed malls from around the country that found new life.

4) A reader from Dubuque sends this Iowa-based report, about a man who fought the mid-century mall trend while it was under way:

Bob Zehentner was a small business owner back in the 1960s when my hometown of Dubuque started its “urban renewal” plans, by which they meant restructuring the Main Street of downtown into a pedestrian space.

At the same time, Kennedy Mall was being built out on the West side of the city, which was in the same direction as all of the new home building at the time.

Bob was a World War II veteran and saw service in North Africa and China Burma India. He started his business when he came back from the war because he wanted to encourage families and young people to engage in outdoor activities and sports. Really about as American a dream as the American Dream could be then.

He fought hard against the renewal plans, attending city council meetings, lobbying other local business owners, warning about the impending loss of historical buildings and the peril of killing the heart of the city’s center.  

Naturally Bob was concerned for his business but also those of his friends and neighbors. Then he watched as, one by one, the small businesses died off, until his was one of the few left. Older buildings fell into disrepair and many were torn down.

It was a stroke of luck that the next generation, remembering the old downtown, saw the opportunity of restoring the older buildings to a new glory. It took this young blood years but they began to restore the downtown, starting with renovating older homes into B&Bs and residences, then the commercial buildings, and finally Main Street itself.

The nearby Warehouse District is now a thriving nighttime spot, a more positive expression of gentrification than many urban places can claim.

There’s no doubt that Main Street businesses would still have to face the onslaught of online retail like Amazon, eBay, and so on, but Bob was prescient about the vital importance of the city center.

Dubuque has enjoyed a resurgence as both a destination and a great place to raise a family, but one has to wonder how much was lost in the process of coming to our collective senses.

5) From another reader in the Midwest, with an idea of how to use today’s dead malls as the anchors for tomorrow’s revived urban areas:

By a quirk of chance last month, I happened to find myself in a JCPenney’s inside the Golf Mill Shopping Center in Niles, Illinois. I’m 35 years old, and shopping malls were very much part of the fabric of everyday life while growing up, but this visit was probably the first time in two decades I had set foot inside a JCPenney’s.

And as I wandered around the inside, it was impossible to miss the many closed storefronts. Most striking was the space in the mall’s map labelled “Former Sears”, which was in dead center of the map, where an anchor store should be; once upon a time, it seems that one could walk through the Sears to reach one side of the mall from the other. Now, all I see is a blocked off space, with what seemed to be hastily printed signs urging me to exit the mall and walk around the outside to access the rest of the stores on the other side of the Sears.

Similarly, it was hard to not see the demographics at the mall, which certainly skewed towards older guests, either in retirement or close to it.

I remember thinking back to Victor Gruen, the architect who pioneered what the contemporary shopping mall as we know it with the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota in 1956. I had just saw a documentary snippet about him a bit earlier, and I was surprised how Gruen meant the suburban shopping mall as just one part of a holistic community center, with commercial, residential, and community components. This was not my experience with shopping malls in general, and it certainly wasn’t my experience at Golf Mill.

But what if shopping malls don’t have to be this way? What if what we see nowadays as dying, decaying shopping centers can be re-framed to something closer to Gruen’s vision?

In the case of Golf Mill, what if the “Former Sears” anchor store could be converted into something like apartments and condos for retirees thinking of downsizing and moving to a more convenient and walkable area?

What if some of the closed-up store fronts could re-open with social amenities like senior centers, health services like physical therapists’ offices, and lifestyle amenities like full-service restaurants, theaters, and places of worship?

What if shopping centers today can be repurposed, from something that’s merely just a brick-and-mortar location for conducting commerce in an increasingly-losing battle against e-commerce, into a common physical and social space for generating community, intergenerational relationships, and cultural richness and stimulation?

I don’t know if Gruen’s more holistic vision of “the mall” is actually be viable in the real world. But as more and more malls fail and die out across the country, surely Gruen’s vision of the mall is no less viable than the crumbling reality of what we understand shopping malls to be today.

As it happens, we’ve covered Victor Gruen’s urban-design work in previous installments in this space. For instance, this from Fresno.  Thanks to these readers, and others, for telling me things I didn’t know, and suggesting new leads to pursue.