If you grew up during the 80s and 90s, chance are shopping malls played a pivotal role in your adolescence. Regardless of whether you were actually shopping (honestly, I and my teenage brethren did very little of that), malls were an important gathering place akin to medieval Europe’s village square or the agora during Classical times. They were a place to see and be seen; to catch up on news both vital and mundane; or enjoy a good meal or some form of entertainment. They were a place where you could feel included in a group — even when you were surrounded by strangers. They became such an intrinsic part of our consumer society that they had a regular place in popular culture, whether as a haven from zombie hoards, the site of a zany family comedy, or the glittering backdrop for teenage love. Not only did I spend a great deal of my teens and early 20s hanging out in malls, I even worked in one for two years, as did my sister and most of my friends.
The malls in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona, have gone through their share of ups and downs. Some are posh, others more blue collar. Some are so choked with people you can barely manuever through their walkways; others have such a small clientele you wonder how they even stay in business. Regardless of what kind of mall it is or who they cater to, there’s a truth looming over them all — their days are numbered.
A good example is the El Con Mall in Tucson. When I returned home this past December, I was stunned to find the city’s first and once most prominent mall had been replaced by a collection of free-standing big box stores. All traces of the indoor passageways which once connected businesses — and people — had been completely eradicated. Ironically, this is close to how the El Con area appeared before the mall was erected in 1965. In that year, enclosed and air-cooled avenues were constructed between the pre-existing buildings and dozens more businesses were added. Even the names of many of those businesses harken back to the Golden Age of Malls: Orange Julius, Walden Books, Chess King, Things Remembered...
El Con reigned supreme for years until newer malls siphoned off its customer base. There was an attempt to revive El Con in the early 2000s. Many of the 60’s-era structures were bulldozed and replaced with a state-of-the-art theater, a Home Depot and a circular food court which never served a single meal because it never had a single tenant. By 2012, this empty food court was being destroyed to make room for more big box stores and the rest of the mall would soon follow. (To read more about El Con's history, click here.)
So why does any of this matter? It's just a mall, after all. Well, in the larger scheme of things it doesn't. It is just a mall, but it's demise / transformation says a few things about our larger society, I think.
I’ve written other blogs about the changing buying habits of the American consumer, particularly as it relates to books. (See Haunted By Bookshops... Everywhere!) But the gradual extinction of malls isn't just about how we're shopping, it's about how we're socializing.
After all, malls may have only been a fixture in American society for the past thirty or forty years — but they played a huge role in the early lives of Gen Xers and Millennials, or those of us born between the years of 1965 and 1992. Today however, they do not appear to play any significant role in the social lives of teens. Or at least not of any of the teens I know. Most young people I'm friends with prefer to do their shopping online if at all possible — and that's how they prefer to socialize too. A trip to the mall is no longer an anticipated weekend outing with friends or family. If anything it's considered drudgery.
But in exchanging physical gathering places for virtual ones, we’ve also deprived ourselves of the simple human pleasure of seeing and interacting with each other face-to-face in large numbers. In doing so, we’re inadvertently put an end to a tradition which goes back a lot further than just a generation or two.
Related Feature: Abandoned Malls and the Urban Explorer