When I was young, I took malls for granted. They seemed as much a part of the nation’s infrastructure as highways and sewer systems. Where else could you have your ears pierced with a glorified staple gun, challenge strangers to Street Fighter matches in dim arcades, consume untold quantities of Orange Julius and brood over low-rise jeans in department-store fitting rooms? My home, Iowa City, had two of them, each thriving; I would have been shocked to hear that in a few decades, the very concept of a mall would find itself in existential peril.
But it was all the way back in 2000 that the website deadmalls.combegan documenting moribund shopping centers throughout the United States, and the crisis in retail has only intensified since. Credit Suisse estimates that by 2022, one in four of the nation’s remaining malls will have closed. Some will be repurposed — as housing, satellite college campuses, medical centers, megachurches. Others will simply fall into glorious ruin.
Images of abandoned spaces are hugely popular on the internet — a Reddit forum called Abandoned Porn has more than 640,000 followers — but it’s the dead-mall tour that, in my opinion, represents the apogee of the genre. No other category offers the spectacle of modern ruin at such horrifying scale: the scars of familiar logos on storefronts, the desiccated planters, the sheer volume of emptiness and waste. No other building displays the capriciousness of human desire with such brutal rigor — a once-beloved edifice that, in the span of a few years, has become so worthless no one even cares enough to tear it down.
Lately I’ve been unwinding at the end of the night by watching tours of dead and dying shopping malls on YouTube. There are two basic types. The first explores a mall that is still open, though the end is evidently nigh — the retail equivalent of a sinking ship. Wings are shut down and cordoned off one by one, like gangrenous limbs. The doomed mall lapses into bleak absurdity, like a government office in the end stages of a failing regime. Lonesome holdouts go on peddling their wares, to virtually no one, amid boarded-up storefronts and signs advertising “retail opportunities.” In one video, a single clerk is seen operating a jewelry kiosk in an otherwise-deserted corridor.
Then there are the tours of malls that have already been shut down and abandoned, often for years — deep-sea footage from within the moldering shipwreck. In one of my favorites, “Neon Dreams,” the filmmaker Dan Bell tours the abandoned Frederick Towne Mall in Frederick, Md., in which some of the power has inexplicably been left on. The aesthetic is frozen in the 1980s: neon signage, bold geometric patterns, color schemes heavy in gray, pink and teal. Mannequins, dress forms and other, more puzzling effigies lurk in unexpected spots. Metal security gates have been torn apart like costume jewelry. Signs continue to forbid eating and drinking in stores, though the stores were long ago gutted of merchandise and the food court was similarly disemboweled.
When we talk about ruins, we often turn to ancient examples — Machu Picchu, the Acropolis, Pompeii. It takes a certain depth of historical knowledge, along with a leap of the imagination, to picture such ruins as intact, teeming with human activity. Ruined malls, on the other hand, have an immediate and intuitive effect; most American adults have a visceral understanding of what these buildings meant at the height of their influence. Freud described the uncanny as “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar,” which might explain the eerie magnetism of these videos: We remember the aura of magic and possibility with which these spaces were once imbued, but in a dead mall, the aura is sucked clean out, like a living, breathing person reduced to a glassy-eyed doll.
I must admit to gleaning a perverse satisfaction from these exhibitions of collapse.
When I left Iowa at 18, I hoped for my hometown, and the people in it, to be perfectly preserved in my absence, as you might wish for an ex to remain in suspended animation after a breakup. It felt like a betrayal when a large section of the struggling Old Capitol Mall was requisitioned by the University of Iowa, or when the Sycamore Mall underwent a process of “de-malling” as part of its transformation into a trendy, ominous-sounding commercial “power center.” A part of me wishes that they had been abandoned, exactly as I remember them, to be toured by future dead-mall archivists.
There’s a passage in an Anne Carson poem, “The Glass Essay,” that describes the process of grieving a breakup as the seasons repeat themselves: “I can feel that other day running underneath this one/like an old videotape.” In dead-mall tours, we can glimpse the traces of our past selves embedded in the modern footage — paging through jewel-cased CDs at what are now empty racks; sitting in movie theaters at the moment the house lights go down, revealing tiny lights strung along the floor like runways at night; perched on now-desolate benches, waiting for rides. By watching, perhaps, we can try to reassure ourselves that who we were and how we lived still exist, if on an altered plane — that, like the malls themselves, our pasts will resist their own erasure.
Kate Folk is a fiction writer based in San Francisco.
Extracted from NY Times