• Jessica Anshutz

Rust Belt Mallwalker.

Updated: Mar 9

(Originally published 4/2020)

Since 2016, I have been visiting and documenting malls across the Rust Belt and beyond. It started with a nervous breakdown, which led me to pick up my camera, which led me back to my first childhood home, Rolling Acres Mall. I've always been in malls. Rolling Acres was always quite literally in my backyard. I could see the mall clear as day from my high school, which made wanting to go to school really tough, since high school sucked and the mall didn't. My house was two miles from the mall. We spent a lot of time coordinating how we were going to get to the mall, who we were going to meet there, and who was going to bring us home. My childhood home was unpredictable, and my neighborhood wasn't very safe. I wouldn't walk around my neighborhood, but I'd walk around the mall alone, no problem. The lights were always going to be on at the mall. I could hang out with friends at the mall, and we collectively were able to skip the part where we had to meet each other's weird/mean parents, except for the ride to/from the mall. My family treated shopping like a sport, especially my grandma. She would round as many of us up as she could every Saturday afternoon. We almost always ended up at a mall, window shopping for things we could never afford, but it was fun to think about,right? I also spent hours between all of the bookstores and newsstands, reading music magazines, or books in quick chunks. I eventually had my first jobs in the mall, and I worked at all three malls in Akron at one point or another.

When I would travel, I always asked to go to the mall in whatever city we were in. I remember on one trip, staying in a hotel that was attached to a mall. A literal dream for a teenage girl! (Worth noting: I still travel like this, only things at the mall are a lot less vibrant, and even less welcoming.)

Like everyone else, I quit going to the mall. Back then, an empty Rolling Acres just made no sense. It felt weird. That place was always assholes to elbows full of people, and I hated to see it with a church, three shoe stores, and a fountain that hadn't been on in years. When it closed, I wasn't surprised, but it was still a loss of sorts. Watching the place slowly fall apart as we shopped at the JCPenney that seemed like it would never die was always tough. You could see into the mall through the windows at Penney's, so I would look in through there every so often. I only tried going into the mall once after it closed; it felt like someone was sucking the oxygen out of my body, so I had to turn back. Since Rolling Acres was gone, I decided to start going to see other malls. We travel a lot going to shows, so it was fairly easy to branch out into other states. In January 2020, I saw my first West Coast mall. And then, COVID happened. We just got done with a two month shelter in place order, and the first place I went was Chapel Hill Mall, which is basically undead at this point. I also stopped by Summit Mall. What I've learned about my fascination with malls is that not everyone shares that same fascination. It's easier for most people to write off the death of malls as "Walmart/The Internet/Amazon", but it's not only that. There's a human aspect to all of this. How do you feel when you're in a mall? What memories come up for you? Where is your third place now? Where do you meet your community?

When I started to see my mall photos as more than a passing fascination, I named the project Rust Belt Mallwalker. I didn't think much about it; I just started hashtagging some of my photos that way, mostly to keep track of malls I had visited in the region. The more that things have started to change, the more that I realize that I am more than ready to dig in and not only give some history to the places that I've photographed, but also to remember some of the more human moments of malls, like when your brother fell into the fountain, or that time when you were 18 months and your mom let you hold a tiger cub (both are true for me!).

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