For ages, the shopping mall was as essential to the architecture of suburbia as Levittowns and freeways. But in an era of online shopping, these epicenters of brick and mortar yesteryear are quietly being abandoned across the country. While the U.S. currently has around 1,500, the number may soon shrink, and rapidly, leading to abandoned concrete behemoths. For a new book on the suburban decay of the mall, photographer Seph Lawless went inside the Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, Ohio, and the photos are erie and stunning.
The mall served an important purpose in suburban life for decades. Not only did it drive commerce and consumption, it proved the suburban equivalent of a downtown, when many suburban towns lacked their own. Malls served to improve the paucity of community and to unite the patchwork homes of the area, filling some of the social function that camps, commons, or churches used to. Now, it seems, the “mall as destination” idea is falling out of favor as well, with many teenagers turning toward social media to bridge the divide.
The downfall of many malls can be traced to economic and demographic shifts, as well. Akron, a quintessential Rust Belt city, suffered from the nation’s shift away from industrial output. So that, just as many looked for jobs in the service industry, the economic bases for the mall shriveled up, causing a negative spiral that affected dozens of Rust Belt centers. In other areas, those that had used the mall to replace a commercial downtown have been moving to actual downtowns—gentrification affects the emptying suburbs just as much. Or, as the Guardian reports, “the well-off have continued sprawling to more distant suburbs – a trend that accelerated after 2000 – and poorer [former urbanites] have continued moving in to replace them.”
The dominant trends spell an end to mall culture—this natural decay is well captured by Lawless’s photoset. Whether these suburban jungles will serve a purpose once again remains to be seen.
“The Death of the American Shopping Mall, David Uberti, The Guardian