Friday, July 5, 2019

Wired on dead malls, a tale of the Retail Apocalypse

My wife and I just finished binge-watching season 3 of "Stranger Things" today.  A lot of the action centers around a mall, which didn't exist in the first two seasons.  That's actually an important plot point, but I won't discuss that any more today.  This is not a post about speculative fiction.  Instead, it's about the past, present, and possible future of malls.

What struck me most about the fictional Starcourt Mall was how much it reminded me of being in a mall in the mid-80s through early-2000s — the crowds, the bright colors, and the now bygone chair stores.  In other words, the show did a good job of capturing the look and feel of the times, which is a contrast to the tales of the Retail Apocalypse I've been telling here the past year.  I'm not the only person struck by the clips of the mall in the trailers and the contrast with today.  They also inspired Wired to ask an architecture professor to explain why malls are dying.

The 1980's nostalgia and sci-fi show Stranger Things returns for season three with a new setting: The Starcourt Mall. WIRED's Emily Dreyfuss talks with architecture professor Ellen Dunham-Jones about mall culture and the fate of dead malls. Hint, zombies.
The story Dr. Dunham-Jones tells about the history of suburbia up to the 1990s and the clips Wired used to illustrate it reminds me a lot of "The End of Suburbia."  As for the beginning of the end, her pointing to the mid-to-late 1990s came off as a bit surprising to me, as I would have picked the early-to-mid-2000s, when I first noticed the decline of Northland Mall, but she's the expert who looks at the numbers and identfies the trends, not me.

It was interesting to listen to Dunham-Jones' ideas of how to deal with dead malls.  The least common is reviving them with new retail, especially restaurants.  That would be more business as usual.  The other three possibilities look more interesting.  Turning the old malls into the new downtowns that the suburbs never really had is one I'd like, although I have trouble seeing that happening in Southfield; the old Northland Mall is too far from the actual downtown.  Repurposing old malls into office complexes with community services, including churches, is something I've seen in Brick Immortar's videos of dead malls on the Great Plains.  Finally, re-greening a dead mall by having it return to nature is something I hadn't considered, but it might not be a bad idea.

Dunham-Jones estimating that a quarter to a third of existing malls is likely to close by a decade from now suggests that I will be busy writing about the Retail Apocalypse for quite a while.  That's good for my blogging, but I wonder how good it will be for the country in the short run.  In the long run, we're probably better off because of decreased sprawl and a more sustainable, human-scale built environment.

Finally, Ace's Adventures managed to get a good look at Gwinnett Place Mall, an actual dead mall repurposed as the fictional Starcourt Mall, last year and posted it to YouTube as STRANGER THINGS SEASON 3 - BATTLE OF STARCOURT MALL.

My exclusive tour of the Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth, Ga, featuring a tour of the stranger things season 3 80s food court and mall set!
Anyone who has seen this season will say that's exactly what the stores looked like in the show.  It's like a living museum.

That's it for the Retail Apocalypse for now.  I plan on posting the update to the Democratic candidates at On The Issues I promised in Senators and Representatives running for the Democratic nomination are drifting to the left as they campaign tomorrow.  Stay tuned.


  1. So is the recession or Amazon which is killing the malls?

    1. The Great Recession wounded malls, but didn't kill them. If you mean a current recession, sorry, that hasn't started yet. That leaves Amazon, but it's not alone. A glut of retail space, including malls, and private equity mismanaging some of the key retailers are weakening the stores that Amazon is picking off.