A Dispatch From the Hudson Valley Mall

In 1981, the Syracuse-based Pyramid Company set to work on a modern colossus. This beast would be the only one of its kind in Ulster County, the largest of its kind between Albany and Poughkeepsie. This giant stood as a testament to its time, at one time serving as a symbol of the financial excess of the era, now reduced to a solitary head in the dirt staring at those who wander too far from the Walmart. On its lips remain the names of the fallen heroes of old: Filene’s, Hess’s, Sears. This monster was the Hudson Valley Mall, and it’s seen a lot in its 37 years of operation.

This mall isn’t quite dead, but I would hesitate to say it’s alive. In theory, it exists. If you look it up on Google Maps, you’ll find an overhead view of it with businesses listed, many of them long-closed. There’s a bleak-as-hell website that looks less like an corporate website and more like a domain-for-sale, filled with plain white background space and stock images of people smiling. Amazingly, this website remains up-to-date, counting only 32 businesses operating within the mall’s 765000 square feet, and only two department stores: Target and Best Buy. These two stores are located right next to each other with a direct entrance from the parking lot, meaning that there is little to no reason for most consumers to even enter the building. In the vast concrete ocean of Kingston’s business district, it is a bleeding seal struggling to keep up with the pack as the sharks swirl in.

The last time I went to the Hudson Valley Mall was in late December 2017 with a close friend of mine in an attempt to see The Disaster Artist at the cinema. He was unfortunately 16 at the time, and the woman at the booth refused to let us in. Stricken with two hours to kill and nothing to do, we resigned ourselves to wandering the empty hallways and talking. Other people walked by us occasionally, however just about all of them were either walking from Target to Best Buy, or going in for a quick haircut or eyeglass repair. It was a Saturday afternoon, and we were just about the only people who were actively walking around the place. It ranks up as one of the most fascinatingly dreary experiences of my life, and as someone who finds such things great writing prompts, I resolved to return again. On September 22 of this year I did.

I was taking a five-hour pre-licensing course at one of Kingston’s numerous inexplicable hotels and my instructor gave us thirty minutes to break for lunch. Seeing several people in my course go in the direction of the mall, I sensed my opportunity, entered through the Target, and dove in. The interior, to my surprise, was covered in murals of the Kingston area with accompanying touristy blurbs. As I walked further in, things got stranger. I began to realize that these murals were covering what used to be storefronts. The old arcade where my friends and I used to play Time Crisis while our moms shopped in the Old Navy was gone without a trace. Nothing, however, could quite prepare me for what remained of the food court. There were only two restaurants left, with no sign at all of any of the others. In the corner, the Regal Cinema where the woman had turned us away in December stood empty, a darkened cave covered by a metal grate, abandoned since April. I wonder if had that woman known the fate of her workplace, she would’ve let us into that movie. I suppose it doesn’t matter much, but I hope she’s doing alright.

Going in, I had imagined everything to be rather unclean, but one thing that stuck out to me was how nice everything looked. The floors were well-vacuumed, the walls, too, were painted a nice shade of white, with no decay apparent. Somebody is clearly putting money into this, but for what? There’s been talk of turning the whole thing into a sort of community center, with bike lanes, a local co-op and indoor fields for Kingston’s soccer team, which seems like a decent idea, yet decent ideas never seem to reap the most cash. A look at the website of the owners, Atlanta-based Hull Property Group shows that they’re still committed to their bold dream of providing Kingston with a Hot Topic. They proudly announce that a new theater is coming in to replace the old one, this time with better seats. They talk of making the old mall “a destination for the female shopper” yet never quite go into specifics as to what that entails. It doesn’t really matter. As it stands, the Hudson Valley Mall is a surreal thing. There is no mall, but there could be a mall, and that could make people very rich, so it is here and here it’ll stay.

In its heyday, I’d imagine that the Hudson Valley Mall was very impressive. I remember being dragged along on shopping trips with my mom when I was little and seeing everything you could imagine in one building, and wondering if there was any end at all. In Nowadays, the mall seems decidedly cramped, simultaneously wide-open and suffocating, full of long wide corridors of dead air and pasted-over walls. The end is painfully visible. Maybe it’s already passed by. Walking and seeing this emptiness, you almost wonder how it hasn’t happened sooner. This mall has survived a murder, a shooting, and an economic crash, and it is still trudging along, begging for its suffering to be over.

There was an economist, Milton Friedman was his name. A free-market libertarian, one of his central beliefs was that the government should interfere as little in the economy as possible to maximize production. He was an advisor to president Ronald Reagan in the 80s, when the Hudson Valley Mall was built. At the time, it was a no-brainer. The economy was doing well and it made all the sense in the world to develop further in a New York exurb, which would surely see massive growth with urban sprawl. As time went on, restrictions on business were lifted according to Friedman’s wishes. When the financial crisis that crippled the Kingston area was “solved” in 2009, the president’s economists were following his ideas.

Legend has it that if you enter the Hudson Valley Mall on a day when it is totally empty, you can faintly hear the echo of his ghost, moaning in a corridor.

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