Monday, July 14, 2008

A Modern Day Ghost Town

by Annette Dashofy

I grew up in the Age of Malls. I remember when South Hills Village was a big deal. A shopping Mecca. And then the Washington Mall opened. A shopper’s paradise close to home. The place proved so popular that a few years later, they had to add on.

As a teen, I hung out at the Washington Mall. We went to movies there. J.C. Penney was my favorite department store. I shopped for groceries at the Giant Eagle, first at one end of the mall, and then, after the expansion, at the other end. One of my earliest jobs was working at the Wonday Photo Center where I took in film for processing (pre digital by a couple decades) and sold cameras and darkroom equipment.

A few years back, the owner decided malls were a thing of the past and made plans to bulldoze the Washington Mall and replace it with a strip mall. One by the one, the tenants left. Then, with only a handful remaining, plans changed. The strip mall plan was nixed. But by then, it was too late. The tenants who had left had already found new locations. Those who remained were a tad miffed by management jerking them around, so they moved out, too.

J.C. Penney remained for a time. However, the lure of a new strip mall just down the road called to them. The Foundry, as the planned shopping center was dubbed, would continue the growth already happening in two other adjacent plazas.

Without J.C. Penney, the Washington Mall virtually died. It still houses Rite Aid at one end and JoAnn Fabric at the other, but in between, vacant store fronts flank empty hallways. In the winter, there is no heat. In the summer, no air conditioning offers relief.

Where the aroma of hot dogs and nachos once wafted through the corridors, only a stale, musty stench remains. Instead of the chatter and laughter of shoppers and their families, silence echoes throughout. A small handful of “mall walkers” do their laps for exercise without needing to dodge crowds.

It’s spooky. I spent a large part of my youth there. I shopped, dined, and met friends there. Now it resembles nothing quite as much as a modern day ghost town.

The new J.C. Penney in the Foundry closed a few weeks ago. The other stores in the strip mall had closed a week or so earlier.

When the developer started building the new shopping center, they had a valley to work with. They brought in fill and created a hillside. They built a spectacular wall, one of the largest in the state, to hold the hill in place. They rushed to put up buildings for their new tenants.

What they did NOT do was give the new manmade hillside time to settle. But, of course, it settled anyway. And as it settled, the earth beneath the Foundry shops dropped. When I was there last winter, I’d noticed cracked cement and small sink holes in the parking lot. Apparently, they were only a precursor.

So thanks to the stupidity and greed of developers trying to build more stores to make more money selling stuff to the citizens of Washington County, we now have two largely vacant properties within a mile of each other.

Oddly, the old Washington Mall appears to be in much better condition than the spanking new (sinking) Foundry shops.

And there is talk that J.C. Penney MAY move back into their old space in the Mall.

Display cases sit empty, ready to be filled once again with jewelry and perfume and cosmetics.

I guess I just want someone to explain to me why newer is better. And why build more and more storefronts when the economy can’t support the retail establishments we already have? Somehow I doubt that this is a phenomena isolated to Washington County, Pennsylvania. Tell me…what’s happening in your area? Are the stores all filled and prospering? Or are boarded up windows turning other shopping centers into ghost towns, too?

And does anyone else smell a fantastic location for a murder mystery here?


Tory said...

Definite murder mystery material here, Annette!

And such a sad statement about how building is done in this country. I think it's part of the "quick fix" mentality, that always breaks down in the long-term.

Annette said...

I could have gone on forever in this piece. In this country we have no value for old buildings (or old anything, but that's a whole other blog). Once it gets old, don't value it's charm, TEAR IT DOWN. Don't fix it, move out.

It's like Paris Hilton...when she runs out of gas, she buys a new car.

martha reed said...

Annette, the pictures of the empty mall are creepy - it makes you wonder what happened to all the people, like Pompeii (although we know what happened to them).

I wonder if it's human nature to go on high alert - is it a defense mechanism? If something got the people here it might also get me?

Joyce said...

I wish I had the answers to your questions. There are abandoned malls and shopping centers all over the place but the keep building new ones. Wouldn't it make more sense to refurbish what's there already?

The sinking shopping center reminds me of the old Dixmont State Hospital property where Walmart wanted to build. That hillside ended up on Ohio River Blvd. and closed the road for weeks. You'd think they'd adapt the buildings to the lay of the land instead of moving all that dirt that they have to know is going to move!

Joyce said...

I thought of one more thing. I also don't understand the logic behind a local mall going "upscale." I went shopping one day and no one was going to any of these "upscale" stores. All the crowds were in Sears! The rest of the mall was empty.

Annette said...

When we were in the mountains last weekend, my friend and I had a long conversation about the lack of common sense these days. Joyce, I think this is one more example. If you take a gully and turn it into a mountain, it just makes sense that the ground is going to move and settle. At least those idiots along Ohio River Blvd finally gave up on their plans. Can you imagine if they'd gone ahead and built anyway? It could have been Wal Mart sliding down the hill onto the road instead of just the dirt.

Annette said...

They spent all their money putting gas in their SUVs to get to the mall and didn't have any left over for the upscale stores!

Annette said...

And, Martha, it's not nearly as creepy right now as it is in the middle of winter when you have to wear your coat because there's no heat.

Dana King said...

I llived for a bit in Ashburn, VA. There was a Wal-Mart and a Best store in what passed for a little strip mall, one on either side of the parking lot. Best went out of business, and Wal-Mart moved about a mile down the road. The last time I went by there, the whole expanse was being used as a place to catch the commuter bus to DC.

Your pictures of Washington Mall bring a thought to mind you probably hadn't intended: if they ever re-make the Blues Brothers, the car chase location is ready to go!

This is why they call me "Mr. Glass is Half Full."

BTW, I remember when Monroeville Mall was state of the art and THE place to shop.

Joyce said...

I'm surprised no one has mentioned The Waterfront. Two shooting deaths in the last couple of weeks? Not a place I'd want to shop!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

When mannequins start appearing in vacant store fronts, Annette realizes the mannequins bare a striking resemblance to pictures on the missing persons list...


Annette said...

Welcome back, Wil!

Mannequins always creep me out. Might be interesting to find a dead body in the midst of pile of them, though.

The possibilities are endless...

Elena said...

Wow! JC Penney is my favorite too for online shopping.