15 December 2009

Eulogy for the American Mall

I've been fascinated this week with genre of blog I'd never seen before: the proto-archaeology of the dead shopping mall. The work of photographer Brian Ulrich, featured in The Morning News, captures the eloquent silence of empty retail space:

Rolling Acres Mall 1 (Brian Ulrich)

Between the recession, internet shopping, and the aging of America's inner-ring suburbs, a lot of once-pleasant malls are collapsing and altering the social fabric of their communities. As Ulrich notes in his interview, there are few good options for dead malls:
Some buildings can be repurposed but so many cannot. Retail design and use is not only based on the space itself but also location. When a few stores go down often many others in an area go with them—a retail ghost town if you will. Though one can repurpose one space it might sit in a vast area of blight. The problem lies not in what we should do with what we have already but it seems more important to get a lot stricter about what new retail spaces we allow into our communities. The promises are always jobs and tax revenue, but that won’t help in the long run if the store folds or relocates to the next township who offers an incentive.
If archaeology is about the intersection of space and material culture, then the shopping mall is ground zero for an archaeological understanding of the 20th century in America, a time and place that was pivotal in world history. What Ulrich suggests above is a transformation in the spatial organization of consumption - zoning for quality retail rather than growth at any cost. In other words, he's suggesting we start a new cultural horizon.

Dixie Square Mall (Brian Ulrich)

The awesome thing about being an archaeologist interested in the present is that you can track changes in material culture in real time, thanks to the Internet. For instance, the Dead Malls Blog reported last month about the final demise of the JC Penney catalog, which joins the Sears catalog in the graveyard of pre-internet distribution technologies, while leaving a legacy of millions of objects spread across every part of the United States and Canada, a terminus ante quem for future archaeologists. We can see the line of division right in front of us!

Or check out Labelscar, "The Retail History Blog", which has lovingly-rendered histories of shopping malls. Recently: the rise and fall of Empire Mall in Sioux Falls (1975) and Winrock Shopping Center in Albuquerque (1961).

"Pep Boys 3" (Brian Ulrich)

The speed at which material culture is changing is something that archaeologists are going to have to grapple with pretty soon. (Especially in the United States, where Federal law marks anything up to 1959 as potentially having historic significance: every pile of beer cans, a historic monument!) What does it mean for our discipline when material testimony of the past is not vanishingly scarce traces of palaeolithic life, but the too-plentiful bounty of millions of remote controlled-cars from the JC Penney catalogue?

Labelscar in particular has a rich collection of comments from people who remember, personally, bygone eras of the American Mall and are already engaged in commemorating and memorializing these periods. Do they make the archaeologist obsolete?


  1. It's interesting, given a certain part of the populace's desire/tendency towards just being immersed in whatever new technological developments happen, i can see a future of people plugged into virtual worlds where everything is online & everything is virtual. At the same time, that sort of fake world then brings a heightened value to reality. There is definitely something in the wind because i have been obsessing over the shopping mall as a "thing" lately. I have always liked malls, but felt that they are hugely underdeveloped into what they could be, which is the pinnacle of organized material existence. Especially in areas with shitty weather! So, let's lay some flowers on the grave of the bubble mall & usher in the era of the intentional mall!

  2. Not at all! Archaeologists and especially anthropologists are still needed to document that vast amount of personal stories, ethnographies if you will, of the American mall "experience." Archaeologists can also act as architectural historians when it comes to the history and repurposing of these unique and iconic spaces.

  3. @dig girl: the question is, who is the archaeologist in an age of instant nostalgia? The people cataloguing these malls don't have any pro training, but they're doing a good job of recording these things and doing a kind of amateur ethnography via blogs. And more power to them, lord knows there's no money out there to pay people with archaeology degrees to do oral history of malls.

    Which still leaves the question: where does 'official' archaeological training fit in, when the body of material culture is so vast? I'm inclined to think that it must have something to do with training a hell of a lot of interested amateurs to think like archaeologists and record things well.

  4. I'd like to photoshop a picture of Orange Boner in front of the empty malls saying "SO BE IT!"