For most of my life, the shopping mall was the symbol of the capitalist experiment. Everything about it celebrated consumerism and the illusion of plenty, and fueled the suburbanite’s need for a real-world simulacrum—one that could replace scary diverse downtowns with “safe,” artificial Disneyland-ish approximations that substituted commerce for community. The choices in a mall were simultaneously endless and extremely constrained: You could try on every shoe in the world. Eat six different kinds of foods at the food court. Watch one of five movies. Maybe there was a fountain or a carousel. The actual activities you could do were limited, but there were so many products to choose from that it felt—to lame teenage me, certainly, covered in zits and longing to belong—like a place where rehearsals of glamour and independence and self-fashioning were possible (even if I never quite managed to access them myself). And yet, they’re dying. A 2017 report by Credit Suisse predicted that 1 in 4 malls would close by 2022. That was before the pandemic. How are these castles to consumerism crumbling while the system they so ably represented lives on?
Mall death is self-evidently symbolic. A mall emptied of everything that made it what it was captures the imagination—which is why there are fascinating YouTube channels dedicated to the phenomenon, and evocative photographs of the sad heaps of naked mannequins and empty aisles and tattered EVERYTHING MUST GO banners fluttering in the dark. But symbolic of what? A dead mall, while eerie and odd and an urban eyesore, is strangely difficult to interpret. Tempting to see it as an Ozymandias-like portent of the collapse of capitalism, but it’s surely not, or not quite: Capitalism is thriving even if most of those living under it aren’t.
This old idea of mine, of the mall as the consummate capitalist achievement, is partly inherited. Whenever my family in Chile wants to show gringos how prosperous Chile is, how close to “first-world” status, there is one thing they always point to: its malls. Mall-building there hit its apogee with the Costanera Center in Santiago, a richly phallic behemoth of a complex that houses, among other things, the largest mall in South America. It’s a declaration of ambition, this mall: One of the associated skyscrapers is also (at least for now) the tallest building on the continent.
But there was always a slight mismatch between this messaging and the increasing American indifference to malls. The Costanera Center, an architectural monument to shopping as nation-building, symbolizes something to my relatives that it doesn’t to Americans—at least those my age, for whom malls are so common and in many cases so derelict that they no longer scan as indicators of national progress or economic possibility. For us, it’s quite the opposite: Malls in America, far from announcing grand ambitions, are entrenched proof of how these sometime spectacles of abundance are failing and dwindling and hollowing out. The first mall opened in 1956 and about 750 were built in the United States from 1970 through 2000. There were about 1,100 in the country by 2008—too many, as the recession would brutally prove.
My generation came of age when movies both celebrated and mocked the mall’s cultural primacy: It was the theater of adolescent angst and makeovers and—especially—irony. Malls were sort of for losers, a little bit, but you went anyway. They were a stable signifier of vaguely embarrassing American excess, a place where you could purchase what you were missing—a bit of edge, maybe, or glamor. A better complexion or shape. These missions usually failed, of course. (I frequently settled for being condescended to by the exquisitely be-shadowed clerks working MAC makeup counters.) But as the mall’s hegemony plummeted, its shiny hysterical promises started to seem shabby and worryingly fallible. A mall stripped of its spell—its meandering people on doomed but pleasing quests—becomes not just ugly but uncanny; its homogenized expanses of beige and brown play host not to luxury and perfume counters but to increasingly desperate chains. The teens are mostly gone now. And though in California you can easily find actual ghost towns, with their savage and rusted record of mining detritus and lives lived and lost in the pursuit of gold, even more haunting are these abandoned cavernous halls with foam columns where no one lived or pursued much of anything at all.
If I have loved going to a mall—and I have—I harbor particular nostalgia for one aspect of those big bloated buildings: the anchor store. About 30 percent of the total mall square footage in the United States belongs, or did at one time, to department stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom and J.C. Penney (which had more than 2,000 stores at its peak). These giants of commerce have been collapsing with accelerating speed. It’s no secret that we’re in the midst of a retail apocalypse (more than 8,300 stores closed in 2020 alone, not all of them in malls). But department stores are in particular trouble. Macy’s, which also owns Bloomingdale’s, fell off the S&P 500. Sears filed for bankruptcy in 2018. Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney, and Belk have followed suit. The job losses have been massive. According to Vox, department stores in the U.S. employed 1.2 million employees across 8,600 stores in 2011. As of 2020, there were fewer than 700,000 employees still working at 6,000 stores.
Mine is a department store family. My aunts and my mother and I would gather at the café inside the Nordstrom at Sacramento’s Arden Fair Mall to eat lunch and gossip before shopping for nothing in particular and getting briefly but enjoyably outraged by the prices. That Nordstrom closed during the pandemic and I am bereft: I loved sneering at its displays and getting a little bit awed by the fancy dress section. It was a snobby, well-oiled machine that thought it was too good for me and the feeling was mutual, and I can’t imagine it empty. When I asked on Twitter for stories about declining anchor stores, someone described how a store had replaced its makeup and perfume counter at the entry with cubicles for hiring. Sacrilege! But necessary: The store was down to a mere three or four employees per floor. Someone else described a ceiling that had been leaking for years. A friend told me that she’d gone with her sister to the Nordstrom in San Francisco and “they’d put out clothes from like five seasons ago? I guess deadstock? They had all the display tables with, like, one shoe on them.” She continued, “So much of American life is focused around displays of abundance, so visual scarcity, especially in a place whose entire atmosphere is you can have anything you want, is disturbing.”
You can no longer have anything you want. The illusion, always kind of mean, has broken. That’s one casualty of the department store exodus, and it’s just as true of those still hanging depressively on for dear life. When I called a department store recently to pay for an item since the website kept crashing, the representative who picked up sighed deeply when I told them the problem and—without saying another word—hung up. It was the perfect, Platonic opposite of the Customer Is Always Right ethos department stores once taught us to expect. A different department store never delivered something I’d ordered. When I called to inquire, one person said she could see it had shipped and would arrive shortly. But then a manager told me matter-of-factly that they’d never had the item. It had always been sold out. “I just don’t understand—it was always out of stock?” I said. “And you guys listed it and sold it to me anyway?” “Yup,” she said. I took a refund.
The item arrived five weeks later, a fascinating little memento of department store malaise.
I’d assumed the story here was simply that most malls—save for the absolutely gigantic ones, some of which are doing fine—just couldn’t compete with online retail. Amazon wins again. And while that is part of it, the full story turns out to be a lot nastier: A lot of the stores that once populated malls have been decimated by predatory hedge funds. According to the progressive Center for Popular Democracy, 597,000 jobs have been lost over the past decade at retail companies that are now owned by private equity firms and hedge funds. “These retail layoffs occurred while the total retail industry added over one million additional retail jobs during the same period,” the report says. Toys R Us went bankrupt after being taken over by private equity firms KKR, Bain Capital, and Vornado Realty Trust. Sears did the same after being taken over by Eddie Lampert, a hedge fund manager. Kids brand Gymboree closed 350 stores after Bain became its primary investor. Stores you probably associate with malls, like Wet Seal and The Limited and Claire’s and Aeropostale, all filed for bankruptcy after hedge fund backers and private equity took over. As my colleague Jordan Weissmann wrote last year, “Cheap debt has led to a buyout boom, including in an industry where companies aren’t in a position to take on significant amounts of debt, and it’s simply easier for the private equity guys to shoplift whatever value they can.”
It turns out I was off: The best symbol of hypercapitalism operating at full power isn’t a live mall, but a dead one.
So, returning to where we began: What do dead malls mean? That we’ve matured beyond the siren songs of fast fashion and the practical comforts of Macy’s? Become more discerning and skeptical consumers of capitalist fantasy? Hardly. Maybe this is just one more instance of Americans retreating further indoors and away from one another, but there’s a handier explanation for that in COVID-19. The dead mall feels to me like a weirder and sneakier thing—the hollowing out of even these simulacra of town squares by ever more predatory capital. How should we view a business food chain so vicious that it leaves gigantic commercial carcasses in America’s cities like so many washed-up whales?
They aren’t easy to physically dispense with, malls.
It’s no surprise, then, that people are desperately trying to find new uses for them. The afterlife of a dead mall is interesting. Schools are moving into malls; some students are completing high school in a converted Macy’s in Vermont. A Dillard’s in Texas is now a radio station. Malls are becoming home to community colleges and libraries and offices. The Eastmont Town Center in Oakland, California, is home to a Center for Elders’ Independence, Social Security offices, and a lab.
These efforts are noble and good. They are also—and can’t help but be—anti-makeovers. Malls were made to be malls. This means every effort to repurpose a mall becomes a fascinating performance of architectural insufficiency, of a bespoke thing being wrenched into a different, and more practical, and less entertaining, function. It’s not that you can’t have schools in malls—or libraries, or social services. It’s that malls, being temples to consumerism, were tailor-made to be exactly what they were. Trying to square-peg another operation amid the former makeup counters beside onetime dressing rooms makes the result seem impoverished, weird, jangled. The erosion of detail is essential, but it makes the space grim.
Americans get nervous when symbols change. If the American grocery store was, among other things, deployed as an active rebuke of Soviet scarcity in the Cold War, the American department store was a serene display of endless availability. There were more kinds of makeup than anyone could possibly want, and they all had loyalists. Can we adapt to a new idea of the mall, the way old maritime warehouses turned into loft-living for gentrifiers? Should we? A stroll through these deserts finds dots of life poking through: mom and pop stores offering to repair watches or do your dry cleaning or your hair. I visited the Eastmont Town Center recently to see what it looked like in its new incarnation as a hub for seniors and Social Security and a “self-sufficiency center” where an anchor store used to be. A security guard stopped me at the entrance: Without an appointment and a specific destination in hand, she would not let me in. It puzzles me that the building is less accessible as the site of a library than it was as a mall, but I love the idea of a mall serving people in need. Still, the new configuration isn’t scratching the itch a mall did—at least according to other nostalgic mallgoers who have tried to haunt its halls. As one Yelp review reads: “Not enough stores, too many social services.”