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The Life and Death of the “Great” American Mall

The mall will be both maligned and recalled fondly by those of us who grew up with it, but it will not be replaced by another equally potent symbol of consumerism.

For a country with a historical memory as short as ours, the mall might seem like it has been a permanent fixture in American life. In the churn’em and burn’em world of corporate consumer culture though, everything has a shelf life. And these cavernous and tacky monuments to conspicuous consumption that we call shopping malls have reached theirs. The mall occupied a central place in America for nearly fifty years: It provided an outlet for socializing for generations of bored teenagers; the mall served as a place of bonding for overworked adults and their children on weekend trips; and perhaps most of all, for a time, it served as an insufficient replacement for the vacuum suburbanization created in the communal life of so many areas of the country.

Shopping malls will, of course, not entirely exit stage left; they remain popular among the moneyed classes. However, they are slowly fading away from the middle class areas of the country, as is American consumer culture, as we once knew it. The mall will be both maligned and recalled fondly by those of us who grew up with it, but it will not be replaced by another equally potent symbol of consumerism.

Roots of the Mall

The modern American mall has its roots in the bazaars of the Muslim world. Bazaars (or souks) emerged in Persia and the Middle East. Bazaars, which are usually centered in urban areas, are typically enclosures where many different kinds of merchandise are offered for sale. Souks, on the other hand, initially resembled modern American malls, as they were often located outside of urban centers. European markets borrowed the Muslim idea of an enclosed shopping space. Western bazaars, like many of their Middle Eastern counterparts, are enclosed inside arcades (arches supported by columns or piers.) These European shopping areas also came to be known as arcades.

The prototype for the American mall is probably the Gallerio Vittorio Emanuele II that opened in 1877 in Italy. The term “galleria” was later attached to the names of many shopping malls in North America, a direct reference to the Gallerio Vittorio. Gallerias featured high, vaulted (usually glass) roofs. At the end of the nineteenth century the first arcade in America opened in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Post-War “Shopping City”

Shopping malls in America were an extension of several trends, and though malls borrowed from elements of arcades, they blossomed in the rather unique circumstances of post-war America. American arcades and malls pre-date the war (the Grandview Avenue Shopping Center, outside of Columbus, Ohio, was an early example.) It was not, however, until after the end of World War II that malls slowly began to emerge in large numbers. The mall craze piggybacked off the explosion of plazas that accompanied large-scale movements to the suburbs. Plazas-or strip malls-initially drained much of the lifeblood of traditional downtown shopping districts. As more and more consumers moved to suburbs and exurbs, shopping malls came to dominate the new consumer landscape.

Few individuals had a more profound impact on mall culture than Edward DeBartolo, Sr. Born in the working class steel center of Youngstown, Ohio, DeBartolo-a civil engineer-pioneered plaza and shopping mall construction in the country’s burgeoning suburbs in the years after the war. Eventually, the DeBartolo Corporation ended up with ten percent of the total shopping mall market.

DeBartolo’s Southern Park Mall, which opened in 1970 in suburban Boardman, Ohio, in many ways typified the malls that were opening all over the country during that era. The DeBartolo Corporation billed the mall as “the finest array of merchants ever assembled under one roof.” [1]Brochures for Southern Park serve as a prime example of what a shopper might have expected to find inside the architectural monstrosities going up all over America.

Stroll in complete, climate-controlled comfort throughout this ultra- modern, fully enclosed “Shopping City.” You’ll marvel at the beauty of the majestic court fountains, the crystal peacocks, and the wondrous gardens that are situated throughout the shopping concourses. Stop for refreshments. Enjoy a first-run movie. Dine in elegance. [2]

The use of “Shopping City” is both fitting and ironic. The suburbanization of America eroded community. The world of urban ethnic neighborhoods, with their close ties and the messily public realm of downtown retail districts, gave way to the generic, private world of tract housing and cul-de-sacs. As James Howard Kunstler writes, “This vacuum at the center of American life led to the phenomena of shopping malls.” [3]Malls replaced downtown shopping districts, but they couldn’t replace the civic life that one found in a downtown or a city. Malls are private spaces. One could find most any specialized type of consumer good, yet they could find no public square in the food courts or atriums of American gallerias. Shopping malls represented “modern day downtowns” in the “new city.” [4] A private city centered on consumption, not citizenship.

Decay and Decline

Malls occupied a precious space in American life during the seventies, eighties, and nineties. Films extensively used the mall as backdrop. From the zombifying of shoppers in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in the seventies, to the mall as a backdrop for cheesy eighties teen horror movies like Chopping Mall and Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge and finally, the mall as a mecca for slackers in the nineties in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats.

Over time many malls, especially those in inner ring suburbs, declined and decayed. Typically, this results in more upscale tenants moving out and more downscale tenants, often selling kitsch items and gag novelties, moving in. Online shopping gradually chipped away at mall sales during the early part of the twenty-first century, and the 2007/2008 housing bust and recession crippled the industry. Stand-alone, big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart are drawing away much of the now downwardly mobile middle and working classes. No malls have opened in America in the last eight years.[5] A website sharing pictures, stories and a database of dead malls called-appropriately enough- is now an Internet sensation.

The National Retail Federation’s 2013 report on the top 100 retailers is a testament to the troubles facing shopping malls. Sears, listed in the top twenty and often an “anchor” department store in many malls, saw a – 9.2% in sales growth in 2012 versus 2011. CVS Caremark, also in the top twenty, is shifting towards stand-alone locations. J.C. Penny, another common mall anchor store, posted a whopping – 27.7% in sales. Wal-Mart, the scourge of a many a mall, clocked in at number one on the list.[6] But it is Apple iTunes and Amazon that dominate the list in growth, posting 34.6% and 30% gains from 2012 over 2011.

Green Street Advisors, a firm specializing in real estate and REIT analytics, thinks the obituary for shopping malls is premature; however, they are mainly talking about “A” list malls. For shopping malls geared to mid-level markets and middle class Americans “growth is expected to be materially lower than for high-end malls and many will go dark.”[7] Commercial real estate company, CoStar Group, estimates that ten percent of shopping malls (enclosed, traditional) will be gone in eight years.[8]

Many of the malls closing are the old-fashioned, dingy structures known as “grey boxes” or “greyfields.” These malls are witnessing enormous plunges in holiday shopping business-the most crucial time of year for retailers.[9] Real estate mogul Rick Caruso recently said “These indoor malls in the middle of nowhere, which typically supplanted the old Main Street-that’s where it’s an anachronism.” Caruso see malls evolving into the projects like the ones he’s developed in California, which The New Yorker describes as a “Main street-meets-Vegas Strip feel.”[10] Though garish and artificial, they might work for Los Angeles and Glendale. With American consumer spending squeezed by stagnant and declining wages though, the era of the mall is likely finished.

During the heyday of shopping malls, consumer spending increased markedly. Between 1982 and 2007 consumer spending increased at a (compound) rate of 3.50 % per year. That is likely to change as the forces of eroding incomes, decreasing wealth, and low-consumer confidence continue. [11] What is left of consumer spending is in many cases migrating away from physical retail.

The life and death of shopping malls mark great transitions in the economic life of America. The legacy of the enclosed mall is sure to be contested. Its continued popularity among the wealthy might lead the mall to become irrevocably connected with the ” One Percent” in the mind of many. Some, including those in the New Urbanism movement, are hopeful that the decline of the geographically isolated, car dependent mall will result in renewed investment in urban commercial districts; still others are already waxing nostalgic for the mall culture that once was. In any event, the passing of the mall as a dominant force in American consumer life is connected to the passing of the consumer as the dominant force in American economic life. We are unlikely to see their equals again.


[1] “Southern Park Mall is 11th for DeBartolo, (accompanying advertisement) Youngstown Vindicator, June 7, 1970, E-2.

[2] Ibid.,

[3] James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Touchstone, 1993), 119.

[4] Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), 259.

[5] Hayley Peterson, “America’s Shopping Malls are Dying a Slow, Ugly Death,” Business Insider, January 31, 2014.

[6] Stores, “2013 Top 100 Retailers,” National Retail Federation, (Accessed March 17, 2014)

[7] Green Street Advisors, US Mall Outlook (Newport Beach, January 29, 2014), 4.

[8] Randyl Drummer, “The Demalling of America: What’s Next for Hundreds of Outmoded Malls?” CoStar Group, October 3, 2012.

[9] Jordan Wathen, “The Death of the Shopping Mall in 3 Charts,” The Motley Fool, March 16, 2014. (Accessed March 17, 2014)

[10] Amy Merrick, “Are Malls Over?” The New Yorker, March 11, 2014,

[11] Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “Don’t Expect Consumer Spending to be the Engine of Economic Growth it Once Was, (Accessed March 16, 2014)