Can New York’s Dead Malls be Saved?

Dead Malls

Photo: By Bellerophon5685 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

During the seventies and well into the eighties, new shopping malls were opening up all over America. These shopping nirvanas provided an indoor escape for the masses, particularly in New York, where those who didn’t live in the city itself could revel in an atmosphere of hustle and bustle. Not only could you shop, but the large hub of the mall, the food court, provided everything from pizza to chop suey. Sitting at one of the tables, plastic fork in hand, was a great way to people watch, flirt, and while away the time.

Yes, Manhattan does have malls, particularly the huge, gorgeous Westfield World Trade Center Mall at 185 Greenwich Street or the Shops at Columbus Circle; however, the suburban getaways that were once a part of nearly everyone’s shopping experience are fading fast. Once upon a time back just twenty years ago, big cities like Syracuse and even smaller towns like Fishkill had malls that were a major part of growing up for the kids in the area. It’s interesting to note that Upstate New York has the largest number of dead malls, as the malls were built to accommodate the growing population in that area.

Some of these malls started out as outdoor shopping centers, like the Baldwin Place mini mall in Mahopac, New York. It was easy to expand the site, add benches and overhead coverings to give any shopping center the distinctive mall feel. In 1970, local media announced the opening of a McDonalds in the Baldwin Place Shopping Center. It was big news for the little town of Mahopac. Eventually another McDonald’s opened adjacent to the Putnam Plaza shopping center. To be able to shop and have lunch in one area reminded the old timers of the cafeterias and automats in New York Department Stores.

These days however, not only are the malls closing, but the small adjacent shopping plazas that would come into view as patrons exited the mall parking lots have been demolished or converted to office space. New York State has one of the highest rates of closed shopping malls in the country. Most of the closed malls have been located in upstate New York. Examples of some mall upstate are the Amsterdam Mall, Cohoes Commons Mall, Johnstone Mall, Latham Circle Mall, Malta Mall,Mohawk Mall, and Northway Mall. These malls are either closed or have been turned into such ghost malls that they are now considered “Dead Malls.” In the Hudson Valley, there is the Kings Mall, The Apollo Plaza, The Orange Plazza, The Nanuest Mall that have all suffered the same fate as the upstate New York Malls. Theses are only a sampling of the many malls in New York that have closed.

The 1980’s were truly the Glory Days for indoor shopping malls. Pop culture celebrated shopping malls with films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High in which a large portion of the cast spent their days and nights working in the malls food courts and movie theaters. It was the film that introduced the talents of Sean Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh to the world. Mall Rats was another film dedicated to the role malls played in youth culture. Even horror films celebrated mall culture. The 1978 film Dawn of the Dead was filmed almost entirely in the Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania

While the emergence of so-called Dead Malls have saddened many people who love the experiences of shopping under a roof of glass and neon, there are those that search out the facilities of closed shopping centers. Just like the hobbyist who photographed closed psychiatric centers like Kings Park Psychiatric Center and the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center some have made it a hobby and others a vocation where they devote, time, money and energy to scope out dead malls.

Not all malls in New York are closing. The Destiny USA Mall is the sixth largest mall in the U.S.A. Visitors travel to Syracuse, New York with that mall on their list of must see sites. The super mall has four levels and a giant carousel still in place. Syracuse had six malls close in rapid succession in recent years which proves that only the large, multi-level powerhouse malls still survive. Still, it’s the dead malls that were once a thriving part and parcel of nearly every local community that holds fascination.

Many former malls have been torn down and replaced by large super chain stores. The remains of one such mall, The Dutchess Mall, the first to be built in Dutchess County, now features a large Home Depot, right smack dab in the middle of the former mall site. At this once popular Fishkill Mall you can see frames of the anchor stores, Jamesway and Service Merchandise.

The fact is that the Dutchess Mall was built in 1974. The mall had some big-name attraction stores such as Luckey Platt and May’s Department Store and of course a Radio Shack and Waldenbooks. Now it’s a new kind of commerce, the big box store, plunked in among the ruins of what used to be in demand. Of course, The Dutchess Mall Flea Market does bring in commerce of a very different kind.

The flight of shoppers from malls to sites like Amazon and big box stores such as Walmart not only means a lack of choice for those who prefer to shop in person, it means the loss of tens of thousands of retail jobs for New Yorkers. Young people who used to work at the mall after school now must look to the big chain super stores for work.

Some filmmakers tour malls that are still open, looking for evidence that the mall is on its last legs. The Source Mall in Westbury, NY is one such mall that shows signs of decreased traffic and far fewer transactions. Despite the Greek columns and faux Italian granite arches in the food court that probably housed a Sbarro Pizza across from a Manchu Wok, the mall looks more like a museum.

Dead Malls

The Source Mall – Photo: By Jtalledo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The most telling portend that a mall is failing is when the anchor stores pull out. Macy’s, which is a quintessential New York landmark store, is an anchor for malls all across the county. When stores like  Macy’s,  J.C. Penney or Sears close up, it often signals the end will soon be near for the mall. The closing of Fortunoff’s at Source Mall had a significant impact on mall traffic at the Source Mall. In fact most people never called it the Source Mall, it was always referred to as the Fortunoff Mall. In the present day, it’s the restaurants that you can access from the outside that remain the mall’s biggest attractions. Interestingly, remaining at the mall is the carousel with the brightly painted horses frozen in place. One of the lone remnants of the 70s that somehow evokes a desolate, creepy vibe. It’s surprising that the Source Mall still remains open because the nearby Roosevelt Field Mall steals most of the shoppers away. The Source may not yet be a “Dead Mall,” but the ghost are beginning to circle.

Internet competition is not the only reason for the closing of many malls. One must assume that there are many people who no longer feel safe shopping in malls. In this modern-day age of 24 hours news, stories of mall shootings and robberies can be overwhelming for some people. Many people no longer feel safe shopping at the mall.

There is also a population of shoppers that are just getting too old to shop at the malls. When mane and women reach their 70’s and 80’s it becomes more difficult to walk the long distances associated within the malls. The baby boomer generation were in their prime earning years in the 1970’s 80’s and 90’s. That generation fueled the growth of shopping malls. A the boomers began to reach their later years, they no longer frequented the malls they used to fill. Kids play video games and eat pretzels; the boomers spent real money. That’s pretty much gone now.

Even the youth generation has spurned the old routines of hanging out at the mall. Today’s youth culture are so caught up in their cell phones, they have dismissed the entire concept of hanging out in real life. Can you imagine Sean Penn’s character Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times texting on a cell phone. Not so “Totally Awesome.”

Malls are not like other shopping areas, that can be leveled to the ground or reopened with a new sign in front. The remnants of dead malls all over New York and all over the country as ghosts of a lifestyle of prosperity and optimistic consumerism gone by. New York was one of the most optimistic states when it came to building malls. Many malls that are still standing are hoping for the right investor to turn things around, but the forecast is bleak. Interestingly, we are now seeing Internet mammoths like Amazon begin to open their own brick and mortar stores. Will there come a day when we see the first Amazon Mall in which each store is owned by Amazon and sells products in stores designed to sell in Amazon categories? Maybe, in the future we will see malls only owned by Amazon, Apple and Disney. Can that be the method in which the concept of the indoor shopping mall is saved? Will young people get tired of their cell phones and wish to interact once again on a human playing field?  Oh, how I miss Orange Julius!

 

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