06 November 2014
The Archaeology of Consumerism in America: A Closer Look at “Dead Malls”
Shopping malls throughout the United States have managed to directly affect the consumer culture of our nation through a variety of ways. Since the rise of suburbia America in the 1950s, long Christmas lines at the department stores, greasy food and the smell of movie theater popcorn all have a soft spot in the hearts of many Americans. The shopping mall was more than just a symbol of rising consumerism; it was (and still is) a social center where human interaction occurred on a daily basis for many teenagers and young adults. However, the future of shopping malls has become rather bleak, according to the Green Street Advisors, a team that analyzes real estate throughout the country, “about 15% of U.S. malls will fail or be converted into non-retail space within the next 10 years.”1In this essay I will be looking into the reasons of how and why American shopping malls are in the downfall across the nation. By looking at the remaining features and artifacts found inside “dead malls” there may be answers to how American consumerism has changed, whether that is because of a of demographic shifts or changes in interests through fads and fashion.
Most of the dead malls that have been around for decades show the same picture: falling debris, abandoned stores and broken fixtures. However, the main focus in archaeology is to see how these features manage to show a history and what it can tell us about human behavior in a consumerist culture. By looking at the detail of what is located inside each dead mall, as well as its location, one can decipher the true reasons for what could have led to the death of the mall itself and how this is moving forward in the future of mall culture in America. Dead malls are subject to human activity “post-mortem”, per say, which can help reveal secrets about the area around the mall and how it affected the mall itself. In order to go more thoroughly into this I will focus on the history of Cloverleaf mall, located in Chesterfield, Virginia. Cloverleaf mall closed in 2007 after thirty-five years of being part of the nearby city. Figure one in the appendix below will show a clear picture of what used to be the food court inside the mall. The picture shows human interaction after the mall was closed: the desk in the middle with a careful arrangement of chairs and tables around it as if people were still congregating in this space. Multiple chairs and tables throughout the picture allow one to think that the use of this space is not only frequent, but most likely popular. Using the middle-range theory, a conclusion to the reason for why these people use these items in this space is most likely for social reasons and they either lack the resources to do so somewhere else, or would rather do so privately. People who tend to do this are of lower-class, for abandoned areas work as great convergence areas for crimes and other activities.2 Lower-class people aren’t often welcome in commuter areas and they, too, are drawn into social settings like that of malls. In actuality, the Cloverleaf Mall began to decline because, “People started seeing kids with huge baggy pants and chains hanging off their belts, and people were intimidated, and they would say there were gangs” as stated by a resident of Chesterfield during an interview with the local newspaper.3 By looking at the different layers of human activity, such as the way archaeologists use depositional layers in the field, we can uncover the history of different malls and how they come into play from their rich past to decaying present. The Cloverleaf mall still presents some recent human activity and despite its current state, the same type of outsiders who came in the past seem to be coming in the present. Consumers did not welcome these seemingly unfriendly visits, creating a lack in costumers that eventually