White Flint Mall. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

This is an extract from Guy Rundle’s new book Practice: Journalism, essays and criticism, and was originally published in Crikey. Practice is available now from Black Inc.

You can see it through the intervening car yards, from nearly a mile away, rising above the swell of the freeway, the landscaped verges and the strip malls on the other side. White-crested, the higher parapets of it appear first, then the huge four-storey boxy buildings that make up its mass, and finally the vast carpark that surrounds it, an expanse of grey asphalt. At the car park entrance, a huge circular sign — “White Flint Mall” — and below it, a series of seven empty frames in a three-by-three grid, only two filled with logos: Lord and Taylor, and PF Chang’s Chinese.

On the parapet there’s some sort of abstract design, an indented circle with a bar through it, and it takes you a moment to realise that this is not modern art, but the place where a similar sign once was. The place has eight entrances done in white cement, fancy brickwork and steel, but there is no activity around any of them. The windows are empty, save for two vast display ones, Lord and Taylor, a women’s clothing store.

At the other end a vast glass atrium entrance has been lit up with strings of fairy lights, but no one is going in or out. You approach gingerly, almost tenderly. The space is cleared of anyone. It feels like it should be illegal to be here, but there are no guards or locks or cyclone wire. You peer through the door of the atrium and see a vast expanse going back endlessly. Mirrors that once gave it space give it an air of infinity. You try the door. Maybe they’ve left it… and it opens smoothly.

Inside, the automatic doors slide aside on your approach, and you see three, four, five storeys of balconies and walkways around the atrium, utterly vacant, an emptiness you haven’t seen before anywhere. You hear beyond the entrance a smooth lapping sound. No, a steady clicking, a whirring. You realise it’s the escalators, still on, still going up and down, tidal, almost mathematical. You hear footsteps in the distance. Security? No, it’s a family going through, cutting to PF Chang’s. You’re alone and undisturbed, and undistracted by anything. You’re in that repository of late capitalist hope and disillusion, you’re in a dead mall.

Indeed, you’re in one of the greatest dead malls of them all, White Flint, in Bethesda, Maryland, really a burb of DC, pretty upmarket, and like much of Virginia and Maryland an early and fierce adopter of the enclosed shopping mall, the multi-storey shopping centre shaped round an atrium/agora. From the late 1950s and into the ’90s these big beasts reared up in fearsome numbers across the land, initially as an adjunct to downtowns, and then replacing them and draining them entirely. As they rose, they began to reshape the American daily experience in a way that never happened to anything like the same degree elsewhere, and quite rapidly, in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Until then, the arena of life was still planted to a degree in the cities; you can see it in films and TV, the depiction of where people hang out, still the streets. But as whole downtowns came to be cleared away, as urban crime began its steady rise to the lethal heights of the early 1990s, and as mall design became ever more munificent, the mall became the arena for life, especially for teenagers. And not merely as a place to hang. The mall aspired to offer a plenitude of experience, an endless recession of satisfaction, with no boundaries and no outside. The Gruen transfer, it’s known, after the mall’s inventor, Victor Gruen, who hated the idea expressed by it — the systematic disorientation of anyone who enters there.

Maybe you know all this by now, because the origins of the mall have become sort of well known. But you may not know what happened next, in the United States. The malls began to die.

Not merely die. Not simply one or two. They began to die off in their hundreds, then thousands, getting a first major shock around the mini-recession around 2000, sickening further as online retail took off, and then being administered the death blow in the recent crash. By the early 2000s, the scale of the die-off was unmistakable, but the retail world had no real way of understanding it, caught in the inherited belief that sales would simply rise and rise and rise.

Malls continued to die in a variety of different ways: sometimes, it would be one small store at a time, a slow spiralling process that would suddenly speed up as the vacancy rate passed a critical threshold, and the place ceased to be worth going to. Other times a big “anchor” department store would leave, and then another, and the mall would die in a month. Overbuilding was a third cause, with the crowding out of older malls by new-style luxury “Simon” malls — in Atlanta there are two of them next to each other, arranged in a yin-and-yang shape — where all stores selling basic necessities are banned (you can find a single convenience store in the basement).

As malls got into trouble, so too did the holding companies running them. In essence many of them became paralysed — client stores kept closing, but the mall would be jammed up about how to change layout, strategy, rentals. Often they would become tangled in legal disputes. And thus bound, they died when they didn’t always need to, in plain sight, without mitigation or mercy. Mall death coincided with the rotting of cities like Detroit and St Louis, and the rise of a ruins aesthetic. Dead malling became a thing, the exploration of malls that had been reduced to a handful of clients — even down to one or two — or had closed entirely but could be easily entered.

Once in, a cornucopia of ruin-porn delights awaited. Malls that stayed running couldn’t really block off whole sections with any ease, so they became vast containers of nothing. Malls that had shut entirely didn’t have a lot spent on security because who gave a damn? Legal disputes kept them closed but intact for years. Inside, things started to fall apart pretty quickly. Tiles fell, fluoros shorted, animals got in, skater kids broke in and trashed the place, dust gathered and furred edges and appliances, winds below threw and tumbled debris around. Dead malling was now a subculture, with its own comprehensive website (deadmalls.com), with a series of endless photos of decay, sad, delicious, forlorn, abysmal, sublime. The dead mall movement produced at least one great work of art — the photo book/exhibition Black Friday –– and with that, the movement entered popular culture.

It is almost at the edge of expression, a dead mall … the sheer vacancy of it billows and blooms. You feel nervous for the first few minutes, and then you calm down.

And then the dead malls started to die. At the height of the wave, there were 1400 of them, before they started to succumb. Some became “open malls” — i.e. four big-box stores in a vast car park — some became new urban “town centres”, with pseudo-streets and village squares, and many were simply, finally eviscerated without trace. For decades malls had been at the centre of movies and pop culture (such as the huge hit by Canadian singer Robin Sparkles  Let’s Go To The Mall). This year, dead malls had their apogee, being featured in the autumn No. 1 hit movie Gone Girl. By that time, they were all but gone. That’s what made White Flint special.

It had been dead for years, but the legal entanglements of the various owners have been so byzantine that no action could be taken on it. Having lost all its stores, it then set about ejecting the remaining, recalcitrant tenants, in particular a renowned branch of “Dave and Buster’s”, a family restaurant chain with arcade/fun house games, etc. Dave and Buster’s was on the third floor, amid nothing, but people kept coming to it. Now, as White Flint persists, waiting for a resolution to its legal problems and the opportunity to redevelop, its facilities are kept running on the basis of the “broken windows” theory — that as soon as something seems broken or neglected, vast criminality will follow.

And it is, it is … it is almost at the edge of expression, a dead mall. With the bare white walls ascending, the lights blazing, and the relentless tuckle tuckle of the escalators, it is emptiness trapped, for the purposes of study. The sheer vacancy of it billows and blooms. You feel nervous for the first few minutes, and then you calm down. You’re meant to be there, the lights are on. You walk around, there’s no one. You take the escalators up, there’s no one. Come back down, no one. You pass what must have been 60 or 80 shops in the heyday, all gone, sealed up, glassed up. You go up to the shuttered cinema, with its fake old “Bijou”-style hoarding, you go back down to the food court with its empty booths.

Your mind opens out, begins to flow, first to motifs of isolation and collapse, apocalyptic movies, last survivor stuff. Cliche, but that is what it feels like, exactly what it feels like. Then you actually run into someone, a confused woman looking for the PF Chang’s entrance, who doesn’t seem to notice she’s in anywhere unusual, a couple of laughing skater boys, and, on the third floor, a rugged poor couple in knitted bobble caps and cheap windbreakers. He was massive, white-bearded; she was slight, with palsied twitching, occasional Tourettish shout. They were outside the old Dave and Buster’s looking confused.

“The cinema’s closed down here?”

“Long gone,” I said. “It’s all gone.”

“What about the Dave and Buster’s?”

“That’s gone. That was the last to go.”

“Aw.”

They stood for a few seconds, as she grunted and squirmed. Then they moved off.

“Used to be good, the Dave and Buster’s,” he said over his shoulder.

“You used to come here?”

“Six years ago.”

And they were already fading into the whiteness. Ten minutes after, I was wondering if they had existed at all. They put the capper on one feeling that rushed in after the initial awe, and that it was that the place seemed so sad, so absolutely fucking sad, so drenched in it. You get this of course whenever you visit such pleasure gardens, or remnants thereof — Vauxhall in South London, buried in rail and bridges now, once a warren of rococo gardens and grottoes with canoodling couples, strolling musicians and wheeled pushcarts of wine and sweetmeats — because they offer no promise of something beyond the present moment. It’s the most sombre church that has a sense of life, the closed fairground that reeks of death.

In this case, it was added to by the sheer transience of it all. The place purported to permanence, offered itself as somewhere for foregathering, an implicit community; but once the foot traffic stopped, so too did the being together here. It’s the sudden, visible shift in meaning of a dead mall that stuns, the place of umpteen thousand adolescences suddenly recrudesced to plaster and cement, soon to be broken up and ploughed under. It’s the terrifying audacity of a culture, the courage — if that’s what it is — to say that everything that people attached love to, had good memories of, will soon exist only there.

And then, after a couple of hours of this, there was a third order emotional wave, which was a sort of lifting, a cleansing, a fully spiritual feeling. It was as if a burden had been lifted within me, but I couldn’t tell what the burden was. Yet it was as decisive as a Zen moment, like the way they say it is when you have raked a stone garden for months on end, and something happens. I suspect it was this: if you stay in this infused absence long enough, then you are reminded that the symbolic load our world carries, the sheer relentlessness of signification, image, importuning, is all a billboard, a neon sign, and behind it is the world, mute, resistant, and indifferent to your desires.

By the time I left, hours after dark, no one had locked the place up, I felt clearer-headed than I had in months. I half-seriously wonder if this would not serve as some sort of first-order therapy for troubled souls. Since half of our everyday fucked-upness comes from this relentless demand that we desire, perhaps the simple and unarguable absence of it on a mass scale would do most of the job of relieving it. The only drawback I can see is that it would have to be done one at a time. Three people in here at once, at close quarters would be like some nightmare consumerist production of Huis Clos.

Outside, as I left, wondering if I should simply have bunked down, I found a sign notifying passers-by of redevelopment plans. They were three years old. Forlorness flows out the door, catches. Gone Girl’s dead mall scene is the full Gothic, with he place inhabited by mole people, burrowing homeless. But it’s not like that at all. Back at the hotel, Mean Girls was on cable. It usually is. The mall scenes there are now fading to history, of a way people lived, loved and were together. And that passing is a feature of life, the going from something to nothing. But what happens to a culture which has put that part of life, at the centre of life?