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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Decay of America: The Shopping Mall Disappears

The Shopping Mall. It was once a Mecca for teenage loitering. The environment hosted a sensory smorgasbord ranging from the smell of pizza in the food court, to the sound of the games in the arcade, as well as the sight of people lugging store named bags all over the place, while precariously balancing an Orange Julius in one hand. It’s an environment steeped in Americana and has even been the subject of movies like Dawn of the Dead, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mallrats, even the low rated 80s flick, Chopping Mall. However, today, the Great American Shopping Mall is in decline, slowly disappearing from the landscape due to a economic downturn. Additionally, the advent of online shopping, as a way to beat the masses and save on gas and stress, has also led to a reduced need to "Go to the mall". The Shopping Mall might very well become the steel mills of this generation, standing empty and useless.

From my perspective the mall had been a fixture in my childhood and young adulthood. Today, the thought of going to the mall causes my brow to sweat at the notion of looking for a place to park. Once you park out in BFE, then you have to fight with what crowd there is inside. I once dated a girl who had the idea that mall hallways should be treated like roads in America, walking on the right side of the hallway. Slower moving patrons should keep to the store side of the hall allowing faster patrons to pass by, without slowing down, on the left. And there was no stopping, ever, in the middle of the hallway. You pulled to the side, like on a road. Unfortunately, no one ever adopted her logic and she became frustrated quite easily.

Besides the dumbfounded patrons who tend to stop and adjust their purchases without signaling, there are the proprietors to cause you angst. Kiosks dot the hall way like bumpers in a pinball machine selling everything from jewelry to phones to weird creams and metal spider things that massage your head. Sales people, usually of foreign background, jump out of the flora to assault you with their wares, trying to draw you in to their world of crap products. These shops are like the spam of the mall, constantly invading the inbox of your personal space.

Nowadays, a trip through the mall is like going down the roads of a rust belt town. The large caged doors firmly in place of a defunct store, a victim of its own niche market. The specialty stores suffer as people aren’t willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money on luxury items that offer only one feature and take up space on your counter top or clog your cupboards alongside the donut , quesadilla, and popcorn maker. The National Record Marts are as dead as their namesake medium along with stores like Sam Goody and Camelot, replaced by a few larger CD retailers, and iTunes.

Whether the big name retailers like Best Buy and Wal Mart led to the Shopping Mall’s initial decline is up to the business experts, but having the ability to do all of your shopping in one store erases the need to navigate the crowded mall ways. Indeed, a single store eliminates the need to try and compete with that obtuse person who fails to recognize your presence, taking up all of the available sight lines at the mall directory. It’s hard enough to locate the one sliver of color coded store you need on the map without having to see around corners because of the opaque mass of flesh blocking the names of the stores that go along with the number you’ve just committed to memory.

Growing up though, was a different story. Perhaps the obsession with the mall is a generational one. As a young Mongo, we very rarely went to a large mall in our area, opting for the more quaint and backwards environment of the now defunct Laurel Mall in Dunbar Township, PA. Flanking the mall’s ends were Ames, formerly Murphy’s and Montgomery Ward. Clothes from either of these stores would get you browbeaten by the wealthier and more socially accepted kids at school. After all, we all used to call Montgomery Ward, Monkey Ward.

A distinct Laural Mall memory was the coin operated attractions. The rocket ship and cars were mainstays outside the stores, while inside, a small castle turret stood like a rook on a chess board offering tales to tykes for a quarter. Oddly enough, such a medieval setting and nature was all delivered via a fluorescent telephone handset that kids held with as much excitement as if they were being told they won a radio sweepstakes. A small game room and pizza shop offered the youth of Fayette County a place to hang along with a small theater in the back. A Burger King at the far end of the parking lot offered up a more franchised eating experience. Today, the Laurel Mall is home to Pechins, a local shopping center legend that used to exist as a village of shanty town style buildings in nearby Dunbar, PA

If we were lucky, we ventured out into the great wide open and headed to Uniontown Mall, off Route 40 in Uniontown. You could easily sit Laurel Mall within the confines of Uniontown Mall as it dwarfed the smaller mall in size and store offering. A larger, more sophisticated theater sit almost dead center of the structure while stores like GeeBees, Sears, Hess’s, Bon-Ton, and J.C. Penney all shared the landscape of department stores at one time or another. One thing I distinctly remember about GeeBees was having to pay a dime to use the restroom. Could you imagine that scenario now?

In the early 90s, there was a larger more sophisticated game room and an actual food court available, instead of just a small pizza shop tucked into one area or a pharmacy with a café that never looked open, ever. Many a quarter was sunk into games there as I tried to get to the next checkpoint in OutRun.

During the holidays we were often teased with the proposition of going to the Uniontown Mall but were content at shopping at nearby Hills Department Store, because after all, Hills is where the toys are…were. If we did get rewarded with a trip to the Uniontown Mall, you could see a giant animatronic reindeer towering over the hallway. It would spring to life and talk to passersby. Kids fled screaming in all directions as they just weren’t ready to make the transition from friendly, inanimate, castle turret spinning fairy tales to giant reindeer coming out of a gift box.

In the opposite direction from our home, even more Shopping Mall offerings were to be found. In the nearby city of Greensburg, Greengate Mall stood like a stained glass window, offering a picturesque look into an forgotten time called…the 60s and 70s. Anchor Stores like J.C. Penney featured a retro looking marquee that was originally used by the company until 1971. Additionally, one could either gamble at Ladbrokes or go to the detached set of ancillary buildings in the back. You could either dance the night away at a night club or see one of three movies at the cinema next door.

In the mid 90s, Ladbrokes was redone as another night club called Twilight Zone and it suffered through many problems, including fights and other violence. Eventually, the mall became vacant and stood that way until 2003 when it was bought and demolished making way for the new home of….Wal Mart and a host of other strip mall stores and eateries such as Smokey Bones, Red Robin, Chili’s, Stake and Shake, Starbucks, and Panera.

Westmoreland Mall was quite a different story as it continues to change and thrive on the opposite edge of Greensburg. As a small child, I once made the trip to the mall and saw the coolest thing, a glass elevator. I thought of myself as Charlie Bucket taking a trip in the Wonkavator. A small boat with a large spinnaker sail extended up the side of the elevator into the glass ceiling of the mall crossroads. At the time, Westmoreland Mall had three arms reaching out from the center courtyard into anchor stores Sears, Bon-Ton and Macy’s (Which used to be Kaufmann’s prior to being bought). In 1993, a major expansion began that extended the fourth arm towards the front adding a food court as well as J.C. Penney, which had relocated from Greengate Mall. I remember going to Westmoreland Mall more as a I grew up and would often make the rounds during the holidays for Christmas Shopping. Heading into my adolescent years, I felt the need to break ranks with my Mother, so that I could walk around and try to look cool. I’d hang out in Tilt, the arcade, gawking at the for sale signs on the coin operated games. I openly wished that I could add that to my Christmas list. After meeting back up with my Mom, we’d share a burger at the food court before going home.

Now, if we were really lucky, we’d head towards Pittsburgh, the Times Square of Shopping Mall mania. Monroeville Mall was a seldom seen destination, but a highly anticipated one. It boasted a slew of stores and even included an ice rink. The remnants of this rink can still be seen in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Monroeville Mall’s biggest claim to fame. The ice rink was also featured in Flashdance as well. The rink was eventually replaced with a food court.

In fact, the mall itself has little resemblance to the mall in the 70s zombie flick. Vast renovations took place beginning in the late 90s. A movie theater situated on the far right end was made into a Best Buy, while the front of the mall now juts out into the parking lot adding additional satellite stores and restaurants in a section called The District. Inside, an complete overhaul of cosmetic changes tried to update the atmosphere which suffered from bad publicity in the 90s due to gang violence, sparking memories of a climactic scene in Dawn of the Dead where a biker gang attempts to take over the mall allowing zombies to flood in and dismantle their ranks. Zombie Walks still occur at the mall, occasionally.

At the other end of Pittsburgh in Pleasant Hills stands Century III Mall, considered the pinnacle of malls in the area with three, count them three levels to quell your shopping demons. To make it to Century III Mall was considered a real treat as it happened to be the furthest away from our home. We had to travel the back roads of Fayette County until we reached Route 51 North, which took us through Perryopolis, Glass Port and Elizabeth to this giant compound on the hill.

Century III was the third largest enclosed shopping mall in the world when it opened on the ruins of an industrial area owned by U.S. Steel in 1979. The mall was amazing, from the perspective a little Mongo, as huge vaulted ceiling areas shot straight up into the sky and ramps ran every which way from its anchor stores like Lazarus, Sears, and Macy’s. Former anchors consisted of Kaufmann’s which became Macy’s, Gimbel’s became the now defunct Wickes Furniture as well as TJ Maxx and Horne’s which became the also defunct Lazarus.

A set of steps off the main area of the mall ducked down into a cobblestone walkway with a Pittsburgh themed sportswear shop and specialized Cutlery Store. I often wondered who would actually buy the large saber that sat above the store of the Cutlery Shop. An additional treat in this little area was a Gloria Jean's coffee shop. Years before Starbucks proliferated the Southwestern Pennsylvania landscape, this shop gave you a taste of premium coffees and chocolates. Additionally, other niche stores like the San Francisco Music Box Company and Glamour Shots offered more specialized gifts and services.

At the turn of the century, the mall suffered a major decline as the nearby city of Homestead developed The Waterfront shopping plaza, also a former U.S. Steel location. The Waterfront offered a shopping environment like no other in the area, unless you travelled to the Grove City Outlets, a couple hours away. Also, the continued worsening of the economy has now placed Century III Mall on an endangered list of malls by U.S. News and World Report.

Beyond the ones I’ve recalled here, there exists other shopping malls in the area. Some I’ve been to only once or twice. Some I have never seen. Among the notable ones are Ross Park Mall, South Hills Mall, Waterworks Mall, The Pittsburgh Mills, The Mall at Robinson, and there is even a mall in Pittsburgh International Airport called The AirMall.

As America reshapes itself to handle the winds of change in the 21st Century, we unfortunately have to sacrifice some current landscape. As we see a trend towards the Dead Mall we must remember that not everything in life endures like our memories. For me, sitting at a café inside McCrory’s at Uniontown Mall and having ice cream will always be a fond memory. I will also remember the time, at Century III Mall, when I bought three winning PA Lottery Scratch Tickets in a row. The least was for a free ticket which led to the largest amount won, $20.

These images will be forever burned in my mind along with the faint smell of an Auntie Anne’s Glazin’ Raisin Pretzel and the familiar sound a GORF machine would make in the arcade. I can always look back in time at that awkward teen, waiting for the perfect moment of anonymity to go and gawk at the half naked women in the car posters at the back of the Spencer's Gifts, and laugh at how sly he thought he was. I can still remember the taste of samples I would get at the Hickory Farms kiosk and the gigantic chocolate chip cookies that made the trip worthwhile.

Yet, I still cringe every time I get the notion to venture out to the mall because, invariably, there will be a bunch of kids hanging out in the food court being…kids…and taking up walking space. It’s all a part of growing up I guess. It’s that part of America, with the metal cage door hanging just a foot below the ceiling, that tells you that it’s almost time to close down this part of history and move onto the next one. And it's all done to the soft sounds of Kenny G.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the memories…How about the talking snowman at Laurel Mall. I thought the RR where you had to pay was called McCory’s. I remember that being terrible when you didn’t have the change and had to wait on someone else exiting.

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