What Happens to Abandoned Malls?

Interior of the abandoned Wayne Hills Mall in Wayne, New Jersey
Interior of the abandoned Wayne Hills Mall in Wayne, New Jersey (John Arehart / Shutterstock)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In a report last week from Fort Wayne, Indiana, I noted what I considered the mid-century tragedy of big, sprawling, “modern” shopping malls displacing historic downtowns, only to become bankrupt eyesores after the malls’ few decades of fashionability had passed.

The difference between those vintage-1970s big malls and earlier eras’ structures is what happened after the businesses inside the buildings died. If a factory from the 1880s, a warehouse from the 1920s, or a corner grocery from the 1940s closed down, in theory the building could be reused and reborn in some new economic role. Deb and I have seen that happening coast to coast: with ex-factories that are now art studios or small-manufacturing zones, ex-bakeries that are now hotels or residences, ex-churches that are now schools or libraries or breweries.

But when a 1970s mall becomes an “ex-” structure, it usually just sits there, sucking life from everywhere around it.

Or so I argued—from my own Boomer-era perspective on American architectural and urban history.

A reader who grew up in New Jersey but went to college in Michigan, Vasav Swaminathan, says I may need to take another leap of generational imagination. He writes:

I’m an older Millennial (born 1986), so I think most of my life is seeing box stores and strip malls give way to “revived” downtowns. I remember hating sitting in traffic as a kid on Saturdays while we went from mall to mall, and much preferring the days we went to Oak Tree Road or Nassau Street to buy things.

Which is to say—I much prefer what we’re moving to, reviving the downtown concept, to the old style.

But how did the previous generation feel about the boarded-up downtowns and the big-box stores when they were new?

I do know plenty of kids who loved the mall … When these were new in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and downtowns were blighted, how did everyone feel about it?

By the ’90s, everyone was saddened by urban blight and tried to reverse it, and now we look at the box stores as something from a maligned recent past. But in 30 years, might the tide turn again, as folks re-prefer the convenience of easy parking?

I don’t honestly know—I don’t need to tell you the annoyances of overcrowded traffic and the charm and cultural presence of the downtown scenes, nor the conveniences of ample parking, or the ways that effective mass transit can copy the conveniences of cars and parking lots.

But I think of Detroit, with beautiful tree-lined streets filled with abandoned houses. It may have been unfortunate that they tore down the Hudson’s department store, and it is wonderful they’ve saved the train station and tragic they tore down Tiger Stadium. But those active, unlucky places, when they made their decisions—did it feel like progress?

Is the tragedy that I see in the loss of Tiger Stadium an evanescent feeling? Will future generations bemoan the fate of the Silverdome?


I can’t say about Detroit or the Silverdome, but from a D.C.-area perspective: I think most sports fans and area residents have celebrated the arrival of the modern new baseball park for the Nationals, not far from the Capitol, plus the downtown arena for the Capitals and Wizards.

No one will miss the cavernous, Silverdome-style FedEx Field outside town, whenever the Washington NFL team figures out where it should go next.

Update: A reader sent in a link to a report on the abandoned New World department store mall in Bangkok, which was subsequently flooded and used to raise fish. The reader writes:

You’re probably already aware of it [JF: I was not], but the photos of
Bangkok’s abandoned and flooded New World Mall, which until a few years ago was home to tens of thousands of koi, are strangely beautiful …

Courtesy of Reuters, here is a sample of the images the reader is talking about:

A 2015 photo of a fisherman at work in the abandoned-then-flooded New World department store mall in Bangkok (Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters)