“En las décadas de 1980 y 1990 el estereotipo de la ‘rata de centro comercial‘ era un joven adolescente que frecuenta el centro comercial, generalmente con fines sociales, visto como una molestia y que hoy se ha convertido en bonanza para quienes venden”.
Cuando era una joven Girl Scout asistí a un evento anual llamado La Locura del Centro Comercial, en la que muchas tropas locales eran encerradas en un centro comercial durante la noche, hasta las 3 o 4 a.m. Fue el evento mas importante en el calendario social de mi hija de 12 años, y era una locura, aunque bastante contenida-niñas preadolescentes se convertian en las dueñas del centro comercial, corriendo por Spencer Gifts, asaltando Orange Julius y demasiados Cinnabons; haciendo sus primeras incursiones tentativas a Hot Topic y sin miedo a encontrarse con los temibles, estudiantes de secundaria con piercings que eran sus habitantes durante el día; comprar CDs y camisetas y llaveros con consignas y otras, expresiones vergonzosas fervientes de la floreciente identidad.
La experiencia del centro comercial hoy no es tan vibrante. Hace unos meses fui a un centro comercial en Maryland porque tiene un Old Navy y un restaurante Olive Garden y yo quería comprar pantalones y comer pasta sin compañia. Logré ambos objetivos (era una excelente tarde) pero en el propio centro comercial el espacio entre tiendas, a menudo salpicado de quioscos- estaba bastante desolado. Frecuentemente yo era el único objetivo para los vendedores pregonando sus mercancías de manera agresiva y cuando llegue a ver a otras personas en los pasillos nos miramos el uno al otro como viajeros pasando por un camino desolado. No puedo mentirte y decir que una planta rodadora rodó por ahi, pero estaba bastante polvoriento ahi.
Other malls are faring even worse. On Wednesday, a judge in Oakland County, Michigan granted permission for the owner of Northland Center mall, outside of Detroit, to shut it down. (My mall was the Southland Center, just a 30-minute drive away.) The Northland Center mall has been open since 1954, making it,according to the Detroit Free Press, one of the United States’ oldest suburban malls. But it’s been losing around $250,000 a month, the Free Press reports, and is also losing some of its larger stores, like Target and Macy’s.
The Northland Center is not alone—since 2010, more than two dozen enclosed shopping malls have closed down, according to a statement sent to me by Green Street Advisors, a real-estate analytics company.
Overall the landscape seems uneven. Higher-end malls are doing pretty well, sales-wise, according to Green Street’s 2015 “U.S. Mall Outlook” report, while lower-end malls are less likely to see growth. The report attributes this to the widening “bifurcation in income growth between high and low earners,” and predicts that many lower-grade malls “will go dark.” (Green Street grades malls on several factors, including the quality of their tenants, as well as local competition, and economic and demographic conditions.)
It would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of the Internet, as we are so fond of doing. And while the Green Street report notes that the rise of online shopping is certainly a factor, according to a piece in The New York Times last month, the bigger problem is that there’s an over-supply of retail space, and not enough stores to fill it. As a result, vacancy rates in malls are up, The Timesreported:
About 80 percent of the country’s 1,200 malls are considered healthy, reporting vacancy rates of 10 percent or less. But that compares with 94 percent in 2006, according to CoStar Group, a leading provider of data for the real estate industry.
Nearly 15 percent are 10 to 40 percent vacant, up from 5 percent in 2006. And 3.4 percent—representing more than 30 million square feet—are more than 40 percent empty.
And as malls struggle, so too does the mallrat culture exemplified (and maybe exaggerated) by Mall Madness. An iconic scene in Mean Girls (prefaced by the immortal line “Get in, loser, we’re going shopping”) portrays the mall as a “watering hole” for high schoolers. A 1985 study supports that view, calling the mall a “third place” for teenagers, “a respite from the treadmill between home and school, a place for enjoying social life.” Of the small group of Los Angeles teens the study interviewed, about half said they went to the mall to shop; the rest came to see friends, play video games, eat, people-watch, troll for dates, and—the most teen answer of all—”just to have ‘something to do.'”
That’s how I remember malls mostly, as places for aimless wandering and talking, with enough distractions to make it seem like you were “doing something.” But teens are going to malls less these days—about 30 percent less often compared to 10 years ago, Quartz reports. It seems they’re going to restaurants instead, which, those are cool places to hang out too, I guess.
While it would be reasonable to argue that hanging out at the mall is a good way for kids to jump aboard the train of consumerism nice and early, there was something comforting about the panoply of identities for sale. (I know it’s notgreat that stores and the things they sell are often stand-ins for identity, but they are and in the awkwardness of adolescence, you have to work with what you’re given sometimes.) Maybe today you’d enter the shadowy, cologne-soaked labyrinth of Hollister, maybe tomorrow you’d peruse rows of Manic Panic in the (also fragrance-drenched) Hot Topic. Or maybe you’d just sit at the food court and eat soft pretzels with your friends, grateful for a time and a space away from the pressures of growing up.