Monday, August 10, 2015

I work in a dead mall.
Sometimes, it kind of reminds me of this movie:

Clip from "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie"

If you've seen it, you know that the plot involves Tim and Eric remodeling and revamping a mall called "S'Wallow Valley Mall" in return for a BILLION DOLLARS (promised to them by a character played by none other than Will Ferrell).

It's a really creepy movie. There is a store in the mall that actually sells used toilet paper. I found it hard to sit through the whole thing without feeling nauseous. However, I had to remind myself that Tim and Eric are oddly adept at criticizing pop culture and consumerism (albeit in their own disgusting way). 

A few weeks ago, about three years after watching this film, I heard a podcast that was actually talking about the phenemonenon of dead malls in detail (no, the Tim and Eric movie was not mentioned). According to this podcast, dead malls are a real thing. They are a huge problem in urban areas where the crime rates are high, and the area is left with an empty or almost empty building that the city doesn't know what to do with. These "dead malls" are so common that there is actually a website called in which you can look up hundreds of different "dead mall stories" of malls around the United States and read about their demise. The website defines a "dead mall" as: "[a mall] having an occupancy rate in a slow or steady decline of 70% or less." 

I was curious after hearing this podcast and learning of this site, so of course I went to the page and looked up the mall that I work at. 

Sure enough, there it was. Grand Avenue Mall. The place that I go to every single day. I can admit that I haven't ventured out of the store I work in very much because of a dark feeling of foreboding about the rest of the mall. A rather depressing section called "The Dark Years" is perhaps a good explanation of why I feel this way:

"By the mid-1990s, the Grand Avenue had lost its charm. Despite a $25 million dollar offer from the city to renovate its Grand Avenue location, and a mammoth new convention center being constructed across Wisconsin Avenue, Dayton-Hudson opted to close Marshall Fields down, shuttering a 110-year old building. In the coming months and years, stores including the Nature Company, Godiva Chocolatier, Banana Republic, Warner Bros. Studio Store, Casual Corner, The Body Shop, and upscale local stores such as the Puzzle Box and Goldi's would pull out, and spaces would be filled by national chans selling lower-end merchandise and to locals on temporary leases for less rent. Wisconsin Avenue, the mall's main thoroughfare, lost its charm, and the mall's Westown neighborhood was viewed as little more than a high-crime area full of panhandlers and liquor stores."

Heaven forbid I walk into a mall without a Godiva Chocolatier!

All jokes aside, it is a sad place to wander through…

On a daily basis, I have mixed feelings about Grand Avenue Mall. I mean, let's face it. Malls are evil. (I know, I work in a mall, don't even get me started). I don't think there's anything good that ever came from a shopping mall. The podcast I listened to explained the history of the shopping mall, and how malls as we know them were actually conceptualized by an Austrian man named Victor Gruen who was critical of the lack of communal areas in American cities. He wanted to create an area where people could congregate, and walk around, and socialize, much like the European centers that he was familiar with. For awhile, his idea worked. But in the last decade or so, shopping malls in city centers became less and less popular as consumers took their shopping habits (and their paychecks) to the suburbs. Although Gruen's intentions were good, what seems to be left of his grandiose ideas are big, ugly malls.

And let's not forget about the employees who have to staff these decrepit places. There are people that go to work in these declining stores every single day. They have to come in and open registers and sweep floors and wash windows and fold clothes and take inventories. And they have to do all this under the gaze of an inordinate amount of security cameras and security guards, all the while listening to the customers that walk through the building saying things like, "Why aren't there any stores in this mall?" and, "There's really not much of a selection here" and, "There's nobody working at this register!" It can be hard on the morale of the employees. I've seen it, and I've experienced it. 

On the other hand, if the city decided that the Shops of Grand Avenue were a waste of time and demolished the building, it would be a loss. I am often charmed by the building's cool "oldness." (I still use an elevator to get between floors that is over 100 years old). It would be sad if the city of Milwaukee decided that this building should be condemned. I feel that it would take away from the history of Milwaukee's downtown. Websites like seem to feel this way, too; that malls should be preserved simply for their historical and cultural significance rather than their physical use as shopping centers. There are also stories on the site of malls that have repurposed the empty buildings as something new. Grand Avenue itself is mentioned as a mall that repurposed some of its empty floors to serve as parking structures and apartments. I also discovered a small, collaborative art happening that took place in Grand Avenue 2011 in which two artists (one of them Colin Matthes from Milwaukee) had an art exhibition in the space above T.J. Maxx. The show was made possible through an organization called the Parachute Project whose mission is to creatively fill empty spaces. It was called "Herr Seagull and His Global Dustbreath," and was a site-specific installation created around the dingy interior of the abandoned stores. 

After all this, I have only one question: What on earth are we going to do with dead malls? Can they, as the great Gruen once envisioned, become communal centers for positive interaction by reimagining their empty halls as galleries, apartments, conference centers, or…anything? Or are they, as Tim and Eric view it, just places to sell used toilet paper? 

I'll let you know. I'll be working in one until further notice...

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