The Downfall of America’s Malls? The internet and what it means for the future of malls
Gone are the small hardware stores, the shoemakers, the candy store that sold newspapers, sodas, and took an occasional bet for the local bookie. All of the little shops owned by local families, where people walked to work or took the bus, all of it is gone. They’re memories or photos in old newspapers now, and we wonder what happened to our sense of community, our neighborhoods.
In its place, we have tattoo parlors, French pastry shops, exotic restaurants, and upscale steak houses and art galleries. Of course, all of it came after the small shops, groceries included, were torn down, the people forced to move, and the hi-rise condos sprung up like so many thorns attacking the sky.
But most of all, we have the malls that promised to fulfill our every need in shiny new structures on acres of land that were climate controlled. No more would we have to walk anywhere other than the perimeter of the glass, plastic, metal, and concrete laid out for us by the new social psychologists, the mall architects. Did they know what they were doing? Environmental psychology wasn’t a word anyone knew.
Who Nurtured the Mall-Need?
A mall-need may have been created by “master builder” giants like Robert Moses, the New York titan who tore entire neighborhoods out of existence in his frantic building. The bridges and highways led to vast tracts of cheek-by-jowl cracker box houses in the suburbs. Built on sandy lots once flowering with huckleberry and blackberry bushes, the towns planted themselves but without local, downtown businesses.
Along with developers like William J. Levitt, who built Levittown on Long Island, the ethnic areas were viewed as old, dirty, and disposable. They had to make way for modern highways. Modern was the rage, and nothing else mattered. And along with “modern” came a new retailing creature, the mall in 1956.
Renters would become owners or begone from the cities being recreated in the image of the urban planners who, without the input of the citizens, would build to the wishes of the developers. Who would speak for the dispossessed, the lower-class?
One voice would sound out for the voiceless, Jane Jacobs, a former writer on architecture, and an advocate for the life of cities. One of her books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, would become required reading in universities. She, along with Louis Wirth, would lay out what we were losing and who was suffering in this urban renewal.
Jacobs was outspoken in her disagreement with this building ethic. Referring to commercial properties such as malls, she wrote, “Commercial centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.”
Jacobs continued, “Monopolistic shopping centers and monumental cultural centers cloak, under the public relations hoo-haw, the subtraction of commerce, and of culture too, from the intimate and casual life of cities.” The mall, therefore, in her eyes was a new form of urban blight, but its life wouldn’t be long-lived after its surge in the 1980s. “One in four U.S. malls is expected to close by 2022, according to a 2017 report by Credit Suisse.”
The Death of the Mall. What Now?
The once-popular mall, where the singer Tiffany made her debut, has now experienced a downward stretch with the revitalization of pockets of downtown shopping centers. Consumers are revisiting the advantage of being able to shop without hopping into the SUV for a 20 to 30-minute drive to the mall. In the process, they can shepherd their children’s activities.
As one professor of retailing noted, “We built too many malls, and we built them too cheaply. Only the strong will survive, while the weaker ones are idle and fold.”
What happens to all of those increasingly abandoned retail mega-structures? The answer, of course, lies in reinventing themselves in terms of community colleges, public preschools, churches, libraries, medical clinics, shelters for the homeless, and even micro-apartments. Yes, people will go to live in the mall and not souls who were abandoned but who elected to live there.
Any developer who didn’t see the curve coming and went ahead with their plans will either reformulate them or recreate the massive space to new uses other than retail. And retail has its problems, too. One comes from the increasing tendency for shoppers to do so online in the comfort of their homes or offices.
“The online sector, referred to as “clicks,” has been slowly eating up market share in the past two decades. Its total rose from below 5 percent in the late 1990s to about 12 percent in 2019, according to the Commerce Department.” And it’s still going strong and increasing its reach daily.
A new day has come for the mall, but it’s not the shopping mecca we once saw. As in everything, there is an upside. Malls have affordable space for new uses. What developer wouldn’t want the space rented rather than languish?