Tom Purcell: The Rise and Fall of the Mall
My buddies Ayres and Klingler and I walked its crowded hallways for hours on Friday night, hoping to meet some girls.
This is what we did at South Hills Village Mall in the late 1970s when we were teenagers and the American Mall was in its prime.
Built in the mid-1960s and the very first indoor mall to be built in Pittsburgh, “The Village” was a typical large two-story structure with large “anchor” stores at each end, a Sears Roebuck in the middle, and a variety. of retail stores in between.
No visit to the mall was complete without stopping at Spencer Gifts, a fancy and gag gift shop that sold everything from lava lamps to the famous Farrah Fawcett poster.
The mall has become the town square for suburban children. Our younger siblings spent so much time there that their generation would earn the name of “mall rats”.
We were distraught teenagers. We didn’t know why or how the suburban mall had evolved, but its birth – and its recent rapid decline – is an interesting, albeit complicated, American story.
According to a 2014 article in Smithsonian Magazine, the explosion of shopping centers across America was fueled by urban exodus, suburban growth, and economic prosperity after World War II.
But that’s not the full explanation, the magazine said. The unwitting good intentions of government economic policy and federal tax codes tell the rest of the story.
Smithsonian said that in 1954 Congress was keen to stimulate investment in the manufacturing sector. To this end, it has accelerated the annual depreciation rates for new construction.
Depreciation is a tax concept that assumes that a piece of machinery or a building has a finite lifespan, that is, once it is built, it begins to lose value until it stops. ‘it must eventually be replaced.
The Smithsonian article turned to New Yorker magazine great writer Malcolm Gladwell to explain how mall developers were allowed to “deduct much larger sums, which would technically be considered a waste of money. ‘depreciation – money totally tax free’.
“Suddenly, it was possible to make a lot more money investing in things like malls than buying stocks,” Gladwell writes, “so the money went into real estate investment companies”.
More than 1,200 shopping centers have sprung up in the United States after the first examples were built in the 1950s, according to World Market.
A huge amount of money was made by investors in the new malls, but there was an unforeseen social cost.
As millions of commuters shifted their shopping to malls, many large retailers in downtown areas of big cities and small shops on local main streets were devastated and closed.
Shopping centers have had their golden age, but they have been in decline for years.
They have bled shoppers and revenue due to the growth in online shopping and now, after being crushed by a year and a half of covid lockdowns, they are shutting down in droves.
Some malls, like my old teenage playground, seem to cling to it. Sears is long gone, but Target and Dick seem to be doing well.
Some mall owners come up with innovative ideas to stay relevant and viable.
Others, says NPR, are turning their vast, rarely-occupied spaces into apartments, medical facilities, offices and other important reuse.
I wish them all better luck than Ayres, Klingler and I had some 40 years ago. We’ve spent hundreds of hours walking the crowded hallways of our mall, but we’ve never met a girl once!
Library freelance writer Tom Purcell is the author of “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood”. Visit it on the web at TomPurcell.com.