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The car ride there is mostly silent. I think we all recognize the strangeness of the trip. None of us are the sort who would go to a mall, let alone a mall 30 minutes outside town. But this place is different. It’s a dying mall. Along the way, we pass the new, bustling Richmond Centre, catch a brief glimpse of the Eastern Kentucky/Murray State football game, navigate our way through the vast stretch of sprawl that characterizes Nowhere, USA. Among the dilapidated strip malls and asphalt deserts lays our destination: Richmond Mall.

Circle of Sprawl

Opening in September 1988, Richmond Mall is new by mall standards, and in the world of sprawl real estate, new seems to mean everything. The mall enjoyed surprising early success, despite the three large malls in Lexington. At the time, these were Turfland Mall, Lexington Mall, and Fayette Mall. The first two have since closed; one is now a vacant lot, the other a megachurch.

In its early years, Richmond Mall was the commercial hub of Richmond. Back when the three anchor stores – the industry’s term for the larger stores that draw shoppers into the mall – kept customers coming in, the vacancy rate was relatively low, and a number of smaller stores filled the halls connecting the JCPenny to the Sears. As most malls were dying by the time I reached high school, I always found a photo of my cousin and I trick-or-treating in Richmond Mall downright bizarre. Despite their reputation as the ugliest, most vapid manifestations of suburban sprawl, Richmond Mall, like many others, offered something akin to a public space. Given the increasing isolation of American life (whether through cubicles, cars, or cul-de-sacs), one can understand why consumers appreciated what malls had to offer. As six-lane roads and miles of parking spaces took our daily transportation out of the public sphere, malls offered us a place to again see and be seen.

None of this was enough to save Richmond Mall. Subsidized infrastructure literally paved the way for a new shopping center just off I-75, and the cycle of sprawl continued as Richmond Centre (note the wholesome, Old World spelling) slowly cannibalized Richmond Mall. Meanwhile in Lexington, an emergent Fayette Mall and the new Hamburg Pavilion slowly killed off the Turfland and Lexington Malls, further consolidating central Kentucky’s commercial activity, leaving little room for Richmond Mall. By 2014, two anchors had fled, the food court was boarded up, and most of smaller stores had cleared out. Richmond Mall was barely hanging on.

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Welcome to the Ghost Plaza 

We roll up in my ’94 Volvo at around 2pm. From the outside, the mall looks like a giant cement brick, like something the Nazis might have left behind as they fled advancing Allied forces. The long stretches of blandly painted cement brick are punctuated by barebones store fronts, typically no more than a space for a door cut out of the wall, a small window or two with the blinds pulled down, and a polyester sign indicating to passersby which local business occupies that hole at this particular moment. I suspect the shops have refocused outward as the inside of the mall has become something reasonable people might want to avoid.

Below the fading “Richmond Mall” sign, complete with an image of frontiersman (invoking some sort of heritage, I suppose?), we enter into what might be called the living half of the mall. Sure there’s the dead “Abundant Life” store, that seems to been at various times a loan brokerage office, a music shop, and a church. But a few chain stores cling on, including a Claire’s and a Bath and Body Works. Mismatched furniture, likely salvaged from the now-replaced food court, fills the hallways of the mall. Exhibited most visibly by the furniture, excess characterizes so much about the mall. Grand walkways sit almost totally empty; storefront after storefront is boarded up. A guard station sits abandoned.

As we move deeper into the mall, signs of decay communicate a decade of decline. Worn out, pastel colored floor tiles bounce fluorescent light around the walkways and onto the glass of empty storefronts. The space seems at once both bathed in light and unsettlingly dark. A curious mix of dust and cheap cleaning supply fumes floats through the air. Music goes back and forth from kitschy Christmas to the inoffensive Muzak that has been embraced by Mallsoft and Vaporwave enthusiasts. Where the old food court used to sit, the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store now serves, literally perhaps, as a poor man’s anchor store.

Along a corridor to the right, we find where the old J.C. Penny used to be. Sitting adjacent to the former J.C. Penny’s – briefly used as a Halloween store this year – sits a Cici’s Pizza, which seems to be doing well. In the center, we find the first of the mall’s four “plazas,” a curious mix of cheap Christmas decorations, uncomfortably small tropical plants, and unused plastic furniture. Off to the side sits a broken “Hurricane Simulation” machine. None of us has any idea what that could entail, but Adam finds it fascinating.

Moving further from the “lively” section of the mall, we pass a long strip of abandoned storefronts: an abandoned restaurant that shows signs of rat damage, an empty Karate gym, a failed nightclub. The walkway is empty, save for a lady sitting at a table studying a Bible, and an older couple powerwalking. Eventually we reach the mall’s main plaza, an assortment of tropical plants surrounding an old, plastic Christmas tree. A clump of broken lights sits on a small bush. Signs advise that non-existent parents keep watch over their non-existent children. Every shop, except for a Furniture World Superstore, sits empty. Some of the storefronts seem to have emptied years ago; some give the impression that their owners simply vanished last week. A shuddered “Used Prices Travel” shop offers an invitation to escape the mall’s faux-tropics aesthetics, perhaps for the real thing. A boarded-up military recruitment center offers shoppers the opportunity to escape this non-community.

The last plaza lies in front of a Sears, the only anchor store to remain in the Richmond Mall. This one is an odd mix of Christmas decorations, tropical plants, and lawnmowers with “unbeatable” prices on display. We exit and start to walk around the outside of the building. What used to part of the anchor store, possibly a Dillards, is now the “Blue Grass Chemical Agent – Destruction Pilot Plant.” God knows what this entails, but it requires a keycode to find out. An EPA Waste Management facility takes up another chunk of the old shopping destination. Door after door warns patrons against bringing their firearms onto the premises. Cameras watch all entrances, perhaps to protect people from the sad space that the inside of the mall has become. A “No Smoking” sign curiously sits next to an ash bucket. Speed bumps and pedestrian signs litter the asphalt desert, ensuring that the non-existent drivers don’t hit the non-existent pedestrians.

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Pastel Utopias

Richmond Mall has, like so many other dying malls, many of the qualities of a failed utopian vision, a failed attempt to reimagine urban life. The grand arcades and markets of old were physically, economically, and politically ingrained in cities, so much so that to think them as objects independent of the cities they inhabit strikes us as bizarre.

In contrast, modern shopping malls deliberately aim to be independent of the community, a separate urban sphere of their own, accessible only by automobile through a limited number of curb cuts. Colorful signs and playful lettering guide the visiting outsiders as they leave their world and enter the mall’s. In their prime, they proudly showed off their national chains while quietly avoiding the fact they effectively cut off any local or emerging enterprises, any spontaneous social activity, through their attempt to monopolize the connection between commerce and the public sphere. Malls even go so far as attempt to offer the illusion of political autonomy, in the form of strict codes of conduct posted at the door and security guards (if comically benign) regularly making the rounds.

We see in Richmond Mall the result of such a utopia failing. As newer utopias attract customers, stores slowly leave, culminating in one or two anchor stores jumping ship. Increasingly shoppers see less value in committing their time to the mall. Smaller chains, dependent on the drawing power of larger stores, slowly die off or leave. Desperate for revenue, mall managers accept anything and everything, permitting thrift stores to replace food courts and Halloween Expresses to enjoy the grandeur of a former JCPenny. Without these anchor stores, the mall’s isolation from the community now becomes a liability. Security guards are cut to save funds. Fewer and fewer funds are dedicated to cleaning and maintenance.

The failure of malls might be attributable to new sprawl developments, online shopping, or recovering downtowns. But we might also consider their decline the inevitable result of the mall’s arrogance. It thought it could fake a public sphere. It thought it could fake urban living. It thought wrong. Malls tried to centralize and control the shopping experience. They tried to eliminate uncertainty, segregate uses, and secure steady revenues for participating enterprises. They failed. But they’re a fascinating failure to stroll through.

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Writing by M. Nolan Gray, photography by Travis Keene (02/02/2015)

This piece was originally published in the Winter 2015 edition of RiFLe. There you’ll find more photos of the Richmond Mall by Travis Keene. 

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