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Column: Golden age of the mall has been in decline for years
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Column: Golden age of the mall has been in decline for years

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My buddies Ayres and Klinger and I walked its crowded corridors for hours on Friday nights, hoping to meet girls.

That’s what we did at South Hills Village Mall in the late 1970s, when we were teens and the American Mall was in its heyday.

Built in the mid-1960s, and the very first indoor mall to be constructed in Pittsburgh, “The Village” was a typical, large two-level structure with “anchor” department stores at each end, a Sears Roebuck in the middle and a variety of retail stores in between.

No mall visit was complete without stopping into the pinball and games arcade or Spencer Gifts, a novelty and gag gift store that sold everything from lava lamps to Farrah Fawcett’s famous poster.

The mall became the town square for suburban kids. Our younger siblings spent so much time there their generation would earn the name “Mall Rats.”

We were clueless teenagers. We had no idea why or how the suburban mall had evolved, but its birth — and its recent, rapid decline — is an interesting, though complicated, American story.

According to a 2014 article in Smithsonian Magazine, the explosion of malls across America was fueled by urban flight, suburban growth and economic prosperity after World War II.

But that’s not the full explanation, the magazine said. The unintended good intentions of government economic policy and federal tax codes tell the rest of the story.

Smithsonian said that in 1954 Congress was eager to stimulate investment in manufacturing. To that end, it accelerated 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 upon being built, it begins to lose value until it eventually needs to be replaced.

The Smithsonian’s article turned to the New Yorker magazine’s great writer, Malcolm Gladwell, to explain how mall developers were allowed to “‘deduct much larger sums, which would be counted, technically, as depreciation loss — completely tax-free money.’”

“‘Suddenly it was possible to make much more money investing in things like shopping centers than buying stocks,’ Gladwell writes, “‘so money poured into real-estate investment companies.’”

Over 1,200 shopping malls shot up in the U.S. after the earliest examples were built in the 1950s, according to World Market.

A massive amount of money was made by investors in new malls, but there was an unintended social cost.

As millions of suburbanites switched their shopping to the malls, many large retailers in the downtown cores of major cities and small stores on local main streets were devastated and put out of business.

Malls had their Golden Åge, but they’ve been in decline for years.

They’ve been bleeding shoppers and revenues because of the growth of online shopping and now, after being crushed by a year and a half of COVID lockdowns, they’re being shuttered in big numbers.

Some malls, like my old teenage stamping ground, appear to be hanging in there. Sears is long gone, but Target and Dick’s appear to be doing well.

Some mall owners are introducing innovative ideas to remain relevant — and viable. Others are remaking their vast, rarely busy spaces into apartments, medical facilities, office spaces and other important re-uses.

I wish all of them better luck than Ayres, Klingler and I had 40-some years ago. We spent hundreds of hours walking up and down our mall’s crowded corridors, but never once met any girls.

Tom Purcell is an author and humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Email him at Tom@TomPurcell.com.

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