Standing inside ShoppingTown Mall in Dewitt, New York, it’s hard to believe that you aren’t in a haunted house. Outdated elevator music echoes through the empty hallways, birds nest in the abandoned food court, and most strikingly, there aren’t any stores left.
No, really. The latest mall directory lists 12 businesses, but that was in June, and there have been more departures since then, putting the number of operating stores in the single digits. So what is left in ShoppingTown Mall? A Regal Cinemas, a gymnastics studio in the former Old Navy, and a few ever-rotating driving schools that never seem to last more than a month. The last big-box store, Sears, closed in September, though the parking lot is still littered with “going out of business” signs.
To an onlooker, it may just seem like another mall past its prime. But for those of us who grew up in the area, the space means so much more. My parents’ first date was in the food court, I got my ears pierced in the old Claire’s, and countless kids had birthday parties in the arcade.
The night before I left for college, my friend Meghan and I went to ShoppingTown for one last visit. There’s not much to do near Syracuse, and we were feeling nostalgic, about to move away from home for the first time.
We were the only people in the mall aside from the security guards who informed us that there is “nothing left back here” when we tried to enter yet another desolate hallway. I found myself wondering how ShoppingTown could suffer such a fall from grace in such a short time.
ShoppingTown Mall wasn’t always a ghost town. It opened in 1954, and at its peak had around 100 stores. Some of the biggest included Sears, JCPenney, Macy’s, and Dick’s Sporting Goods. The beginning of ShoppingTown’s downfall came with the opening of the nearby Carousel Center, later renamed Destiny USA, which expanded to become the biggest mall in New York state. The success of Destiny USA prompted a renovation plan for ShoppingTown as well, but it was canceled when the recession hit in 2008. The once-beloved mall never recovered, and most of the tenants moved to Destiny USA.
Moonbeam, the company that owns ShoppingTown Mall, is suing the county to stop it from seizing the property. Moonbeam hasn’t paid a single dollar in taxes since taking over the mall in 2014, according to the county, and currently owes $7.74 million.
ShoppingTown’s decline isn’t unique. In fact, there is an entire online community dedicated to “dead malls”—malls that, like ShoppingTown, are in various states of abandon and remain open despite being mostly empty. The people involved in the dead mall community document these malls with photos, videos, and biographies before they are demolished or redeveloped.
Why do people love dead malls and devote their time and energy to them? Is it from a historical standpoint, a desire to document these spaces for posterity? Or is it more of an emotional attachment, sentimental and nostalgic? And what can be done with the dead malls? Is it better to simply demolish them, or do we try to revitalize and build them back to their former glory? To find answers, I headed to the message boards.
Malls were the center of our ‘consumer culture’ and served as a gathering place where thousands shopped, ate, and just wandered around.
One of the most popular forums for discussions about dead malls is the subreddit r/deadmalls, which currently has over 30,000 subscribers. r/deadmalls primarily features collections of pictures and videos of dead malls and discussions in the comments. Users often discuss the effects of anchor stores like Kmart and Sears closing. Many users also share their own memories of the mall, from first dates to old jobs.
To understand the fascination dead malls, I explained the article I was writing and asked, “What makes dead malls so alluring to you?”
Some users responded that their fascination came simply from watching the spectacle of a mall closing. For example, ONLYcaps expressed an interest in “imagining what could have been… or once was.” Another user, gpm21, agreed, noting that “at one time [the dead malls] were something beautiful and loved.” Gpm21 also sees dead malls from a business perspective, saying that watching a mall’s decline “feels like seeing the death of an industry compressed into one location.”
Other Redditors were interested in the malls because of the nostalgia. User tiedyeladyland said, “Watching all the trappings of my childhood and teen years slip away makes me want to visit a place that helps me connect with my memories.” Tiedyeladyland added that watching video tours of dead malls can help with social anxiety. “What could be more reassuring and comforting if the idea of going out scares you than a place you can go that has no people in it?”
User Drunken_Pineapple also emphasized the emotional significance of dead malls, pointing out: “What was once someone’s happy childhood is now a rotten play area or molded out restaurant where they ate with a loved one.” Still others, like user invisiblechain, enjoy the aesthetics of the empty buildings: “There is something eerie and apocalyptic about it.”
Historically, dead malls are important because they provide a record of the culture that surrounded them. Before the internet and online shopping, malls were the main place to shop, and it was often a special trip to go to one. Malls were the center of “consumer culture” and served as a gathering place where thousands shopped, ate, and just wandered around. In my hometown in central New York, driving to the mall to window shop and burn a few hours was (and is) a popular activity.
Watching my childhood mall slip into irrelevance was in many ways a personal experience. As I got older, the mall became emptier and quieter.
But for many of these dead malls, the decline of in-person shopping and the economic hardships of the recession proved too much to handle. Americans became disenchanted with the inconvenience of traveling to a mall only to be faced with crowds, when the simplicity of online sites like Amazon seemed much more appealing.
A major example of this shift is the department store Sears. At the peak of its relevance, Sears was known for its extensive catalog of merchandise, especially popular during the holiday season. Once online shopping became more prominent, all Sears had to do to stay competitive was transfer its catalog to an online business model. But it didn’t.
Although there was a small move to create an online presence for Sears, the brand instead chose to close physical stores in a bid to save money, a decision that proved disastrous. Sears recently filed for bankruptcy, and dead malls remain some of the only places where traces of the store remain.
Malls were a massive part of childhood for millions of people. Ask almost anyone, and they can recall fond memories of going to a mall, whether it was to shop for presents or to get their picture taken with the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. Personally, I remember the excitement of spending my birthday money at Aeropostale or Bath & Body Works or playing laser tag in the arcade.
Watching my childhood mall slip into irrelevance was in many ways a personal experience. As I got older, the mall became emptier and quieter. People in my hometown often say that ShoppingTown Mall closing is “a metaphor for our childhoods,” a joke about the lack of fun in the area that has some truth to it. It’s strange that many Americans can relate to the feeling of nostalgia that comes with seeing a favorite childhood spot stand empty, but maybe it’s important to acknowledge the sentiment. Even though the transition to online shopping was a natural progression, it’s still easy to be nostalgic for the time we grew up in.
What’s next for the hundreds of dead malls like ShoppingTown? Many, like the former Lexington Mall in Kentucky, have been converted into churches that can hold thousands. Others are now apartment buildings, hospitals, and office spaces. Earlier this year, there were plans for redevelopment at ShoppingTown, but they never started construction. The proposed project included apartments, offices, restaurants, and even a sports complex.
Personally, I think it is crucial to rebuild the dead malls, not just to bring in money for local economies but to revitalize community spaces. Hopefully, if more attention is brought to these abandoned cultural centers, more plans will be made to conserve and redevelop them. Now, when I step into ShoppingTown Mall, I don’t only see a sad abandoned space haunted with memories, I see potential. Potential for a new space for the community, and potential for these malls, which hold so many memories, to remain important parts of America’s cultural landscape.