Where Malls Go To Die

Many malls will see a surge this holiday weekend, with approximately 137 million people on the hunt for Black Friday sales. But not all malls will fare that well. The Web site DeadMalls.com catalogs dead or dying malls across the country.

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The Business News starts with Black Friday and darkened malls.

In retail circles, the day after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday. You didn't think you'd get through the day without hearing it, did you? It is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Approximately 137 million people are expected to go shopping this weekend. The National Retail Federation says that's 7 million more than last year.

Now, not all malls will see a surge in shoppers, and the ones that do not capture the attention of Peter Blackbird. Six years ago, Blackbird and a friend started a Web site devoted to faded and forgotten malls. And today, deadmalls.com has a following they never anticipated.

NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

Mr. PETER BLACKBIRD (Deadmall.com): If you look a little to the right, you could see the old entrance to Bradley's and…

JIM ZARROLI: Pete Blackbird stands inside the dusty, dimly lit corridor at the Riverside Center in Utica, New York. Riverside was once a popular mall but it was torn down a few years ago and replaced by big-box stores. This wing of the old mall is still standing, unused however. And on this gray Sunday morning, Blackbird and his childhood friend Brian Florence have come to take pictures for their Web site, deadmalls.com.

Mr. BLACKBIRD: But you can see just a little bit of where it says food court. …Montgomery Wards.

ZARROLI: Blackbird and Florence have spent a lot of weekends looking at abandoned and boarded up malls like this. They've had to dodge security guards and homeless people, even once a pack of feral dogs. Blackbird says they love the frozen-in-time look of old malls.

Mr. BLACKBIRD: It's a little time capsule. You walk in and you look around and you can see - you go, oh, this mall was built in the early ‘80s. I can tell by the fixtures and the colors and tiles that they used on the floor. And look at the stores that were here when it was here. You see a gap from…

Mr. BRIAN FLORENCE (Webmaster, Deadmall.com): Did you know where they're from?

Mr. BLACKBIRD: - the 1970s and it's still got the old logo and nobody bothered to update it.

ZARROLI: The information they collect goes on deadmalls.com, which is a kind of compendium of snarky(ph) comments and loving anecdotes about hundreds of old malls. Not all the malls on the site are actually dead; some are just on life-support.

After leaving Utica, the pair head toward downtown Rochester to visit Midtown Plaza, which has had trouble attracting customers. It turns out to be closed on Sundays. But amazingly, as they stand peering through the glass doors, they meet some other dead mall fans who've come to see the mall and they swap stories about terrible malls they've seen.

Mr. BLACKBIRD: And then they had a - like a Santa Claus display one Christmas, they never took it down. So, it was right there in July and they let the roof leak into the cotton, it was supposed to be the snow. And it turned into mold stew.

ZARROLI: Blackbird and Florence know lots of mall aficionados like these. The Web site has had about 600,000 visitors over the years and it relies heavily on contributors. As its following has grown, so has its influence.

Just outside Rochester, the two men visit Medley Center, which used to be known as Irondequoit Mall. The site's new owner, Adam Bersin, wants to get his property taken off the site.

Mr. ADAM BERSIN (Owner, Medley Center): That Web site, believe it or not, is looked up by a lot of people, including Wall Street. When I told Peter that a number of the investment bankers that do commercial mortgages, when you - if you bring a turnaround project to them, one of the first places they look for their research is deadmalls.com.

ZARROLI: Bersin takes them for a tour. Unlike a lot of dead malls, Medley Center is clean and modern and still has its anchor stores. But Blackbird can't help noticing there are a lot of empty stores, which is the definition of a dead mall. Even the Payless shoe store is closed, and Payless is usually the last to leave a mall.

Mr. BLACKBIRD: You know, is Original Cookie there? I see it's now open or…

Mr. BERSIN: It's still a local tenant that came in, they operate it with this sort of - when they want to operate, they do. Right now, they're not open, which is unfortunate.

ZARROLI: Blackbird isn't thrilled to hear that commercial lenders use the site for research. He's a 26-year-old college dropout who works for the State of New York, and he and Florence, who's the webmaster, do the site part-time. It's a hobby. They're amateur archeologists. The men love talking to people about old malls. People, they say, have a lot of happy memories about them.

Mr. BLACKBIRD: When these malls die, people really care.

ZARROLI: Why do you think that is?

Mr. BLACKBIRD: I think it's because they spent so much time there. And when something like that comes to an end, it's hard to let go.

Mr. FLORENCE: What kid didn't go to the mall and bring a bunch of quarters and go to the arcade?

Mr. BLACKBIRD: Or, you know, you spend time at the record store or you just go - went to the mall to spend time. You know, kids don't go to Wal-Mart and hang out. Or maybe they do, but what fun is that?

ZARROLI: And there's something else. As big-box stores proliferate, many of the weakest malls are being torn down. The retail industry thrives on novelty and change. So once a mall is gone, it can be hard to find any record of it. As the oldest malls disappear from the landscape, the two men are trying hard to keep their memory alive.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Rome has the ruins of the Ancient Forum. Look what we've got.

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