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The Allure of Ruins
Our rueful fascination with abandoned places stems from our desire to put our present in the context of our past
By James Lileks
“How was the mall?” Mom would ask when you got home.
“Eh, it was dead,” you might say.
“What did you do?”
Neither was true. Every trip to the mall had a routine. You’d swing by the sausage and cheese store for samples. You’d go to the record store to leaf through the sheaves of albums, nodding at the rock gods’ pictures on the wall, content in the cocoon of your generation’s culture. Head over to Chess King to see if there was something stylish you could wear on a date, if you ever had one; saunter casually into Spencer Gifts to look at the posters in the back, snicker at the naughty gifts, marvel at some electronic thing that cast colored patterns on the wall. Then you’d find a place, maybe by the fountain in the center, and watch the world go past in that agreeably tranquilized state of mall shopping.
Dead? Hardly. Okay, maybe it was the afternoon, low traffic. No movie you really wanted to see, the same stuff in the stores you saw last week. Of course you’d go back tomorrow, because that’s what you did with your friends. You went to the mall.
A dead mall is something else today: a vast dark cavern strewn with trash, stripped of its glitter, its escalators frozen, waiting for the claws to take it apart. The internet abounds with photos taken by surreptitious spelunkers, documenting the last days of once-prosperous malls. We look at these pictures with fascination and sadness. No one said they’d last forever. But there wasn’t any reason to think they wouldn’t. Hanging out as teens, we never thought we’d outlive the mall.
They were all the same. They were all different. They shared an architectural DNA: an anchor store on the poles or points of the compass, linked by wide pedestrian streets punctuated with planters and kiosks. Brown octagonal floors, if it was the ’70s or ’80s. A faint note of fresh pretzel in the air, or an irresistibly sweet breeze of cinnamon buns. You’d ride the escalator, look at the vast prosperous tableau and maybe you’d think: Things are pretty good.
But we rarely thought that, did we? We took it all for granted. The mall, this enormous structure filled with clothes and candles and jewelry and and lamps and ice cream and vitamins—this was normal. As American as the supermarket with its heaps of produce and well-stocked shelves, as American as the car dealership with rows and rows of shiny autos, as American as the television set with 300 channels. The only thing that might hurt this mall, my mall, was a better mall down the road. And surely someday they’d build one. Awesome!
Hence the shock upon seeing pictures of abandoned malls. You cannot help but think that something fundamental stopped working. Oh, sure, you always knew a few people who didn’t like the mall; every village has its free-thinking atheist. But how could everyone reject it? How could it fail?
There were obvious reasons, old reasons: changing tastes, competition, demographic shifts. A doom-loop triggered by an anchor closure. An economic contraction that hit a batch of overextended chains. Happens all the time.
No one feels bad about emptied strip malls or shuttered big-box retailers. But photos of any dead mall hit you right in the sternum because it seems as if the entire culture you knew in your youth is over. It’s not an irrational reaction. Indeed, that culture probably is gone.
Feeling Sad To Feel Better
Some dead mall photos have signs of ancient styles, a reminder of the way things used to look. Mall aesthetics in the ’90s was quite playful, with tropical colors and angular shapes—the baroque period of ’80s design. Compared to the monkish minimalism of today’s shopping spaces, it looks like the remains of an energetic and eclectic culture, sybaritic and a bit decadent, yes, but fun. The good days, now behind us.
Which, of course, is nonsense. People back then were worried about nuclear war and herpes and their kid coming back from college as a PUNK, whatever those were. The ’90s were fraught with all sorts of nonsense we invented to keep us on edge. True, we didn’t have little hand-held glass-faced anxiety slabs that fed our faces a constant stream of anxieties and arguments, though. But it was, perhaps, less difficult to be happy.
Unless you were a merchant downtown. Malls were murder on urban core retail. The draw of a mall an hour or two away might drain the commercial life from a small town’s main street, and those stores are shuttered to this day.
Odd how there’s not a lot of fascination with those ruins.
Perhaps because they’re not ours? That’s Grandpa’s world. It had its run.
Perhaps because using Google Street View to tour the endless accumulation of emptied-out small town storefronts is numbing after a while, and too depressing. Too particular: When you see a dead mall, you imagine throngs, but when you see a dead small-town Main Street, you imagine the clerk behind the counter, the farmer wife who’s come to town for fabric.
Perhaps because it doesn’t give us a grand enough canvas for our rue and regret. If we’re going to tour ruins, give us the Baths of Caracalla, not a stone hut in an excavated Roman settlement.
We want something that makes us feel sad and disappointed in our time, our culture. It’s not a healthy impulse. Nor is it new.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants?
There’s an old science-fiction radio play about a group of rocket men who set down on a long green lawn on an uninhabited world and set about exploring. Those tall structures, captain, with regular windows—surely they were built by intelligent beings! Everyone speaks colloquial English, yet you’re supposed to be stunned by the twist: “It says the natives called it ... New York.”
Gave everyone a little shudder in the ’50s. It seemed plausible that some disaster—man-made or otherwise, but probably the Rooskies—could reduce America to an overgrown and abandoned place, with the tall towers poking out of the vegetation, the elegant lobbies full of weeds and fauna, the accomplishments of mankind left to crumble.
Which brings us to Detroit.
The epicenter of online Ruination Laments is Detroit, simply because it was so big, so grand, so strong. The sprawling factories are now husks. The skyscrapers, empty of tenants. The neighborhoods are not just abandoned, but they’ve returned to nature, with only the street grid to suggest that people made their lives here. The name of the city is a synonym for an urban mausoleum. But is it still true?
The vacancy rate for the 22 most important office towers in the Motor City is a surprising 11.7%, which goes against the standard conception of Detroit as an unpopulated wasteland. The Book Tower, one of the city’s great abandoned skyscrapers, is empty at present, but it’s being rehabbed. The Michigan Central train station, a Beaux-Arts hall with an 18-story skyscraper, empty and abused for decades—the most potent example of American ruin porn possible, perhaps—should be fully restored by this year. Many of the skyscrapers that stood empty for decades have been polished and renewed. This is almost a disappointment for some, because they prefer the aesthetics of elegant decay. The dilapidated state of old glorious buildings is a deserving indictment of our era, with its dull rote modernism and solipsistic glass towers.
They have a point. The old vocabulary of the buildings is no longer the vernacular. The classical styles speak of sophistication and skill, a rich and confident historicity that ties the American experience to the long parade of Western civilization, and we do not believe we could muster the will to do that again—or we believe we would not be allowed to praise it, since our history is full of sins. The modernism of the ’30s likewise seems from another culture, an optimistic zeitgeist when machines would be bent to the will of man, and new forms unleashed by the bonfire of the old world.
The power and beauty of the first half of the 20th century, with its conflicted attractions and references to all that had come before, seems like the work of giants. The empty Detroit factories are different. Those hit hard. Once, we made things. Well, we still do. Once, people had good jobs making things people wanted. Well, they still do, but times change, and hard jobs on the line have been replaced with soft seats in a beige cubicle typing numbers. Once, the whistle blew and men with lunch pails went home to a modest house and kissed their wives hello and sat down to a beer and a Salisbury steak while little Johnny fussed in the high chair and everyone watched a small black-and-white TV before going to bed. Well, okay, you got me there. But TVs are much better and cheaper, so we don’t care where they’re made. Cars are better, too—who cares if a hundred-year-old factory is abandoned? Somewhere in Alabama or Mexico or China, there’s a great car rolling off the line—all electric, with voice-activated controls and collision detection. Things change.
All true. But when we look at those old factories, we see capability. An economy that could scale up and kick Hitler! We don’t see asbestos and segregation, though, because we are luxuriating in the romance of decline, comparing our cautious era to the heedless 20-league strides of the past. Whether our evaluation of our times is correct isn’t the point. It feels correct. It feels right to insist that we have fallen, in so many ways.
Some Things Stay the Same
The mall of my youth was West Acres, in Fargo. It’s doing fine. The biggest mall in my current town is the Mall of America, which is absolutely gargantuan and doing fine, as are many others. The mall of my heart is Southdale—the first covered mall in America. My parents brought me there on a trip to the big city when I was very young, and the place was an amazing look at the big urban future. A two-story birdcage! An outdoor cafe—but it’s inside! Toys! Pets! The trip made such an impression, and when combined with the orange-roof Howard Johnson’s where we stayed, it made Minneapolis seem like Oz.
Now I live in Minneapolis, and shop at Southdale. It’s not doing great. It’s down to one anchor, a Macy’s squatting in the mansion built by the long-gone Dayton’s chain. Vacancies are noticeable. You will never find it on a ruin-porn site, though, because it is morphing into something people need. The old anchor store? A big shiny gym. The other anchor store? A nice supermarket might be moving in. The empty storefronts on the east wing? A government service center. It’s not the mall I remember, but it still offers up some useful places.
The original 1956 clock is still up there on the wall, counting the hours in silence. The hands told the time when I was there as a child, and the hands will tell the time if I go tomorrow. Things change, but if you look closely with a level gaze, you might be heartened. Some necessary things abide.