I live dangerously close to a high-end mall; The Short Hills Mall in New Jersey is always hopping – teaming with people, rain or shine. That is why when I read Steven Kurutz’s “An Ode to Shopping Malls” in the New York Times reflection of filmmaker Dan Bell’s powerful Dead Malls Series on YouTube – visual tributes to dead malls in working-class and rural communities across America – I was stunned.
Bell’s inspiration came when he returned to his favorite childhood haunt, The Owings Mills Mall, in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland – after almost a decade. It had been that long since Bell had been in that mall, or any mall. The year was 2015, and what Bell found shocked him. “The first moment kind of took my breath away, because it was this entire corridor of nothing … They had loud pop music echoing through the mall, and I’m looking down this corridor, and there’s no people, no stores open,” Mr. Bell said. “It was really a sobering moment.”
Like many of us who grew up in the 1980s, the mall held a special place in our growing up (think of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982!) – shopping, food courts, escalators, make-up trials, socializing – it all happened at the mall. Mr. Bell visits the dead malls only; the ones in rural and working-class communities – he is less interested in the upscale, wealthier malls, where businesses continue to do well. One feels an emptiness watching Bell’s Dead Malls Series, even if you are conflicted with the idea of massive consumerism. I actually never loved malls, I still don’t – but the fact that they are dying leaves me feeling melancholy and lonely. Like a piece of my youth has left me.