Scott Woods: We Killed Eastland Mall, and It’s OK

Malls die by design, and Eastland is no exception.

Scott Woods
View of center court at  Eastland Mall on Thursday, December 29, 2022, which is closing after 54 years. A water line break was the final straw for the iconic shopping mall.

About a week ago, I saw a funny headline about the closing of Eastland Mall, courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch. The joke goes like this: Headline, “Water damage at Columbus' Eastland Mall leads to permanent closure.” The punchline, of course, is that Eastland Mall was dead before it blew a water pipe.

A few years back on a whim, I went to Eastland to buy some shoelaces. Nothing fancy. I’d simply somehow worn out a pair of shoelaces before the rest of the shoe, which is not how that normally goes in my world. Despite being around the corner from my house, I hadn’t been in the mall in some time. It simply never seemed to have anything I needed. My thinking was that the last shop in any mall was probably going to be a shoe store, and since it wasn’t 1983 and I didn’t need the laces to be fat breakdancing whips, I figured I could still find a pack of white ones, maybe a pair of basic black for backup. 

Walking into the mall, I was struck by how still it was, how quiet, how dead. It wasn’t just that almost no one was there. The number of empty storefronts was also alarming. You could walk for long stretches and not find a working store next to another working store. We’re talking tumbleweeds dead. It was a creepy scene, compounded by the number of teenagers roaming the walkways. Yes, teenagers are supposed to roam malls. But I mean only teenagers were roaming the mall. I couldn’t find an adult over the age of, say, 21 anywhere. And I mean in front of and behind the counters. It was “Lord of the Flies” with better hair and a food court. The shoe store (I knew it!) that I went into had a handful of teenagers leaning on the counter. I couldn’t tell who worked there and who didn’t. I just threw my money at the youth closest to the register and dashed out. It’s not like there was any security to contend with.

After 54 years, the capitalist playground that was Eastland has shut down, and while most people have fond memories, no one is exactly surprised. When Eastland lost its anchor stores in quick succession between 2015 and 2017 (Lazarus, Sears and JCPenney), there was almost no reason for most people to ever return. And let’s be honest: Most of you hadn’t been to Eastland since 1999, when Arnold Schwarzenegger blew through town to cut the red tape on Easton Town Center. If you’ve been inside in the last 8 years, you knew it was on the way out. If you hadn’t been in attendance in that time, it was probably because you thought it had already shuttered its doors, or knew that whatever might remain no longer served any purpose in your life.

Most malls die by design, but there isn’t anything natural about their demise. They’re not designed for long-term service beyond a certain qualitative level. They’re amazing at first, then good, then just OK, and finally, they become a public nuisance and fodder for illegal YouTube excursions. We can debate design decisions and business practices, but in the end, malls die because people stop going to them. Stores degrade because people stop using them. Kiosks take the place of stores because people stop shopping in them. Malls everywhere have generally never been sustainable over long periods of time. The average lifespan of a mall in 2020 was 5 years, and that was before the pandemic expedited the rate of decline. Eastland (and Westland and Northland; all the Lands) and the Continent were eaten up by City Center, which was eaten up by downtown developers, as well as Easton, Polaris and Tuttle malls. Don't even get me started on how politics and urban planning affected this. Malls are too beautiful to live.

I have many fond memories of Eastland. I spent the bulk of my childhood and teen years there. It was where I saw my first movie (Jaws). It was often my babysitter. I didn't drive until I was in my 20s, so I had to hang out at Eastland. I quite literally loved Eastland. But I also knew it couldn't last. Malls are dreamlike spaces; consumerism as fantasy. A good mall could provide legal entertainment even when you were broke, and of all the malls that ever existed in this town, Eastland was my favorite. I was there when it had two arcades, way before it had a food court. I had birthday dinners at the Brown Derby and dessert at Swenson’s (the ice cream shop, not the burger chain). I school-shopped at Chess King like I was royalty. B. Dalton’s was my first bookstore. I got my ear-pierced at Piercing Pagoda. Every other month, I fell in love with a girl I would never see again. 

Scott Woods

And yet, all of the Eastland Mall nostalgia remains mostly ironic. People act like it died a natural death, as if we didn't kill it. And look: We didn’t intend to kill Eastland. It’s a consumer game, and the game got better in other parts of town over and over again. That’s how capitalism works, and we live in a primo test market city. I’m here to tell you that it’s OK to take the hit. We live in a city that, over and over again, shows us this kind of shell game is its religion.  So really, it’s mostly a manslaughter charge. Long live Eastland.

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.