I'm Starting to Really Miss Malls

The decline of the big suburban shopping mall was inevitable, but we're losing something valuable in the process.


An assignment pulled me out to West Mifflin earlier this week. I found myself driving around Century Square, a strip mall alongside Lebanon Church Road. Plenty of the storefronts here are empty, although this was clearly once a walkable, destination strip mall — the sort of place where you’d spend a few hours browsing before getting dinner and wandering over to watch a movie, never getting back in your car.

Today, though, it’s curious how many of the occupied storefronts are providing services, rather than goods. Anyone old enough to have put a CD in a boom box can remember when malls and strip malls were the place to go to buy, you know, everything — clothes, books, accessories, media. Everything.

As I circled the parking lot of Century Square, I passed a hair salon, a nail salon, a gym, a doctor’s office and a bank. Only a handful of the storefronts were focused on actually selling products, and most of those contained the sort of items you wouldn’t be likely to buy online — groceries, greeting cards, sporting goods. A home improvement store is under construction.

There’s no mystery to this narrative, of course. As we started buying more and more stuff online — and things that we used to buy physical copies of, like books and CDs, were supplanted by digital versions — there was less need for an actual place to go and get stuff.

There are still malls hanging on in the Pittsburgh area; some, such as Ross Park Mall and The Galleria at Mount Lebanon, went upscale to adapt. But even many of the indoor giants resemble the scene I encountered at Century Square: A lot of empty space, and plenty of storefronts taken up by things you wouldn’t have found near the food court 20 years ago.

The decline of gargantuan commerce villages like these has been thoroughly documented. Last week, the Valley News Dispatch reported that the value of the Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills in Frazer has been lowered to $11 million; that’s less than 10 percent of what it was worth a decade ago.

Oh, and if you hadn’t noticed, there’s not a whole lot of there there when it comes to Parkway Center Mall these days.

I don’t want to get too wistful about the slow evaporation of shopping malls, because that’s exactly the sort of back-in-my-day navel-gazing my fellow Millennials and I usually try to avoid. (We prefer to be apathetic and disenchanted, but also strangely confident. We’re a weird bunch.) But when I think back to my early-teenage years, I am convinced that we are losing something.

I was no more than 13 years old when I first received parental approval to start bumming around Northway Mall (they knocked about half of that one down a few years ago) with friends. We’d idly bounce from Borders (rest in peace) to National Record Mart (also gone) to the second-run movie theater (no more of those in the area, either), stopping at a candy stand first to line our pockets with dirt-cheap snacks to smuggle into the theater. Half the time, we’d just be wandering around, chatting and goofing off.

Parents of teenagers: Does this still exist? From my recent mall visits, it doesn’t look like it.

Nor is this loss just a disservice to young people. A nice thing — or at the very least, a thing — about the slowly dying sort of malls was the opportunity to get a group of people and go out without actually making a decision of any kind. You go, you gather. Someone wants to buy something? You go with them and browse. Someone’s hungry? You go to the food court, where all palates are acceptably served. Everyone’s bored? Movies. (Once upon a time: arcades.)

I don’t know that there’s a fix, here, beyond the upscale examples previously mentioned. I think that suburban faux-neighborhoods are the wave of the future. I just hope that when (OK, if) I ever have teenage children, I’ll be able to drop them off at a well-lit and relatively safe space where they can slack off with friends for the better part of a Saturday.

I also hope that malls survive long enough for me to become an old mall-walker. Judging by the tone I’m taking in this column, I’m not too far off.


Categories: After Dark