Ode To Dead Malls


The first time I stepped foot in Innsbrook Mall, I was a freshman in college still feeling out of sorts navigating an unfamiliar town. I needed my license plate renewed and did a quick search for the nearest DMV, expecting the experience to be no different than stepping into any other DMV in America. When I got there, my gut instinctively told me that I was in the wrong place. There was a small stairwell that had been roped off and two broken escalators on either side. I awkwardly stomped up the unmoving escalator and was greeted by the eeriest environment I’d ever found myself in. It was as if I’d been transported back to 1983, but as someone who usually would have been comforted by the nostalgia of the distinctively 80’s signage and cheesy jazz wafting from outdated speakers, I felt weirdly on edge. I was the only person there. Every storefront was frozen in time in a way that made it feel as if these shop owners left with the kind of hastiness only a zombie apocalypse would bring about.


The DMV experience was as uneventful as I’d expected. It was one of two shops still operating inside of the mall and was almost as stuck in time as the rest of the place (the other one still in operation was a quinceanera dress shop) But I left with a newfound obsession. The eerie feelings I’d experienced, the stark contrast between the comfort of being in what is essentially a time capsule and the adrenaline rush of being in an abandoned space that almost feels forbidden had me hooked. In true retro nostalgic fashion, I bought a film camera to capture the details of this mall I found so charming/creepy. I brought friends to see it, promising them that this was unlike anything they’d seen before. Some found it as exciting as I did, others were confused by my bizarre enthusiasm for what was basically a barren, decrepit strip mall that smelled like mothballs. After researching the mall’s history a bit more I was led to and embraced by a community of people who were as hooked on those feelings as I was.


Innsbruck Mall


Innsbruck Mall was built in 1966 and was a product of its time. America was still figuring out what a shopping mall could and should represent, and Innsbruck was not immune to this period of experimentation that dropped off during the '80s and '90s as malls became more formulaic. Innsbruck Mall had a Bavarian/German theme, with some of the storefronts designed to look like something out of a Bavarian village (but in practice ended up looking a bit more like one of those Medieval Times Dinner and a Show places). It’s two big “anchor” stores were a Winn-Dixie and a Brendle’s Catalog Showroom, which went out of business in 1996. The mall was considered more or less “dead” after its closing, meaning that Innsbruck hasn’t been in operation (besides the DMV and quinceanera shop) in over 25 years. This left me with so many unanswered questions. What system was the quiet overhead music running on? It was such distinctively '80s mall music I could only assume it’s remained largely unchanged throughout the decades. When was the last time the hilariously overgrown indoor plants were pruned? And most importantly, what did this mall look like in its heyday? I was lucky enough to come across an absolute gem of an ad for Innsbruck from the mid-'80s, one that perfectly encapsulates the cheesy optimism that was '80s consumerism (and one that will be stuck in my head for years to come).


I discovered early on that this dead mall obsession was a very specific phenomenon that attracted people on a deeper level than the hobby of urban exploration in general. People were drawn to the nostalgia of '80s and '90s hyper-consumerism, memories of childhood innocence, the feeling that these spaces were such an essential and permanent part of American culture. The downfall of the shopping mall came as little surprise following the rise of online shopping, but it still represented the death of an iconic cultural institution. The ability to experience these once perfectly manicured, impressively modern spaces as overgrown, deserted, outdated ruins is such a unique experience. Each dead mall represents more than just an abandoned space, it represents abandoned memories and the death of a more carefree and optimistic way of life. It’s similar to what draws people to Vaporwave as a genre, that yearning for a place in time that exists only through relics like music and defunct technology. There’s actually a huge overlap between these two communities, and retro nostalgia is what bonds the two.  

In some ways, my skeptical friends had a point. They are just abandoned spaces, no more than a few boarded up shops and outdated signs advertising things at hilariously low '80s prices ($3.99 for jeans is one I’ll never forget). Is there really a significance to this eerie, forgotten place that will soon be demolished? If the people I’ve met online throughout this journey have taught me anything, I’d say yes. There are few things that sum up what the 1980s represented better than a shopping mall. And to experience the somber remnants of that is the coolest experience. I’ll never forget my Innsbruck Mall experiences and I’ve made a point of exploring other abandoned malls around the country. If there are any near you (which, with the rate of mall closures in the past 20 years, there’s a good chance there is) I’d recommend checking it out and getting those mothball induced goosebumps for yourself.


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