Many observers are speculating about the growing trend of so-called dead malls: once-flourishing, large retail spaces that now have a high vacancy rate, low numbers of pedestrian traffic, or the lack of an "anchor" store (typically a department chain). Is it because of economic recession, or stagnant middle-class wages and growing income inequality? Or has the death of these malls been hastened by the rapid growth of online shopping?
It's difficult to say, but the dead mall phenomenon is becoming a cultural item of interest -- for retail historians, urban explorers and documentarians alike. We may read about dead malls in The New York Times or The Atlantic, but film footage can say much more than words.
Aiming to capture the memory these aging or derelict places before they are completely demolished, American filmmaker Dan Bell is documenting the relics of a certain past, spaces where young people would hang out, or seniors would get their daily exercise through a mall walking program. So far, Bell has recorded footage of over 100 derelict spaces, ranging from malls, motels, hospitals, factories and even a resort, posting them on his YouTube channel, This Is Dan Bell. In this TEDx talk, Bell talks about his Dead Mall Series of short films:
Having grown up hanging around and working in malls, Bell has fond memories of these commercial, quasi-communal spaces. Bell got started filming dead malls a couple of years ago on a whim, wanting to digitally preserve these spaces for the future, when he discovered that a mall from his childhood had no digital footprint whatsoever.
"I just think it’s so important to digitally preserve these malls before they’re gone," says Bell. "They were the center of the community before the Internet." To find new subject matter, Bell often goes on tips from viewers about a local dying mall, and will make a trip to record footage.
But Bell's films do not merely present these places as they are; the films also include some historical research, cultural commentary and other interesting tidbits, as well as vintage advertising clips overlaid with kitschy, contemporary "vaporwave" music to set a nostalgic mood that brings one back to the nineties.
Though he is often slipping into these off-limits locations, Bell doesn't consider himself as a daredevil type of urban explorer. Rather, he approaches his subject matter as a filmmaker. He explains his creative process:
Even though [the music and fashion of the nineties] was awful, it defined that era. Everything was over the top yet simple in so many ways. So for me now, the clips I edit together of say, a Blockbuster employee training film where the employees do everything opposite of what they’re supposed to do, I love that I can do that and that people get it. You can’t just film a mall. It isn’t enough. You have to make it an experience for the viewer. I’m always thinking of ways to take something that’s completely bland and make it really interesting. I’m always trying to convey the mood of that era in the videos.
Some of Bell's films use contrast to great effect, such as this one of Owings Mills in Maryland, which includes footage of it during its heyday, then just before closure, and then haunting footage of it in an abandoned state.
Perhaps it's overly optimistic to believe, but it may be that the increased awareness about the the negative impact of consumerism, and the emergence of minimalism as a trend, may also be contributing somewhat to the demise of these retail centres. While the future of these dead malls remain in question, perhaps part of the solution is to re-imagine them as opportunities rather than tragedies. Having seen so many dead and dying malls up close, Bell suggests:
I think converting them into medical or educational facilities is a good option. Many large companies have moved into vacant anchor spaces in malls. I’m against tearing malls down. Fix it up and do something with it but think outside the box. Retail isn’t the answer.