It was already hot at 5:45 in the morning, the humidity so thick it left me breathless. Even for the South, this was extreme: frog-strangling humidity, smother-you-in-your-sleep heat. It blanketed the region, day after day after day. At one point the forecast called for a heat index here in Nashville that was higher than the heat index in Las Vegas. If you spend much time outdoors in heat like that, it might kill you.
I am a big believer in the link between walking and creativity. If I’m stuck, I go for a walk. If I’m losing focus, I go for a walk. If I hate every word I come up with, I go for a walk. Very close to 100 percent of the time, the resolution to a problem comes to me while I’m walking.
I have a treadmill for inclement days, though walking on it makes me feel like a great lumbering hamster, getting nowhere, experiencing nothing. But if the heat domes that engulfed the South this summer are a harbinger of summers to come, as they look every bit to be, a treadmill might offer my only option for walking during three months of every year.
Then I remembered the mall.
It took a while.
On my way to Parnassus Books, my beloved third place, I drive right past a giant mall where Amazon briefly operated a brick-and-mortar bookstore. It never occurred to me to stop in, and clearly I’m not the only one.
Malls are dead or in visible decline all over the country. “Since 2016, malls in the United States have lost 50 percent of their value,” wrote Jordyn Holman and Thomas Fuller for The Times. And that’s not counting the ones that ran into trouble long before 2016.
When I was a young mother, I spent a lot of time in malls. On rainy days, my toddlers never tired of throwing pennies into the fountains or riding the escalators. We knew where to find every escalator in every mall in this county. Our favorite mall had a huge play space where everything, including the floor, was covered in padded vinyl. Big padded rocks to climb and big padded walls to hide behind and big padded blocks to jump from. When it was time to head home, my children were too tired even to beg for fries from the food court.
Only a handful of those malls are still malls. Everywhere now, massive retail spaces sit empty or lie in ruins. As of last year, there were only 700 or so left in the whole country, down from around 2,500 in the 1980s. “You can throw a rock and hit a mall that’s half empty these days,” Andrew Brezina — a principal at CRTKL, a global architecture, planning and design firm — told Forbes in March.
Sometimes a dead mall can be resurrected in another form. In Austin, Texas, a community college has converted a former mall into classrooms and offices. In California a new law will allow properties currently zoned as commercial to be repurposed — or the land redeveloped — as desperately needed housing. In Nashville the upper floors of one mall are now occupied by a medical clinic, and another languishing mall will soon become a community center.
Malls can be great places to walk. Especially for older people, it makes sense to get your steps in at a place where there are no hills and no tripping hazards, no traffic, no heat domes. Until this summer, I just hadn’t realized I’d reached mall-walking age myself.
Joke’s on me. Despite my deep conviction that conspicuous consumption is one of the many reasons our planet is in such terrible trouble, I have come to love the mall.
Shopping is, of course, the whole point of a mall. The walking clubs and play spaces and tidy bathrooms, the skylights and potted trees, the seasonal fashion shows and the patient Santas holding screaming babies in their laps long enough for their parents to take a photo — those amenities exist merely to make people stay long enough to spend more money.
“Obviously, the mall is a capitalist structure,” noted Alexandra Lange, the author of “Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall,” in an interview with The Daily Beast. “But I also think it’s taken on other powers that are outside the capitalist structure.” These other powers are the ones I discovered when Nashville was enveloped in its first heat dome of the summer.
Now when I head to the bookstore, I try to build in enough time to log a couple of miles at the mall, too. It will never become a third place for me, but it has been a godsend in a summer of terrifying heat.
Walking in proximity to other people, I found myself falling in love with the human race all over again — with the men waiting so patiently outside dressing rooms; with the little clots of middle-school girls and the separate little clots of middle-school boys, all eyeing one another in the pretzel line; with the 20-somethings playing pickleball; with the wisps of languages I don’t speak hanging in the air as multigenerational families pass by; with the weary sales clerks and foot-sore servers taking a break on a bench to look at their phones; with the young mothers nursing their new babies and also with the young fathers holding their toddlers’ hands on the escalator, up and down, up and down, while the babies nursed.
In suburbia, we don’t have bustling city sidewalks or quaint town squares. We have the mall. When I was teaching my little sister to read, the bookstore where I bought her copy of “Go, Dog, Go” was in a mall. When my preteen friends started having boy-girl parties, as we called them, we often met at a mall ice cream parlor where we would devour a communal banana split served in a trough. I bought my first bikini in a mall. The restaurant bar where I ordered my first of-age drink was also in a mall.
Before this summer, I would have told you that every mall in America could disappear overnight and I wouldn’t mourn their loss for even an instant. But the truth is that we need the mall. Or, if not the mall, then something else that provides some of the same things a vibrant mall once offered.
We don’t need retail shop after retail shop anymore — e-commerce isn’t going away — but we still need places where people can come together. Whether we want to see a movie, get a flu shot, eat a pretzel, play a game of pickleball or just come in out of the heat and pass some time with other people, we will always need places where people come together. With Americans lonelier than ever and another divisive election year looming, we may need such places now more than ever before.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last” and “Late Migrations.” Her next book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” will be published in October.
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