They’re at the bottom of the escalator, faces obscured. They could be anyone—your grandparents, perhaps. They don’t have shopping bags. Perhaps they’ve just arrived, or maybe they’ve come for lunch at the food court … no. That’s not it. Look at the clothes: bold blocked pastels, light pinks, white pants, sneakers. They’re mall walkers.
If the unmistakable style doesn’t give the era away, the film stock’s grain does.
We’re looking into the past, into the heart of a time and place that is all but gone: the American shopping mall, monolithic and, in the late eighties, ubiquitous.
This is one of the most striking images in local photographer Michael Galinsky’s forthcoming photo book, The Decline of Mall Civilization, for which he’s raising funds on Kickstarter to publish in August. (He’s surpassed his goal by more than $30,000.) The composition is near-perfect, with the escalator’s lines and the floor’s tiles giving the image a distinct sense of movement.
But it wasn’t composition Galinsky had in mind. Rather, it was simple point-and-shoot documentation, capturing a moment that would soon be lost to memory.
In 1989, Galinsky—a native of Chapel Hill, best known for images published in 2013 he took, while in high school, of a 1987 KKK march down Franklin Street—was a sophomore at New York University. Fascinated by the work of photographers William Eggleston and Robert Frank, and inspired by the anthropology and sociology he was studying in college, Galinsky wanted to examine the mall as a “privatized public square.” He began snapping photos at malls on Long Island. Encouraged by a professor to continue his work that summer, Galinsky and a friend packed up his friend’s dented Toyota hatchback and struck out to document malls across America.
“I had recently read On The Road,” Galinsky says. “I had this romantic notion of what [the trip] could be. We’d meet interesting people and have wild adventures. This did not happen.”
Hamstrung by what Galinsky describes as an inherent shyness and a lack of money, the duo plodded around the country for over a month, documenting fifteen malls from New York to Seattle, while crashing with friends, family, and sometimes in the back of the Toyota.
Upon his return to New York, Galinsky grew discouraged by the art world’s disinterest in point-and-shoot street photography. He filed the mall photos away and focused on filmmaking and New York’s thriving indie rock scene.
In the decades since, Galinsky, along with his wife and creative partner, Suki Hawley, became an acclaimed independent filmmaker—from his debut, Half-Cocked, a black-and-white examination of Louisville’s nascent indie-rock scene, to the couple’s lauded Battle For Brooklyn. But he’s remained an avid photographer, documenting the flora and fauna of Chapel Hill’s verdant Merritt’s Pasture and sharing his trove of pictures of legendary indie-rockers.
Twenty-one years after that cross-country journey, in 2010, Galinsky came upon the slides of those images while scanning his personal archives. He realized that he had documents of a disappearing moment. So he set up a Kickstarter campaign to fund the release of his first book of images, Malls Across America, in 2013. That run of fifteen hundred books sold out before Galinsky had a chance to solicit stores for copies.
The Decline of Mall Civilization picks up where Malls Across America left off, offering yet another window into what was the cultural and civic hub of much of the U.S. And while both books examine the culture of the shopping mall at the height of its popularity, Decline approaches the images as companions to one another, rather than the two-page, single-image spreads of Malls Across America.
“We spent a lot of time and effort pairing the images into diptychs that play off each other in interesting ways,” Galinsky says.
The fashions are amusing, the hairstyles embarrassing, the neon signage and retro-futuristic fonts almost a joke. But the photos are intimate portraits of a time when commerce was communal—and when you could still smoke inside.
A young man is trying to enjoy lunch break in a hurry, devouring his calzone at the food court; a mullet-haired duo attempts to beat the high score on the arcade classic Golden Axe; two children stare longingly at a toy store; a woman lifts her young child from his stroller—a child who would now be in his early thirties, maybe with kids of his own.
It’s no coincidence that collective nostalgia trips happen in two-to-three-decade cycles, as it’s then that the shapers of our cultural capital—our filmmakers, fashion designers, and musicians—are reaching the peak of their creative careers.
For those who grew up in the fifties, there was American Graffiti; for children of the sixties, Wonder Years; the seventies, Dazed and Confused (and That ‘70s Show). In the same way, the Durham native Duffer brothers’ Stranger Things reignited our curiosity in the styles, sounds, and looks (and New Coke) of the eighties.
And while traces of eighties nostalgia can be found in fashion (hello, big hair and shoulder pads) and music (popular and otherwise), nowhere is it more prominent than on our television screens.
“San Junipero,” the most lauded episode of post-technology horror show Black Mirror, is drenched in the style of the Me Generation; Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence are once again karate-kicking all over Reseda in Cobra Kai; Alison Brie and Marc Maron take to the ring in the ladies’ wrestling gem GLOW; HBO’s masterful, haunting series Chernobyl examines the 1986 nuclear disaster that killed untold thousands (and nearly killed millions more).
And then there’s Stranger Things, which first took us to the Upside Down in 2017.
A central character of the Netflix show’s third season is the Starcourt Mall, which the producers built inside a derelict mall in an Atlanta suburb. In the show, set in summer 1985, the shiny, new mall is a beacon of growth for the fictional Hawkins, Indiana, and parallels its protagonists’ emotional evolution.
Striking fear in the hearts of Hawkins’s mom-and-pops, the Starcourt Mall is a picture-perfect rendering of the classic malls of the eighties. This was the time when malls were king—and it makes you wonder from which local mall Matt and Ross Duffer drew inspiration: The long-shuttered South Square Mall, a cornerstone of Durham life from 1975 to 2002, when it was overwhelmed by the then-new Streets at Southpoint. Or maybe the Northgate Mall, which just moved out of bankruptcy but still faces an uncertain future at the hands of its new investment-bank owners. Or perhaps Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, which opened in 1972 and is today the largest enclosed mall in the Triangle, yet is still fighting for its very existence. (Mall officials recently unveiled a $290 million proposal for a thirty-floor mixed-use building that will replace a vacant Sears and, they hope, help the mall “evolve with the times.”)
Or, more likely, it’s some amalgam of all of those—and other long-forgotten malls.
The era of mall supremacy, the one Galinsky’s book documents, wasn’t long-lived. Malls in America saw their boom begin in concert with the postwar generation’s migration to the suburbs and the rise of automobile culture. In 1956, an enclosed shopping center called Southdale opened in a Minneapolis suburb, the first mall. By 1960, there were more than forty-five hundred of them across the U.S. The boom peaked somewhere in the mid-nineties. By 2004, the U.S. had more than forty-seven thousand malls.
The collapse came quick. Malls took their biggest hit from the Great Recession. Between 2007 and 2009, more than four hundred of the largest ones closed. By the time the economy regained steam, online shopping was ubiquitous, and the re-urbanization of America was underway, with young people returning to the cities their parents and grandparents had abandoned.
The seemingly inescapable decline of what was once called the “New American Main Street” had fully taken hold.
A Madonna acolyte, decked out in black lace and doused in Aqua Net, wanders through stacks of CDs and cassettes at the record store; three friends enjoy a cigarette on a mall bench; a woman snaps a photo of a car from the 1940s.
Unlike Stranger Things, unlike Cobra Kai, and unlike “San Junipero,” The Decline of Mall Civilization exists as more than a paean to a bygone era.
Despite its name, an homage to Penelope Spheeris’s landmark examination of Los Angeles’s early-eighties punk scene, Decline is a document detached from the haze of memory. Its subjects were real people, living real lives; its images are renderings of what life actually looked like in 1989.
Maybe, somewhere in his subconscious, Galinsky knew then that someday these monoliths would go extinct.
“I was twenty when I shot these,” Galinsky says. “My field of vision wasn’t that deep. But I was vaguely aware that they would be gone. I did understand the import of documenting something before it was gone.”
He had no way of knowing what would come after them.
But just as malls replaced the mom-and-pops across America, leaving once-bustling suburban hubs riddled with shuttered windows and empty sidewalks, now Amazon and eBay have rendered malls obsolete, monuments to an outmoded time when we shopped, ate, lingered, and smoked inside together.
Which makes you wonder what nostalgia for the 2010s is going to look like twenty years from now.
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