Wednesday, October 13, 2021

An Elegy for Ghetto Malls

It was this tweet and then this article that inspired me to take a stroll back in time to revisit an unfinished piece I had started way back in June about living and growing up in DC in the 80s. The original piece was part of some research I had started after I wrote this piece about my high school, and the last visit we made there as a alumna community before its demolition (which just began this past week). In the process of writing about the changes I had witnessed over the years between the District and neighboring Prince George's County, it got a little too overwhelming to confine it all to just one long-form article (therefore, it is still in draft, so you'll have to wait for it). In the meantime this more urgent matter deserves separate emphasis because it is imperative to settle the question of which DMV area ghetto mall has the better snickerdoodle cookies.

Of course it is Forestville Mall. Fight me.

But before I engage in that debate, this elegy for the ghetto mall is a lot deeper than cookies. Times and shopping habits are rapidly changing, and pretty soon it won't matter which mall had what because by the end of this decade, they might all be gone. So, in response to that original tweet, no, Iverson Mall is not still making it. (But you should keep grinding, if that advice resonates.)

When that tweet was posted at the beginning of September, I had to seriously stop and think about the last time I had been inside Iverson. Mind you, I have driven by Iverson countless times because my parents still live about fifteen minutes away. I no longer live on that side of the city, so my trips in that part of Prince George's County are generally rare. Before COVID, my parents used to like eating at the Red Lobster further down the road and I have friends that live in the neighborhoods adjacent to the Mall. I've gone to the $5 movies at the Marlow 6 next door with the Kid a few times and I might have been in that Macy's for towels or something random because I was desperate. The last time I had been in the area was before the pandemic for a house blessing.

I hadn't actually gone inside Iverson Mall in nearly 20 years.

Before I share my recent adventures there, let me say that I have been on a rather coincidental nostalgia trip back to some of the long deserted landmarks of my youth, stirred up by a series of various events that began with my Mom's Zoom birthday party back in February. Because I was determined to reach every relative I could, that drive took me to a lot of homes and hoods that haven't been in my orbit since high school. Then there was that aforementioned all-class high school reunion in June. That visit was  a surprising high point, which was then followed by the sad news of the death of a high school friend a few weeks later. On my return visit to the area for his funeral, I ended up driving past several other old haunts from my youth, including my grandparents' old neighborhood in DC. A friend purchased a home not too far from there two years ago, and I have been reacquainting myself with those old stomping grounds as well. Finally, on a whim last week, I decided to use some errand time to take a trip to Iverson.

Because of the pandemic, I hadn't been inside any mall until fairly recently. Not even my local ghetto mall, Prince George's Plaza, which I used to frequent regularly for errands. The first time I went back there was in Spring of this year when I was shopping for my daughter's birthday party. A closer Target store in the city has made it unnecessary for me to travel outside of my COVID-condensed bubble of home, the Kid's school/camp/ballet, my parents' house, and assorted errands within a limited radius. So when I had to travel into Virginia to Pentagon City Mall to pick up a pair of shoes this summer, for the Kid it was exactly like that scene from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door to Munchkin Land. And it dawned on me that her excitement was genuine because the last time she had been inside of a mall might have been when she was still being pushed in a stroller to take this picture with Santa.

And from the looks of the many vacant store fronts whether inside traditional malls, open air shopping strips, or stand-alone retail, to declare that the pandemic took a toll on brick and mortar retail is an understatement. Everywhere, even in Manhattan, we walked passed dozens of deserted establishments. My guess is that some of those store fronts will be re-occupied as some businesses and national restaurant chains re-brand new concepts. Or there will be a lot more banks and pharmacies. But a lot of that will depend on economic factors that are beyond my Busy Black understanding.

The experts say that malls are dying, and it doesn't seem to matter if we're referring to the local ghetto mall or the former upscale mall that has rapidly become a ghetto mall. Major department store anchors have closed at Annapolis Mall (Lord & Taylor), the Marlow Heights Shopping Center (Macy's), and the Bowie Town Center (Sears). I haven't gone into Mazza Gallerie in a while, but my understanding is that the Neiman Marcus closed a year ago. On my most recent trip to downtown Silver Spring, we perused the Five Below because it was the only store open at the former City Place (now Ellsworth Place Mall) after 5pm. 

I didn't even see a Five Below at Iverson.

A few days after that "motivational" tweet, I saw a similar tweet about the West End Mall in Atlanta, and that one made me laugh out loud for real. I lived within walking distance from that mall for four years and it has been at least 27 years since I've been in there. I didn't spend nearly as much time or money there as I did uptown at the now beleaguered Lenox Square Mall, but I have walked by West End whenever I've taken the MARTA to visit campus. That stretch between the station and the campus parking lot have remained unchanged, and I regard it as a last vestige of old Atlanta that only survives because gentrification had more lucrative options in the area. As it has also been the same amount of time since I've been in the Greenbriar Mall, also in the SWATS (SW Atlanta), and I am curious to see how it is still surviving as well. 

I guess the point of this analysis, short of arson and in spite of improbable odds, is that ghetto malls do manage to endure. Upscale malls decline to the point where they become ghetto malls or get redeveloped into condos, some kind of art space, or just abandoned like Landover Mall. I foresaw the fate of Lenox back in 1994 when I got locked inside the Crate and Barrell Store during Freaknik--all because Snoop Dogg and his entourage walked past the Macy's. Now that the METRO goes all the way out to Tysons Corner, it is only a matter of time before the anchor stores forget to renew their leases. Georgetown Park Mall, White Flint, and Landmark Mall are or will become redeveloped as high-end mixed-use communities. 

As for Iverson, there isn't much to see and my visit there had to be one of the saddest nostalgia journeys to date. When my Mom and I used to frequent there, we parked at the Woodward & Lothrop (Woodies) entrance, because that was usually her primary destination. We only parked in the deck if it was too crowded, typically during the holidays. On the morning of my recent pilgrimage, I had to use the parking deck because the store now occupying the old Woodies didn't appear to have a public entrance from the lot, and I could not remember where the mall entrance was on that side. Then I had a kind of Wizard of Oz experience in reverse, from technicolor to black and white (or more like that scene from The Wiz when Dorothy and friends confront him for lying to them). It was 10:30 in the morning, and half of the stores weren't open yet. I expected to see a few mall walkers, but apparently I was too late, or perhaps that effort has been dispatched to another locale or disbanded.

Afterwards, I drove over to Marlow Heights and learned that the Macy's finally gave up the ghost. I didn't even look to see if the Baskin-Robbins was still there. I drove down St. Barnabas Road and thought about making a trip to Rivertowne Commons, but decided that one retail graveyard was enough for the day, so I headed back to the strip where the Cavalier Men's Shop and the Kemp Mill Records used to be. I thought back to when it had been my dream to score a retail job at Iverson Mall instead of in the corporate office at the downtown Cavalier's, because it was closer to home and many of my friends worked there. Those were the days...

Indeed, there had been better days when life and commerce teemed from every storefront, and every nook and cranny. I wonder if the patrons that still shop at Iverson know that once upon a time in the main concourse, there had been a Jordan Kitts Music store where some of my friends took piano lessons. The pet store next door is where my brothers would go to stare at the dogs, and later where my parents bought us goldfish. We spent what felt like hours waiting to try on shoes at the Stride Rite, and then more hours waiting on my Mom to flip through the enormous pattern books at the fabric store across the way. Sometimes while we waited, we could get a slushie from Orange Julius, or maybe some fancy candies at the Fannie May upstairs. There was a costume store where my Mom bought my first ballet leotard and a few of the costumes her students wore for their performances. There was a Wilson's Leather, a Florsheim Shoes, a Lerner's, and a Hit or Miss. Although we didn't venture often to that side of the mall, the other anchor store had been Montgomery Ward.

Get a group of local Gen Xers and maybe a few geriatric Millennials together and we could go on and on about the glory days of Iverson before it became the ghetto mall where we used to shop. Shoot, there is a whole movie about how our generation came of age at the mall. So yeah, Imma need a minute or two, because this hits a little different...

However, I'm not that torn up over the reality that the modern mall concept has more days in its rearview than ahead. COVID has seen to that, aided by Amazon and the trend towards e-commerce in general. There is an ebb and flow to our shopping habits, and while I miss those marathon mall excursions with my Mom and Aunt, the truth is that I like receiving products in the mail from a more diverse assortment of businesses. For example in the golden era mall days, I bought candles from the stores that sold candles, and that was probably from an exclusive or limited number of brands. Now I can order candles from any number of small businesses, and the same is true for stationery, personal care items, and clothing. The new trend in retail appears to be the pop-up, which allows a hybrid of options between traditional brick and mortar storefronts and smaller entities that "rent" access to those patrons. Another trend that may help more small businesses grow are these food halls, which also incorporate some space for retail. Perhaps we don't really need the mega Mall of America model of retail when there are other options that aren't as dependent on the fortunes of regional and national department stores. 

If Iverson is barely making it on a tired business model that hasn't changed in over 20 years, then maybe that isn't the kind of encouragement we need in uncertain times. For all of the Black wealth in Prince George's County, Iverson is a poor reflection of all that "success". I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with shopping at stores like Roses if that is your price point (because it ain't like rich folks don't shop at Walmart and the Dollar Store). However, it speaks volumes that there are so few small Black-owned businesses occupying spaces in these ghetto malls except for nail and hair salons. That is not a criticism of the immigrants that appear to run most of the stores, but I don't see them doing much shopping or hiring...

So then the issue is us. It is our definition of "making it" and what that is supposed to look like. When I started this piece, my objective was to lament the decline of a once vibrant community space. Well I've done that, but I also realize that as long as Iverson and West End and their sister malls are still standing, there is hope that those spaces can be revived. Perhaps not restored to what they were, but reinvented into something else. 

On the same day of my trip to Iverson, I made a few more stops, including one last ride past my old high school. The demolition had begun and throughout the week, other alumnae posted pictures of the process. I posted my own and wrote about the prospect of new beginnings and perhaps that is the metaphor that we miss when we focus so much on what was or is instead of what could be. Unlike the other alumnae, I do not mourn the end of that era because the school no longer serves the purpose for which it was built. We left, and the middle school students that will inhabit the new school deserve a modern and more functional space. The same is true for the patrons of Iverson--now that we've moved on, they deserve a better mall. Not some relic of a bygone era. 

As for the snickerdoodles, one of my LRHS sisters conducted this taste test to compare the offerings and for the record, I was always #TeamForestville. As someone who could once brag that I knew every inch of both malls, I never had any recollection of getting snickerdoodles from Iverson (although we must have). If I venture back over there again, hopefully I will have more compelling reasons to go inside.

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