Ewan Morrison Essay: Dead Malls On Living Land

I’m standing before a vast crumbling structure surrounded by broken security fencing; A Danger-Keep-Out sign lies crushed and rusted on the tarmac of what was once an immense car park. Inside, beyond the barricaded doors, I know that escalators have warped and decayed into terrifying reptilian shapes; that beneath the caved-in roof among the broken glass and the smashed tiles, saplings have sprouted. I know that remnants of signage and advertisements haunt the walls; that the entire place is like some gothic fantasy of the end of the world. I know because I have seen the images. I am afraid to enter, not because I fear ghosts, but because the place is too powerful to be breached or touched. It is both a memorial to my childhood, and to my years of political confusion; some kind of concrete metaphor for my fears for the future and my family. Or maybe it’s just an empty building – I don’t know. The sight of it nonetheless moves me to tears.

http://flickr.com/jonrev Photo: [jonrev Photography]

An urban explorer poses beside the famed escalators of Dixie Square. Deviant Art

The edifice before me is Dixie Square, a once proud shopping mall, located in Harvey, Illinois, twenty miles south of Chicago. It is 2009 and I’m on holiday in the States. I’ve taken time away from family and friends to make this pilgrimage alone.

Built at the costs of $25 million back in 1966, Dixie Square mall was once an immensely popular retail space and a magnet for movie fans; it’s interior and exterior were the location for the famous car chase sequence in The Blue Brothers.

The Blues Brothers (1978). In which four police cars destroy a mall.

The mall closed its doors in 1979, due to changing demographics, rising local poverty and a growing crime rate which caused flight from the surrounding area. Once it began, the desertification spread and the homeless moved in; there were fires, a rape and a murder. The place became cursed, feared, haunted.

Only in 2011 is it finally starting to be slowly demolished, with great care because of the vast amount of asbestos used in its construction.

Dixie Mall is not alone in its decay. Over the last ten years three hundred of the registered 1,448 shopping malls in the US have closed their doors. And I am not alone in my pilgrimage; an internet cult has sprung up which follows the ‘dead mall phenomenon’.

Websites like Deadmalls.com, have memorablia, maps, photos and hundreds of posted reminiscences about malls. ‘There used to be a games arcade outside JC Penneys, God, I loved that place, I just can’t believe its gone.’  I got lost in Rolling Acres once, separated from my mother and grandmother, when I was about four or five. Terrified, I bawled my eyes out until a pretty woman held out her hand and said “Come with me. We’ll find your mommy.” And we did. You were safe in Rolling Acres. Nothing could hurt you in Rolling Acres. There were pretty women around every corner, waiting to take you back to mommy if you got lost.’

There are also organized, but illegal, tours from ‘urban exploration groups’, and photographers, both amateurs in their hundreds and professional artists like Brian Ulrich with his emotive, austere, aesthetically profound project “Dark Stores”.

Pep Boys, from the Series Dark Stores, by Brian Ulrich

Am I a member of this now globally expanding Dead Mall cult? I ask myself as I stand before Dixie Square. Yes, because the sight of the place moves me on an almost forgotten level. And this is more than just nostalgia; I didn’t even grow up in America. And it must be more than just an exotic taste for the sublime, the risqué and prohibited, which haunts people my age; growing up as we did with Punk, Goth and the nihilism of Grunge. This is something particular to Gen Xers (between thirty-seven and forty-eight) who constitute the majority of the Dead Mall cult. The Dead Mall is as iconic to us as Douglas Coupland’s generation X, as hip-hop and retro Americana kitsch; it is a symbol of something inherently flawed, disturbed and dormant within our generation. A symbol of our ambivalence towards all things political; or maybe a call to action. Maybe.

Like Thom Yorke, another man who is obsessed with retail and consumerism, I was born in 1968. We were the first generation to be target marketed as children, and to consume the products of the newly globalised world economy – we can all recall Michael Jackson’s horrific fire accident when he shot that ad for Pepsi. My children find it hard to grasp that there was once a world in which there were very few international connections in which people in different countries listened to different music and wore other kinds of clothes. Us GenXers were a crucial part of that first surge of globalisation; it formed connections and synapses within our child-minds; we had pocket money to spend.

I was born in a small remote town in the north of Scotland which did not have a mall. The first mall appeared 100 miles south in the early 80s, and suddenly families around us started to drive for two hours rather than shopping in their own town. As we now know, malls have a tendency to put local shops and markets out of business. In our town we felt the negative impact of the mall, or at least some of us did. My left -wing parents damned it as an example of the myths, propaganda and big money of American hegemony, infiltrating  and taking over the UK. On the other hand there were others in town who sported all the latest fashions and brands and they seemed happy and clean and shiny, and they had a new kind of status.

By the time I made it to University in Glasgow, the very first super-malls were being built in Scotland. The St. Enoch Centre was officially opened in 1990 by Margaret Thatcher; it was the largest glass structure in Europe and contained over a hundred stores. It was part of the new re-modelling of Glasgow from industrial decay into retail city. And as with my childhood mall, some people looked smarter, and newfound wealth seemed to appear magically, but within a mile of the mall, a very proud old indigenous department store was forced into bankruptcy, and within two years it had been abandoned and burned to the ground. I stood watching the flames thinking that the growth of malls, always hurt someone. For malls to live, something else had to die. Shadows of Dixie Mall.

At this time, in my twenties, the world convinced itself that Capitalism was as good as it could get. We all watched, incredulous, the fall of the Berlin Wall and were told every day the Fukyama line in all media – “The End of History” had arrived. The people of the former Soviet Countries were ‘Rockin’ in the Free world’ and within five years they too opened their first mega-malls. As a generation, we taught ourselves to accept that there was no alternative; socialism and the planned economy were over. We became self-conscious, self-loathing consumers, entrepreneurs who nonetheless thought of ourselves as radical in some vague, ungrounded way. After more than a decade of resisting, I went mall shopping.  I bought a pair of jeans that I knew had been made in a sweatshop, but they were cheap and cool and that was just the way the world was. I loved my evil product and loathed myself, then laughed at it all. So typical of my confused generation.

I now live in a city that is retail saturated. Glasgow has three large malls and a retail park – one at each of it’s four corners. It also has two immense malls at it’s heart. And with those malls, like Braehead, damage has been done to surrounding towns; the shops in Renfrew and Paisley, within the ten mile radius, are deserted and boarded up. I now know that this is what malls do – they factor the amount of ‘leakage’ they can get from surrounding areas into their development plans. They are “vampiric”. Glasgow, like Manchester now, is a retail city par excellence, the half kilometer between it’s two central malls is the seventh largest retail corridor in the world. This is the only story that we hear.

But as I stand before Dixie Square, I know it can’t last. The turning of my city into a mall will fail as this process has started failing in the US. It is not only competition with internet retailers like Amazon that’s forcing malls into closure; neither is it the recession. It is something endemic to the nature of the unregulated development that spawns malls: market saturation. The primary reason that malls in the US are closing down and being demolished is that the furious retail real estate development of the last twenty years was based on that very same vampirism that led malls to put towns out of business. In a retail saturated landscape, the height of growth and spending reaches a peak then can go no further. So new malls can only steal custom from older malls.

Across the US, from Florida to California malls are becoming deserted, mall developers and owners are going bankrupt, and stores are rushing to relocate before they too go bust. No-one seems to care because the plan for cities, the social plan, has been thrown away. Americans have come to accept these retail deserts as a natural by-product of growth; they are dark flip-side of the American dream landscape.

I find myself weeping before the shell of Dixie Square, because we in the UK so whole heartedly bought into this dream that was not ours and sold off our public space -in many cases gave it away for free – so that malls and the corporations they house could dominate our landscape. And we were wrong, and many of my middle years, of trying to convince myself that consumerism was the only choice, were flawed and wasted.  I weep because it may take another generation yet for us to realise this terrible mistake, one that grows ever larger day by day as the developing countries race to try to catch up, and open their doors to international mall developers who will restructure their urban fabric, and erase their local history beneath the concrete of the growing global homogeneity.

Dixie Square from Dark Stores, by Brian Ulrich

I stand there before the dead space of Dixie Mall and try to picture thousands of shoppers, children running, while parents walk arm in arm; there’s sunlight and carrier bags, brand names and burgers. I tell myself that nothing is this clear cut, malls are also good places, family spaces, safe. Then I recall the rape and murder in the shell of Dixie Square and again I end in a conflicted mess.

Finally, I give up and walk away, across the abandoned car park, laughing at my own stupidity and the apocalyptic romance of it all. Us generation Xers could never make up our minds politically; we always walked away with nothing resolved; trapped in this negative malaise, with the ironic knowledge of our own indecisiveness and inability to act. We were the children of the mall after all, how could we judge it? I search for some kind of metaphor – grass growing through broken concrete, fresh shoots – maybe there is hope for the dead malls after – but it’s pathetic, a mess of conflicting impulses: I want all the malls to die, and at the same time I want them to survive because my childhood and personal history is in them; like the way they now occupy my city.

I have not taken a camera with me and don’t have one on my phone, so I can’t take away a souvenir. I leave the shell of Dixie Square mall with nothing, other than some vague, unformed desire to ‘do something’, ‘for once’.

It’s only when I’m back home in Glasgow weeks later, that an idea forms – before I can do anything I have to learn more. I must study the history of malls, how they are built, and how people have protested against them; I have to find out how fast they are spreading and where and how they are changing; to learn about architecture and town planning, but also I want to tell the stories of my mall generation, like DeadMalls.com has done in the states. I interview mall workers and shoppers and record their anecdotes and confessions. I start, I venture out beyond my comfort zone and talk to strangers and I discover surprising facts – the man who invented the modern mall was a utopian socialist who believed he was building new communities. As the research unfolds I find that Tesco are planning a mixed-use super-complex in my neighbourhood, and I join the movement to fight the development and after six months we win. As Dixie mall is torn down piece by piece, the same pattern that led to its decline is beginning here, but we can do something about it.

Stories come in fast and facts amount to a picture of something that could be a book. Two years later, the book is complete, but the research is still ongoing and more urgent than ever. On the 6th a February, a report from the British Property Federation, claims that 48,000 stores have fallen vacant, in a ‘spiral of decline’ caused by internet retail and out-of-town malls and there are calls for government action. The next day I have an email from an anonymous town planner with secret information about a back-hand deal between the local council and a major retail developer. The facts will go in my book, but this is now beyond the book; this feels, finally, like I’m doing something more than standing, staring, weeping at ruins.

Original advert for Dixie Square. 1966

Ewan Morrison is author of ‘Tales from the Mall’ – published by Cargo Publishing and available now on iphone App, enhanced ebook and paperback. 

Comments (6)

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  1. Doug Daniel says:

    There are obvious benefits to shopping malls – you drive out to them, park your car in the massive car park (which will be free, unlike the parking in the City Centre), and then everything is there in one place, protected from the elements. We can’t deny the convenience, especially when they open later than high streets stores tend to. They are destructive, but I don’t see why they can’t be adapted to help the local economy rather than hinder it.

    There’s no reason why we can’t take the mall/supermarket model (because they’re essentially the same thing) and use it to promote local businesses instead. We know why people don’t use the high street anymore – the days of the wife making her trip into town to get her messages while the husband was out working are long gone. In today’s world, people don’t have time (or simply refuse to make time) to go doon the street (I’m maybe using Buchan terminology here) to get their shopping. You can’t use your local butcher if he’s shut by the time you get home from work, and even if he wasn’t, do you really want to go out in the pouring rain when you could go to a covered supermarket?

    The reason malls and supermarkets are parasitic is because they extract the wealth from local economies and suck it up into big companies – money that would once have gone to Herds the butcher now goes to Tesco’s meat counter, and the big Gap store in a shopping mall puts an end to the profits for a local clothing shop. When we talk about the death of the high street, we shouldn’t get too hung up on the street aspect. Shopping malls are merely the obvious progression from concentrating shopping activities to a single High Street in the first place, or a 21st century version of the local market if you will.

    And it’s that last bit that we should focus on. Shopping malls and supermarkets could be changed to become a force for saving local businesses, rather than destroying them. Why can’t we have literal super-markets, where the local butchers, bakers, greengrocers and fishmongers are all under one roof, making things more convenient for shoppers, as well as cutting running costs for the businesses themselves? The problem is not that supermarkets exist, it’s that the same companies run them all and take all the profits, and the same with shopping malls, where the problem is that they are just identikit outlets for the same handful of mega-corporations. Aberdeen got a new shopping mall a few years ago (Union Square), and now bemoans the lack of activity on Union Street. Maybe instead of filling Union Square up with Next, Apple and Hollisters they should have invited local businesses to move in, and just tried to change the usage of Union Street to non-retail commercial activity?

    (Or they could just do something about Aberdeen’s disgraceful public transport…)

    Of course, Aberdeen Market and the Savoy Centre in Glasgow show that the idea of an indoor market (which is essentially what I’m describing) is nothing new, and unfortunately tends to end up becoming pretty scabby and downtrodden. But there’s no inherent reason why this should be so, it’s just that they get forgotten about in favour of a shiny new complex containing big-name American retailers. The trend could be reversed. In doing so, people could be reintroduced to proper food (particularly real butchers’ sausages – mmmmmm!) and real choice, instead of the false choices we’re currently presented with.

  2. Unhappy Shopper says:

    The same atmosphere once haunted the half-derelict hanger- like buildings of the former Linwood car plant and I’m sure many other former industrial complexes. From the solitary big steel letter R (the OOTES) were presumably taken for scrap metal, but this one proved immovable, on the gates of the once high-tech aluminium casting plant, the very white heat of the technological revolution boasted of, now orange and cold, crumbling to rust; the faded sign directing employees to the in-house barbers shop, the forbidding signs motorway big and white on sun-bleached blue: ‘Employees playing football in this area will be severely disciplined’, to the hanger-like yawning assembly line buildings with their web like box-trunking snaking all over and tiled sub-level inspection and access pits running to a distant dim far off vanishing point as far as the eye could see. Never was a place so possessed with emotion and hopes dashed, ghosts and ghosts of what might have been.

    On the other side of the road were the motley former Pressed-Steel company’s metalwork and trim plant buildings, warren like squat single-story brick built in an earlier era, expanded with war-time expediency as ‘shadow factories’, making car and truck bodies for diverse makers and railway carriages till that market glutted, dashed by Beeching, it’s mis-diversification and into one product exclusively, the seeds of its eventual takeover and demise along with its predatory once customer and latterly new parent. That side of the road now being a retail park – a mall by another name – a shrine to capitalism and consumerism, a cinema to implant the latest mass-media bogus narratives, ‘super’market, fast food joints and the predominant car lots, selling the impossible dream, their products sourced from the furthest corners of the world, while capable Scottish hands and minds fall to trembling with despair.

  3. bellacaledonia says:

    Turn them all into farmers and producers markets. Supertax the chain stores till they crawl back under the stones from whence their accountants once hid them. Vodafone off.

    KW (in a personal, half-flippant, capacity)

  4. What a wonderful essay! I hope the book will be widely read in the U.S. And its freaky because whenever I ponder the coming climate collapse it’s the image of just such abandoned malls that comes to mind.

  5. JeanU says:

    It’s the rates system what did it. Huge empty sheds on the outskirts of town attracted really, really low rates, while the wee shop on the (more desirable?) high street paid very high rates to be in the town/city centre. Ergo, it might be time to just neatly reverse that; very low rates for the city centre where local producers and makers could sell their wares and really high rates for the out-of-town centres. And i guess we could put some smartly designed canopies over the shops to keep off the rain?
    And by the way, the book’s a stoater Ewan………….and it’s about so much more than malls, brilliant.

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