When photographer Seph Lawless was growing up, he spent much of his childhood in the massive Randall Park Mall in North Randall, a village just outside of Cleveland, Ohio.
“Some of my earliest memories there were hanging out with my friends, going to the arcade and window shopping,” he said over the phone. “Malls were communal spaces; they were gigantic chat rooms before the internet ever existed.”
Randall Park Mall opened in 1976 during America’s mall boom, when sprawling retail complexes were designed to be at the heart of their communities. It was one of the largest indoor malls in the country, with more than 200 shops. Developer Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. promised it would be “a city within a city.”
Lawless returned to the deserted shopping center with his camera — at first illegally, and eventually with permission — to photograph a space that he had once seen as a source of comfort and nostalgia.
The photographer is known for shooting America’s abandoned architecture, including hospitals, schools and theme parks. His images often go viral, tapping into the internet’s fascination with “ruin porn,” as well as unease or surprise about the state of forgotten American towns.
“(The) people who live among these ruins are some of the most poor and disenfranchised Americans in the entire country,” Lawless said. “I knew that their issues were being ignored, too.”
Lawless’ forthcoming book “Abandoned Malls of America” includes photographs of more than 20 “dead” shopping centers, many of them extensively vandalized in the years since they were shuttered.
Others have been demolished entirely since Lawless documented them. The three malls that he grew up with in Ohio (all of which are featured in the book) have been torn down and rebuilt as Amazon warehouses — an irony not lost on Lawless. “Amazon had a huge role in the collapse of malls, and stores in general,” he said.
Following the Great Recession of the late 2000s, dozens of malls closed their doors, strained by the American economy and the shift in buyers’ shopping habits from in-store to online. In 2017, a report by Credit Suisse estimated that a quarter of the 1,211 malls dotting the American landscape would also close by 2022. It’s a nationwide issue, and Lawless’ book shows the effects in every part of the country, from Los Angeles to Birmingham, Alabama.
For Lawless, it’s not just derelict malls that resonate with him, but all architecture left to decay. “I grew up in the ruins of the Rust Belt,” he said. “At any given point growing up, I could turn around 360 degrees, and in the backdrop wasn’t mountains, it was rusting, decaying factories and abandoned (places)… It was just our way of life.”
Malls, in particular, have provided an abundance of jobs to the cities they were built in, Lawless emphasized. They sometimes offered civic services like trash removal and snow plowing — so when they fail, their communities are hit hard.
Sadness and unease permeates Lawless’s photographs, which are heavy with signs of human presence and absence. Vandals have often visited the empty shopping centers, and the images show cobwebbed windows, trash in stagnant fountain water and damaged ceilings.
Customer services signs hang over empty corridors, broken glass litters the floors and the imprint of malls’ names are left on signs where letters used to hang. Once vibrant interiors are no longer comforting, but uncanny without crowds of shoppers.
In Rolling Acres Mall, one of the three Ohio centers that Lawless grew up with, he photographed it before and after snowfall, showing an atrium layered in white powder. “Look at where we’ve come as a society… it’s this ugly capitalistic side (where) you just consume,” he said. “Now (malls) are a former shell of themselves. It’s bittersweet in a way.”
Lawless emphasized just how much American shopping malls have changed since the country’s first opened in 1956. Southdale Center, in Edina, Minnesota, was the brainchild of Italian immigrant Victor Gruen, who is considered the father of the modern mall. His designs were so ingenious — and manipulative — that the term the “Gruen effect” is used to describe how a shopping space is designed to disorient shoppers and encourage impulse purchases.
Yet Gruen also wanted to bring European sensibilities to the American mall — namely the aesthetically pleasing and relaxing atmosphere of an Italian piazza. He eventually became disillusioned with his own creation and exasperated with developers who were only looking to profit quickly, with no care for design. Lawless dedicated his book to Gruen, quoting a speech the architect gave in which he said American malls had “no future at all.”
Forty years after his death, Gruen’s prediction may now be coming true. But he couldn’t have known how shopping would change. “Consumers now want to drive right up to the Apple Store…go in, buy something, come out and leave,” Lawless said. “As consumers change, so does the landscape.”
As more malls close down, the question remains: What can be done with the buildings that remain? Around the country, shopping centers have been retrofitted to suit new needs in their communities.
Highland Mall in East Austin, Texas, has become a community college; Lexington Mall in Lexington, Kentucky, has been reimagined as a megachurch; and Villa Italia Mall in Lakewood, Colorado, has been redeveloped as a series of open-air plazas and parks.
But Lawless, who favors community re-use over e-commerce warehouses, still feels deep nostalgia for shopping malls.
“In Randall (Park Mall) I remember feet shuffling,” he recalled, “I remember the stories, I remember exactly where I was when I was 7.”
“Abandoned Malls of America: Crumbling Commerce Left Behind,” published by Skyhorse, is available from March 31, 2020.