They tore down the mall in my hometown. It was done in a matter of days, which didn’t seem possible for a place once so central to my community and my life. Back in the 1980s and 90s it was the epicenter of youth culture, the agora, the only place where anything was “happening” in that small Nebraska town. In my youth I could imagine its destruction only coming about as a calamity or crime like the burning of the Library of Alexandria. That this edifice of teenage delights could die by simply falling into ruins like the Roman Colosseum would have seemed impossible.
The thus aptly named Imperial Mall was where lawn mowing money got converted into baseball cards and hard summer labor detasseling in the corn fields became CDs from Musicland and games of NBA Jam at the Fun Factory arcade. As I grew older it was where I bought the books that defined my teenage identity. (I still remember the nod and sweet smile of recognition from the store owner when I requested that he order Kerouac’s On The Road for me. Rest in peace, Bernie Tushaus.) It’s where I made awkward conversations with girls I had crushes on outside of Herberger’s clothing store.
My cinematic education began at Video Kingdom, whose VHS tapes allowed me to see films that never played at the mall’s staid multiplex. But those three screens too were a theater of memory, of seeing Yoda die, my first rated R movie, of openly heckling the George Clooney Batman movie. It’s where I got my hair cut and bought my clothes when I no longer had to accept what was purchased for me by my mom at Kmart. Or just where I killed time with the smell of sweet popcorn from the Karmelkorn store ever in my nostrils, wandering about looking for some action, or what passed for action in the mind of a gawky altar boy.
By the time the wrecking ball came the Imperial Mall had long gone into decline and inevitable fall like so many once mighty empires. I registered the downfall with each passing year. Whenever I came back to my hometown to visit my family I always made sure to stop into the mall and get a contact high from my memories. Each time I returned that got harder and harder. For years the lights were dimmed to save money and more people treated it as an exercise track than a shopping center. A storefront church and weirdly the only credible Italian restaurant between Omaha and Denver stayed open to the bitter end, and little else. Like my hometown itself it was hard to believe the place had ever mattered.
Hastings was a once bustling railroad town that the railroads re-routed to bypass around the same time the mall lost its luster. No longer a crucial junction it became a bump in the road, and then not even that. The once sturdy little houses built for the defense workers at the munitions factories during World War II are crumbling. The Wal-Mart on the edge of town moved into a bigger location and dollar stores proliferated while venerable local businesses closed down one after the other. There’s still jobs in the factories even though the local farm economy tanked in the 80s. The situation is not at all desperate, just depressing. But the mall represented something beyond economic health. Almost inexplicably, this privatized, commercialized public space represented civic vitality.
I’m not the only person feeling mallstalgia these days. Taylor Swift’s longing “coney island” featuring sad dad rockers The National from her evermore album has the lines “‘Cause we were like the mall before the internet/ It was the one place to be/ The mischief, the gift wrapped suburban dreams.” If the internet killed the mall it’s ironic that there’s a whole online industry documenting dead and abandoned malls and I have been a loyal consumer.
This mallstalgia can perhaps be chalked up to the fact that the generations most shaped by mall culture have hit middle age and see in the death of malls shades of their own mortality. But as “coney island” hints, there’s something deeper going on here.
Our idea of what the mall represents has been radically softened. Malls used to be a stand-in for the shallow culture of Reagan-era consumerism, hence alternative rock artists of the day like Mojo Nixon penning the likes of “Burn Down the Malls.” After all, there could be no firmer statement in the 80s of rejection of the era’s dominant ethos than by rejecting the decade’s dominant cultural form, the shopping mall. Little did we know then that much worse was coming down the line.
It is indeed correct that “the mall before the internet” was “the one place to be.” While it was meant merely to be a centralized location for money to be blown on consumerist flotsam, young people repurposed it to their own ends. We had to because there was literally nowhere else in public to go, especially in small towns. However, capitalism soon learned it was more efficient to have the shopping without the added cost of social space. And so came the box stores and then online shopping, where space itself became unnecessary. The packages come right to our doors. No more salesclerks to chat with at the register, just invisible warehouse workers and delivery drivers being pushed to their limits by Amazon’s quest to squeeze every last cent out of out of their bodies.
When Gen Xers like me talk about the mall we sound like the old timers we used to roll our eyes at, ridiculously lamenting a changing world that’s become far more comfortable than the old one. So to temper my complaints I will say that beer, cars, television, coffee, and food in general are all far better than they were in my youth. But we have continued to lose a sense of public space, of shared community, and the mall oddly helped preserve it.
It reminds me of something an old timer from back home once told me. He grew up on a farm near a small town I had always thought of as deader than a graveyard after dark. He told me how during his childhood there were two nights a week known as “cream and egg night,” when the farmers would come to town to sell those wares. People would get together in the streets. There would be music and dancing and games and all the kids playing together. I was astounded that anything like this ever happened in this place. I asked him what changed, and he replied in total deadpan: “television.” The erosion of community he pointed to has only accelerated.
We might associate malls with “suburban dreams” but losing malls in rural small towns cuts the deepest. The fact that my small Nebraska town had one and others didn’t was a point of pride, much like a town “opera house” was in the boom years of the prairie at the turn of the century. The boom years in rural Nebraska are long gone and you would be insane to see any coming back on even the most distant horizon. So many of my friends who grew up in smalltown America report the same thing, a kind of hollowing out of places that once felt full. In that context mallstalgia is more than a mere generational fixation.
Just about everything in my hometown growing up happened at the mall. My tae kwon do school did demonstrations there. (Breaking a board in front of a crowd was a big thrill for 11 year old me.) My cub scout troop solicited for charity there. Spider-Man (or someone in a Spider-Man costume) showed up there to do an event to raise awareness of child sexual abuse. (The 80s were a strange time.) There were craft fairs, baseball card shows, and “sidewalk sales” too. Some of these public events may still go on in my hometown nowadays, but there’s no nerve center for the community anymore. Instead people are more likely to stay home and fry their brains on Fox News and Facebook.
In adulthood I moved to New Jersey, perhaps the cradle of mall culture and a place where some malls still limp on and a couple even thrive. Appropriately, the abandoned Sears at the local mall serves as a COVID vaccination site. We find ourselves in a strange time when capitalism no longer needs the mall, but we still do.