American Retail’s Fast, Furious Decline

by MR Magazine Staff

Heritage Park Mall is a tomb, a crumbling and boarded-up monument to a particular weird moment in American history when we did that most American of all things: attempt to perfect a community by rebuilding it from scratch. With its shops and restaurants and public spaces, and its proximity to banks and offices, the American shopping mall was the reincarnation of the downtown business district, moved indoors where it could be air-conditioned, efficiently policed, and surrounded by a sprawling Salton Sea of asphalt to provide ample parking. The old downtown died most places, and, now, the new downtown is dying, too: At the highwater mark, there were about 5,000 malls in the United States, and there are now 1,100, at least 400 of which are expected to close in the next few years. In the 1980s, developers built an average of 60 malls a year — and more than 100 in some years. Now, cities from San Bernardino, Calif., to High Point, N.C., are dealing with the husks of these dead retail behemoths. There are documentary films and TED talks about dead malls. “I remember it fondly,” says longtime resident and city councilman Sean Reed, recalling Heritage Park Mall. “We used to go there when we were little kids and wander it all day.” Cameron Crowe’s 1982 magnum opus, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, is a deep meditation on a number of subjects: marijuana, Thomas Jefferson, and statutory rape among them. But the name is all wrong: With apologies to Mr. Hand, what happens at Ridgemont High is a relatively minor part of the story — the real story is about fast times at Ridgemont Mall, the lightly fictionalized cinematic version of the Sherman Oaks Galleria that is at the center of the Ridgemont High universe and was, for a minute, something close to the center of American pop culture. Frank Zappa made a hit record that consisted of little more than his daughter aping the speech patterns of the mall’s young female customers over a fairly generic (for Frank Zappa) guitar track. “Valley girl”–speak spread like an infection over the land. Sherman Oaks Galleria is far from Oklahoma, but its story is a familiar one. Read more at National Review.