Malls Matter.

Rolling Acres Mall, Akron, Ohio, October 2018. Photo by J.Anshutz/flannelkimono

Over the past few years, I have been watching malls slowly close and disappear. For every one mall being repurposed or changed to keep up with the times, four are in some state of closure, decay, or demolition.

I grew up going to the mall. That's just what we did back then. Akron is not suburbia. I grew up in a particularly rough, blue collar part of town full of people whose families had migrated here from Appalachia. Everyone was poor, and a lot of us came from very unstable homes. 

My home life as a child was pretty intense in a lot of ways, so I spent a lot of time alone. I didn't know how to make friends, mostly because I was ashamed of being poor, and how our house looked. Sometimes the utilities would be off. The house was in shambles, both physically and metaphorically. I grew up with a mix of emotional abuse paired with emotional neglect. I didn't know that was possible, but it is.

My neighborhood never, ever felt safe to me. I had a lot of creepy neighbors (see: other people's shitty drunk dads/stepdads). I vaguely remember a creepy older teenage neighbor who would chase me down the street in his car, threatening to throw me in with his equally creepy teenage burnout friends. I didn't feel safe playing or roaming around too far from home. Our neighborhood had a Satanic Panic in the mid-eighties, so I didn't feel safe walking to elementary school.

All of these things didn't matter at the mall. The lights were always on, and the water, too. It was always just warm enough or just cool enough. It was busy, but I could wander around there alone, or with my siblings, cousins, or friends. My dad could work off a hangover in the food court while we wandered around, totally unsupervised, but raised with enough common sense and fear that we wouldn't be kidnapped like one of those milk carton kids.

I also had dual mall citizenship. My mom's parents lived a few blocks from Summit Mall. Fairlawn was very suburban, and monied. I also had my older cousins to hang out with, who are both male. So we would spend time walking around the neighborhood late at night, smoking my grandma's menthols, wearing our punk tees (mine was a bleach stained Sid and Nancy shirt, Ronnie's was a Bad Brains tee, and Frank usually opted for the Dead Milkmen). We'd walk up to Summit Mall and roam around for hours, getting lost into our favorite stores, meeting up again at Scotto's Pizza or the Burger King that you could smoke in.

Thursday nights and Saturday all day were the best times to go to Rolling Acres. I would go up there and meet up with friends. We would walk around for hours, talking about our futures and about each other. I'd make my way past the record store that the guy I had the most enormous crush on worked at. He looked goofy in his work uniform but I knew that outside of that place, he loved The Cure and always smelled like clove cigarettes.

The mall was a place that we could go, walk around, see a movie, get a bite to eat, and even make time to read, shop, or just check out new things. I loved the bookstores and newsstands; I would spend the bulk of my time there, reading music magazines, learning as much as I could about new bands to check out and talk about with my pen pals. I was a mixtape queen back in the nineties.

I worked one of my first jobs in Rolling Acres.  I helped open the Bath and Body Works there. That job enabled me to work in all three malls at various times. All of the stores looked the same, so it didn't matter which one I was at, just as long as I got my hours in.

I spent five years slinging coffee in the middle of Summit Mall. Five years of learning the overhead music, watching kids fall in the fountain, and having the luxury of either eating McDonald's or doing shots at Ruby Tuesday with my coworkers on a lunch break.

2006-2010 were not good years for me personally or financially, so like most people, I quit going to the mall around that time. My last time in Rolling Acres was probably around the time the Target was being moved to Wadsworth (along with a lot of other white flight from Kenmore/Norton/Barberton; Wadsworth is definitely Hillbilly Suburbia). I wasn't surprised when the mall finally closed.

Rolling Acres Mall, May 2012. Photo by J.Anshutz/flannelkimono


When I started taking photos of malls, I was also going through a trauma induced mental breakdown. I had started therapy and things got worse before they got better. So, I lost my job. At the same time, my mom was in the hospital more than she wasn't. I was depressed and fat and falling apart. I stopped by Rolling Acres to poke around, and was instantly flooded with good memories, like my mom and I going to the JCPenney outlet store religiously, because we always found the best, cheapest stuff. I could almost smell the caramelcorn mixed with chlorine. But the truth was, everything was falling apart.

Century III Mall, December 2018. Photo by J.Anshutz/flannelkimono


So, I decided to go and visit other malls. But, I wanted to see ones that were barely breathing. I have found myself walking around two million square feet of empty retail space, with my husband being the only other human being around. Sometimes there's a pretzel place still holding on. There's usually a Bath and Body Works, which I am now mostly allergic to. I spend more time at Chapel Hill Mall now than I ever did as a kid.

I share the photos on my Instagram, and I love the community surrounding the documentation of these properties. A lot of the talk surrounding malls is centered either on the ruin porn of the dead mall scene, or around "because Amazon! [shrugs]". But it's so much more.

People have a lot of memories tied up in those spaces.And I don't believe malls should be saved; everything you remember from when you were young eventually ends up disappearing. It's the circle of life. Planned obsolescence. Eddie Lampert continues to become the world's biggest retail squatter while he runs Sears completely into the ground. Time ticks on, and malls continue to close.

Malls were our town centers, because we didn't have a safe downtown (still don't). Summit Mall is still hanging on, but a Friday night at Summit Mall feels like a late Sunday afternoon used to at Rolling Acres. People don't shop for exercise anymore. The Gruen Effect doesn't really effect us anymore.

The memories of these places matter. Malls when they were open weren't easily photographed. If a mall cop saw you with a camera, you were going to absolutely get yelled at. I was at the mall constantly, but no photos of me exist from there.

I love to talk about malls. I love the history of them. I love architecture and am obsessed with patterns and color, and malls hit all of those notes for me.But I also love hearing other people's mall stories, too. I want to hear about how your flip flop got eaten by the escalator, or how you used to shoplift with your friends. I want to hear about your movie dates and your rumbles with other shoppers.

Let's talk about malls.

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