- American malls were created in the rise of suburbia in order to create spaces for Americans to gather and form communities.
- Starting with the opening of the Southland Mall in 1956, malls have been a vaulted piece of Americana for decades.
- But with so many malls being built in close proximity to one another, the newer malls would often poach the department stores from the older ones nearby. Older malls — without their anchors — would be left to drift away and drown.
- As the 2000s progressed, consumer habits shifted away from the department store altogether.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: This is what many of America’s malls look like today: empty, eerie, dead. And while the pandemic has most people avoiding indoor gathering spaces, social distancing is not what emptied out the mall. This footage is from 2018.
For decades, the mall was both an economic and social hub. And for many, a way of life. Now, many malls in the United States have either collapsed or are on the verge. So, how did we go from this to this?
The story of the mall begins in the 1950s, when America was experiencing an unprecedented economic boom. The middle class had more money to spend than ever before, and they were spending it on houses and cars. Along with this came Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act, which meant that people could drive to their jobs in the cities while living in a new kind of development, the suburbs.
Suburban populations rose astronomically, but they lacked what sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “third places.” Under this model, home is the first place, where you live. The second place is the workplace. And third places are the vital spaces where people go to exchange ideas, form relationships, and create communities. This could be a park, a bar, or, in today’s times, social-media platforms. In other words, the third place is a place to hang out.
Enter Victor Gruen, a man who would later become the “king of retail” for the era. Gruen, who ironically was a staunch socialist, had already made a name for himself in America designing boutique shops and storefronts, but now wanted to create something far more ambitious, an indoor downtown. In what would prove to be his boldest and most enduring project yet, Gruen set about designing the mall.
On October 8, 1956, America’s first indoor mall, the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, opened its doors. Like no building ever constructed before, the Southdale Center not only had shops, but fountains, art installations, a bird sanctuary, and a sprawling courtyard, all within a single indoor complex. The mall received mostly rave reviews, deeming it an attraction on par with Disneyland, which had just opened a year earlier, in 1955. Walt Disney himself even cited Gruen as his main influence for the ideas behind Epcot.
With Southdale all over the news, everyone wanted to go to the mall. Malls began springing up in every American suburb, along with large shopping-center-mall hybrids and everything in between.
By 1960, just four years after Gruen’s first mall, there were 4,500 large shopping complexes in the United States, which averages to at least three new shopping centers opening every day.
By 1975, malls and shopping centers accounted for 33% of all retail sales in America. But Gruen’s utopian vision for the mall had not been realized. Cheap food courts were installed where courtyards were supposed to be. Instead of cosmopolitan communities, developers often surrounded malls with enormous parking lots and suburban housing projects, exactly what Gruen was trying to thwart. Whereas the mall was designed to be the communal remedy for suburban individualism, it instead became its most potent catalyst.
Clip: It’s Mall Madness! The new shop-till-you-drop game that really talks!
Narrator: In the 1980s began the mall’s golden age.
Rat: I hate working the theater. All the action is on the other side of the mall.
Narrator: Shopping complexes continued to build at a rate of over 1,000 per year. And in 1986, Consumer Reports named the shopping mall, alongside the birth-control pill, antibiotics, and the personal computer, one of the top 50 wonders that has revolutionized the lives of consumers.
Movies, board games, and even concert tours all centered around the mall. ’80s teenagers even looked at the mall as a place to which they could escape and socialize, as was epitomized in the cult-classic movie “Mallrats.”
Brodie: I love the smell of commerce in the morning!
Narrator: The American mall would reach its peak in 1992 with its final evolution: the mega-mall. Fittingly in the same state as America’s first mall, the Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minnesota, spans a whopping 5.6 million square feet with over 500 stores, a theme park with 27 rides, an aquarium, a wedding chapel, and a movie theater.
The mega-mall was immensely profitable. Reports showed that consumers were 50% more likely to buy something at an attraction-filled mega-mall than at a regular mall, leading to several more mega-malls being built across the 50 states. But mega-malls’ gargantuan size coupled with an unsustainable rate of construction would lead to the collapse of the mall itself.
Although thousands of malls of all different shapes and sizes were built in the latter half of the 20th century, the basic mall layout had remained the same since 1956. Two large department stores at either end, connected by smaller shops in between. The bookending department stores are known as anchor stores and serve as the main attractions for the rest of the mall. With so many malls being built in close proximity to one another, the newer malls would often poach the department stores from the older ones nearby. Stores like Macy’s or Sears would relocate to bigger, more popular roller-coaster-riding mall locations. And the older malls, without their anchors, would be left to drift away and drown.
As the 2000s progressed, consumer habits shifted away from the department store altogether. Macy’s, for instance, has been steadily closing stores since 2005, most of them in malls. Department-store-sized vacancies are difficult to refill, and with other, better malls often nearby, there’s little that can be done to save a failing mall, which is why hundreds of malls have already been pronounced dead. The “dead mall” has even become its own aesthetic, capturing the imaginations of several internet photographers and filmmakers.
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A 2017 Credit Suisse report estimated that one in four US malls would close by 2022. As foot traffic declined, developers believed the future of the mall to be less about shopping and more about the extravagant experiences offered by the biggest mega-malls: bowling alleys, laser tag, go-karts, and other activities that could only be found outside the house.
Investors were hopeful that this would be achieved with the creation of the American Dream mega-mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Opened in 2019, this behemoth houses not only a theme park, but also a water park, an ice rink, and an indoor skiing complex.
But in a world of social distancing, even America’s most spectacular malls are floundering. As of June 2020, the Mall of America was unable to meet its billion-dollar mortgage payments for the second straight month. And the American Dream had laid off 100 employees.
Will malls ever recover their mainstay status in American culture? Or will we look to new types of third places in our post-pandemic future? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: There is plenty of space for something new.
We reached out to the Mall of America and the American Dream mega-mall but received no response.
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