The downfall of American shopping malls

By Hialeah Bever

A busy building, packed tightly with customers weaving in and out of businesses. Displays light up each storefront, advertising the latest fashion trends or material items that fill plastic bags, hanging off the arms of teenagers as they walk. The scents from the food court beckon as cash steadily leaves pockets, both families and friends come and gather at the popular Northpark Mall.

Now, dark rooms and cages checker the mall’s once-bustling environment. Fewer and fewer consumers hustle about and the sound of sneakers on the tiled floor has grown quiet.

Once the pinnacle of American suburbia, the shopping mall has been on the decline since the mid-2010s. Created in hopes to break up automobile-dominated America by providing the public a place to eat, shop, and meet with friends, each generation has enjoyed the mall and shifted its uses to fit their needs. But these buildings have not stood the test of time, and the era of the American shopping mall may come to an end within the decade.

The story of shopping malls begins with Austrian-born architect, Victor Gruen, who emigrated to the United States in 1938, shortly after the German invasion of Austria.

After getting settled in, Gruen began blueprints for a large-scale building that would be used for shopping, food, relaxation, and green space. In his original concept of malls, the building would connect to commerce and residential areas, along with providing public access to libraries and medical care. In 1956, Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota finished construction and became the world’s first “shopping mall.”

Suddenly, city after city began to build their very own shopping malls and solidified their position as commercial powerhouses, and Iowa wasn’t exempt from the trend.

“I grew up in Cedar Falls, and they opened a brand-new mall when I was about 9 years old. It was a really big deal that we had all of these stores connected,” said Mike Christensen, who grew up in the late 70s, when malls truly took off. “The shopping mall was in a good location and had anchor stores, it made a big boom. It seemed like everyone wanted to go there instead of downtown.”

In 1973, the Northpark Mall opened in Davenport, Iowa, with JCPenney, Younkers and Montgomery Ward as anchor stores. Commerce centers like these allowed small towns to purchase new items along with exposure to foreign views and perspectives.

“In the 80s you did have a lot of big-box stores which I liked because it seemed more city-like. It was access to more trendy things,” said Shelley Shaner, who worked at Northpark Mall in her 20s. “In its heyday, Northpark, as far as volume and dollars go, was always higher than Southpark. Lane Bryant, The Gap, Bath & Body Works were so packed during those days.”

An emphasis on community was also seen during the decades, where both families and friends gathered to shop and have fun.

“When I was in high school, the mall was a place to go and hang out with your friends. There were more mom-and-pop type shops in the mall, besides the anchor stores,” said Shaner. “You had movie theaters, video games stores, and a food court. It was the place to go.”

"I remember as a kid, the mall always seemed very big. It seemed super popular, there were always a lot of people, all of the stores were open. You never really saw empty spaces the way that you do now,” said Jenna Hancock.

There were a variety of nails that sealed the coffin on American malls, but many regard online shopping as the final blow.

“I think that malls are still popular in the fact that fashion trends are always changing, everyone wants a new thing. But obviously, as phones got better, online shopping became huge. It was definitely huge when I started at Dry Goods; like I said customer population in the store was good but not as great as it used to be,” said Avery Franzman, a former employee at Northpark Mall.

“I ordered a foot brace last night and it will be here tomorrow. And I don’t have to leave my house because it will come right to my door. It’s all about speed and convenience,” said Shaner.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the amount of online shopping increase, as citizens were stuck in their homes. So, one by one, malls across the United States have been shutting down. According to an analysis by Compass Point Research & Trading, only about 50% of the country's 1,100 indoor malls have a good chance of staying open in the next 10 years.

But throughout the decades, many countries followed in the footsteps of the U.S. and built their very own shopping malls. Asian countries specifically, such as China, South Korea and Japan, are renowned for the success of their malls.

There are two big factors in the success of Asian shopping malls that America could learn from. The first is their willingness to add non-commercial attractions, and the second is the constant state of renewal.

“Northpark had a carousel and rides for kids to go to, it was definitely more of that family environment where everyone went to spend time. But eventually, that got changed out with more stores, so that atmosphere changed,” said Anne VanTieghem.

“Malls need to transition into more things to go do that aren’t just stores, if they want to stay popular,” said Hancock. “That is really the only way I see them surviving, if there were more places to attract people than going to Hollister.”

Asian shopping malls are also famous for their modernity and ability to keep up with the changing digital world. It’s not uncommon for a Japanese mall to completely shut down and undergo renovations so that consumers are satisfied with their experience.

Victor Gruen’s original design, with the library, medical care, and green space, may be what shopping malls need to bring the focus back to a community space, and not simply a commerce center. But it would be difficult to complete, as the already failing malls would have to go under expensive construction.

“I have a friend, she owns two hair salons and one of the buildings has been there for 20 years. She found out that it would be cheaper to buy a new store than re-do the one she is currently in. No wonder businesses are moving out of malls; it costs less to open a new store than remodel and renovate the building they already have,” said Shaner.

Despite the grim circumstances of Northpark Mall, Davenport’s City Center Zoning District has begun the process of revamping the mall and surrounding areas. The proposed district would include residential and retail zones along with office space, restaurants, entertainment and green space. The last hearings are expected to take place in November of 2022.

The buildings were a hub of commerce for the family and created teenage memories that still sit in the minds of 21st-century adults. Some still wonder if they can be saved, or whether the downfall is permanent. Either way, there’s no denying that shopping malls will go down in history. Whether it’s as the cornerstone of American suburbia or an infamous symbol of capitalist culture, is the final question.


Hialeah Bever is a junior. This is her

second year as a staff member for The Growl

and her first as editor.


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