Weekend Wanderlust: Travel through time in Ohio's dying malls

Kevin J. Elliott
Forest Fair Village mall in suburban Cincinnati

As a 13-year-old in suburban Dayton, Ohio, the Salem Mall was a universe of popular culture all under one roof. A typical Saturday afternoon in the early ’90s was spent strategically mapping my limited time there, zipping through the neon-lit plazas, up the escalators to the cavernous arcade adjacent the food court, or to Camelot Records to score the latest Prince cassingle. The Salem Mall was a shrine to consumerism and an adolescent social utopia.

Instead of saving my meager income as a paperboy, I drained it on Air Jordans from Foot Locker, copies of MAD Magazine at Waldenbooks, G.I. Joe characters in Kay Bee Toys and cheesesteaks from Charley’s. That haze of memories, most pointedly the decade between 1985 and 1995, though steeped in capitalist consumption and blatant commercialization, shaped how I interacted with the world at large. If I reach far enough into my psyche, I can still smell the hot pretzels at the Hills lunch counter and see my reflection in the obsidian facade of the Chess King. For better or for worse, I’m a child of the mall generation.

Sadly, the Salem Mall is no more, razed in 2006 to make way for, ironically, more shopping. Same goes for many of the celebrated landmarks of my youth. I’d pay good money to be transported back to a vintage ShowBiz Pizza Place, complete with a Rock-afire Explosion performance. Sure, the “mall” as a concept still lives in sprawling, open-air configurations, but they’re all designed with the same bland aesthetics and all stocked with the same big-box chains. They lack the personality and the indulgent signifiers that defined the biosphere-esque realms of Columbus’ City Center or Akron’s Rolling Acres Mall, the latter of which became an iconic symbol of a bygone era, shuttered and left to rot.

According to Matthew Newton in his micro-treatise Shopping Mall, “The mall has in many ways become a monument to the aspiration of post-Second World War Americans, whose embrace of the suburban dream was obsessive yet earnest, hard-won but fleeting.” Still, poke around the outskirts of more than a few mid-sized Ohio towns and you’ll find many of those monuments standing, albeit in a state of utilitarian flux.

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On a lark a few years ago, I took my girlfriend on a date to Eastland Mall. Built in 1968, it was one of the first of its kind in Central Ohio, and it thrived until the advent of Polaris and Easton ushered in a huge decline to our local malls. The anchor stores (Sears, JCPenney, Lazarus) that once dominated the landscape of Eastland have long been gone, but their skeletons remain, dark and vacant. Despite that somewhat dystopian languor, we had an entertaining evening filled with waves of nostalgia, wide open spaces and a newfound appreciation for the dying malls of Ohio.

At about 50 percent capacity, Eastland is now inhabited by what I’ve found in most of these dying malls, namely empty storefronts that conjure ghosts of the past (was that a former Bath and Body Works or a Hickory Farms?) and filler businesses that prove the social functions of the mall are still needed. Should you craft a bingo card for dying malls, each one is likely to score a nail salon, a head shop, a church, a revival arcade, GNC, Spencer’s Gifts (if you’re lucky), a daycare or bounce house, community rooms, antique stores and the ubiquitous tribe of mall walkers.

Traveling to the remaining dying and dead malls of Ohio has become a passion project. Each one is a singular choose-your-own-adventure endeavor. Plus, mall exploration is easy and virtually free. Once I started posting my finds to Instagram, I found an entire community of dead mall enthusiasts who share stories, tips and warnings (especially for the places not “officially” open to the public), most with obsessions far exceeding my own curiosity. Although, in full disclosure, the amount of stars on my Google Map — Woodland Mall in Bowling Green, Midway in Elyria, Colony Square in Zanesvillle — reflects an unhealthy addiction.

Most of my favorite visits, like the Upper Valley Mall in Springfield, sit in desolate parts of town. Most are depressingly empty and echo with each step. But at each location, there’s something achingly beautiful to behold. Whether it’s the scope of the mid-century architecture that flanks the Lima Mall, with massive concrete arcs, mirrored windows and aquamarine tiles, or the common areas of Towne Mall Galleria in Middletown, which still boast fountains, pastel benches and fake palm trees, these malls are monuments to a moment in time. As Matthew Newton suggests, “Entering the mall is like tuning into an unbroken neural frequency, a signal at once individually unique yet universally relatable.” Touring a dying mall is as close to time travel as one can get.

A highlight of my travels this past summer was seeing the expansive, stuck-in-amber marvel known as Forest Fair Village in suburban Cincinnati. Opened in 1988, most of the million-and-a-half square feet of original mall is still walkable, even though only four stores remain. Forest Fair is a perfect example of Ozymandias ambition gone haywire. There was once an indoor amusement park, two theaters, a massive nautical-themed food court and a central plaza boasting flying pig sculptures and glass skylights. All of it has now gone dark. One has to wonder why a place of this size is still standing and what will become of it.

Without the people, what is the function? That’s certainly central to photographer Michael Galinsky’s recently reissued book, The Decline of Mall Civilization. In his snapshots of ’80s mall culture, it’s the people who give the mall life and vivacity. He even posits that, at their height, malls were more of a social hub than the internet is now. “I appreciated the ways in which malls brought people together through open spaces inside,” Galinsky said via an email exchange. “What I was looking for in my photographs was the way in which people interacted in public spaces.”

Indeed, the allure of the mall was more about the experience than it was about the convenience. With my trip to Eastland Mall, seeing the slight uptick in activity, the new uses of empty space, the want for interaction, I’m hopeful. While it may be too late to save many of the places I’ve visited, there’s a sense that we are headed in the right direction, at least, for humanity’s sake.

  • In Columbus, the best specimen for mall exploration is Eastland Mall, a visit to which can be complemented by dinner at the excellent Bangkok Thai and the hugely successful Otherworld complex.
  • Beyond the outerbelt, I can wholly endorse Forest Fair Village as a full day trip, as the equally enormous Tri-County Mall and the iconic Jungle Jim’s International Market are only a few miles away.
  • Always check the internet for hours of operation and keep expectations low. That’s part of the fun in discovery when it comes to dead malls.

Tips for dying-mall explorers