Reporter's Notebook

Fort Wayne, Indiana
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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

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.  

https://www.vice.com/en_us/topic/abandoned?page=2


Damaged escalators in an abandoned shopping mall sunken by rain flood waters
Shutterstock

One more installment on the question of whether an unloved and unsightly part of America’s infrastructure—the giant sprawl-malls that drained business from classic downtowns in the 1960s and 1970s, only to become bankrupt dinosaurs in their turn—might actually become the sites of civic and architectural rebirth.

The original post, about Fort Wayne, Indiana, was here; followed by this (partial) defense of malls; and this elaboration on what is happening to malls around the country.

More via the wisdom of the readership:

1) Maybe the deadness of the malls is a feature, not a bug. A reader points out that one mall has been put to good use as a set for horror or zombie movies:

Here’s a timely article about another use for a (largely) vacant mall:

I had remarked to a friend a couple of years ago that this mall could be used to good effect in a Walking Dead episode (which is also shot in the Atlanta area).

Of course, it’s not feasible for every city to promote/develop itself as “the Hollywood of the [REGION],” and even here the community would be better served by the space having some continuous utility, rather than occasional use as background scenery.

Perhaps, taking off from the retro film set starting point, some locale could convert an old mall to a Mall Museum, with different wings featuring now-defunct chains from different eras.


2) What did the mall designers have in mind? From a reader in California:

Not long ago, as I exited the campus environmental design library here at Berkeley I spied the free book truck outside the door. Among the books: Louis G. Redstone’s New Dimensions in Shopping Centers and Stores, published in 1973. I nabbed it, and now it’s mine. It is a treasure, not least because its target audience is the mall designer.

I am one of those kids who didn’t exactly love the mall, but very much appreciated it. New Dimensions is devoid of nostalgic sentiment; it’s a documentary history.

Of course, suburban malls like the ones I visited as a kid were also in their own ways monuments to racism and capitalist rapaciousness. We need not mourn their loss, then, except for the fact that their replacements are arguably much worse in either or both respects.

I don’t believe you noted sites like this in your recent posts. Depictions of the ruins of malls are now a “thing,” as they say.  Also see this, from a Pacific NW design journal.