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In Search of the Vanishing Teen Mall Rat

Westside Pavilion is dying.

It had been a few months since I stopped by, but on a warm October afternoon I found myself standing dumbfounded in front of the gaping mouth of the Nordstrom that anchors the west end of the mall. In front of the usual bright glass facade was a curtain of steel. Behind it, darkness, misplaced furniture and mannequins.

For the next two hours I paced the mall’s long cream-colored halls. It opened in 1985 and has been a part of my repertoire of oddly peaceful spaces since I moved to L.A. for college nearly a decade ago. On that Saturday, it was beyond peaceful — closer to abandoned, really. Other, smaller storefronts were inexplicably shuttered, including the iconic staple Hot Dog on a Stick, which had left no trace of its lemonade and gaudy hats.

And many that were open appeared empty, with slow-blinking shopkeepers alternating from gazing at their phones to staring out their doorways. Macy’s was advertising a storewide blowout sale, though I could hardly find any employees to answer questions about the department store’s future. Later, I learned it’s moving out in early 2018, just like Nordstrom.

We’ve been hearing for years now that the traditional American mall is struggling in the face of sagging customer counts and fleeing retailers. I thought those storm clouds somehow didn’t make sense here, a mall located on a prime strip of real estate in West L.A., alongside one of its busiest streets. But on my recent visit, the Westside Pavilion wasn’t just missing stores, it was missing the lifeblood of any mall: Teens.

A trio of girls outside of Foot Locker corroborated that it wasn’t my imagination. “We go to the mall, but it’s not a place where you see a whole bunch of other people our age hanging out,” says 16-year-old Rosa. “We don’t, like, spend the whole day there or anything. I think there are more interesting places to be, if I had to make a list.”

Naturally, the most common of those places, Rosa and other teens told me, is the internet, which has become a dominant social space — and one that doesn’t require asking a parent to drive you somewhere. Other preferred destinations include parks, restaurants, flea markets, and on occasion, concerts or festivals.

And so, on multiple recent visits to L.A.-area malls, I more frequently saw teens shopping with parents than cruising with each other. “I don’t end up here a lot, especially not a mall like this,” says 13-year-old Evita, who had exited Express with her mom. “It’s kinda old. And I don’t have money. So there’s no real reason to come. There’s no pop-culture connection to the mall for me.”

“Is the mall still cool at all to you, whatever that word may mean?” I ask.

She pauses with a grimace and shrugs. “Uhmmmm, not really? No.”

As the only child of working parents, I lived a latchkey-kid lifestyle, except instead of going home, I pretty much ended up at the mall every day. It was my library, my fridge, a meditative place for when I was down and a joyous one for when I was feeling good. I’m sure that a new generation of mallrats are still out there, but in one notable 2014 study, investment bank Piper Jaffray estimated a 30-percent decline in teen traffic at malls between 2004–2014.

Despite a popular narrative, the blame isn’t entirely on e-commerce. Teens, for one, say they still prefer stores to pure online shopping, per market researchers. But they’re also pulled more toward restaurants and lifestyle spending (e.g., boutiques like Supreme) than traditional clothing retailers like Aeropostale and Wet Seal, which have experienced serious dips in business in the 2010s.

Meanwhile, a number of shopping centers in urban areas, particularly those with higher-end stores and non-enclosed architectures, are actually doing well. It’s the older second- and third-tier facilities that are being driven to slaughter, experts say. “Many operators divested struggling suburban centers and invested in more lucrative centers with high traffic and more premium-level stores,” noted a February market report from the firm IBISWorld. “Many small operators will sell their assets to larger management companies, resulting in higher industry concentration and fewer enterprises.”

Case in point: Nordstrom is leaving the Westside Pavilion to consolidate its business at Westfield’s Century City, a retail juggernaut less than two miles away that’s expanding, with gleaming new boutiques and chef Mario Batali’s wet-dream tribute to all things edible and Italian (the recently debuted Eataly). The airy outdoor feel is anathema to the old-school atrium and layout of most suburban-style malls, and in Southern California, that’s apparently a winning model.

To be honest, I’m not so mournful for the physical loss of the Westside Pavilion and the other shopping centers in the mall middle class. I’m mostly sad to see such an integral part of my childhood — and a cornerstone of our modern American lifestyle (despite all of that consumerism) — beginning to shift and ultimately fade away. There’s always been something beautiful (and zen?) about exploring a shitty mall as a 17-year-old kid with time to burn and 15 bucks in your back pocket.

To those born in a certain era between the 1980s and 1990s, there are few things more iconically teen than the mall. The movies tell us so, too. Whether it was as Alicia Silverstone’s personal retreat (and then hellhole, as her popularity is torn asunder) in Clueless; a stage for humiliation and redemption for nerds in Weird Science; or the center for everything in Mallrats and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

More recently, it was Mean Girls, which made a visual metaphor of the mall’s pull as a gleaming consumerist hub that emboldened our most basic instincts while also teaching us how to navigate social contracts (depicted literally as teens behaving like apes around “the watering hole,” as Lindsay Lohan’s Cady Heron puts it).

For me, the mall was initially just a place to mentally compile Christmas wish lists, thumb through books and run around while my parents browsed Banana Republic. As I got older, the mall became a lounge, a proving ground and a place to weigh my aspirations: Could I afford that Cartier watch one day, or would I have to stick with a midgrade Tag Heuer? I reached first, second and third base in the mall as a teenager, which I now look back on with equal measures of fondness and disgust, considering the weird, musty smell of those movie theater seats.

On a dare, I shoplifted a mechanical pencil at the mall (bold!). Later, I pulled stupid stunts in a 1994 Volvo in the parking lot by Sears when my buddy and I knew the late-night rent-a-cop was too lazy to give proper chase (bolder!). Finally, in a fit of adolescent wokeness, I distributed anti-McDonald’s flyers inside of a local mall McDonald’s for 40 minutes before being escorted away (boldest!).

I obviously wasn’t the only one committing innocuous crimes and protests at the mall either. Because over the years, malls have started setting curfews and generally being dickish about breaking up packs of kids with little money to spend but a lot of hormonal energy to burn. In fact, more than 100 shopping centers (of about 1,200 total) in the U.S. have now instituted curfews or bans on unaccompanied minors, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

But again, the mighty fist of the rent-a-cop doesn’t seem to be the reason why today’s teens are ditching the mall. “Even a few years ago, I think I ended up at the mall to see my friends more often, but that’s changed. There’s not much to actually do here,” says 14-year-old Teo, who was at Westside Pavilion with his father for a quick dinner. “Social media and FaceTime is the big way I stay in touch, but if I’m going to be out, I’d rather go to someone’s house or the park and save my money for some kind of event.”

So maybe the answer is less shopping and more entertaining — the malls of the future being as much of an amusement park as a place to buy clothes and home goods. In that sense, billionaire Rick Caruso is ahead of the curve in L.A. He’s built an empire of open-air shopping centers that try to mimic the energy of Main Street, USA rather than the fishbowl-like feel of older enclosed malls. For example, at The Grove, tucked into L.A.’s busy La Brea neighborhood, there are fountains and trees and fake streetcars that meander down brick-lined roads, all dappled by the Southern California sun.

It’s a far cry from the earliest enclosed malls, which were inspired by a post-Cold War era when the notion of an inward-facing, bunker-like shopping center felt more attractive. Austrian architect Victor Gruen designed the first-ever enclosed mall, the Southdale Center in Minnesota, which debuted in 1956. Historian Timothy Mennel has called it a “Cold War utopia,” adding in his 2004 study that “Gruen aimed to create not merely ideal commercial zones but complete, insular communities that would serve as templates in the (re)construction of an ideal capitalist society.” Their placement in suburban areas could also come handy in the event of a nuclear attack evacuation. Even more pragmatically, the inward-facing design of those malls (and, later, the use of architectural details like mismatched levels) helped keep shoppers circulating from one showy shop display to the next.

That part at least hasn’t changed much — especially for the non-teen consumer. “Online shopping hasn’t replaced non-online options,” says Anthony Dukes, associate professor of marketing at the University of Southern California. “People still want to walk around, look in shops, try on clothes, combine a trip with lunch and a movie. You can’t get that experience online. Experiential shopping centers are also moving toward things like flagship stores, or showrooms that save space on inventory but attract people in other ways. The Apple stores are a good example of this.”

Ironically, Gruen himself once dreamed of designing open-aired shopping experiences, with “mixed-use” elements like apartments, offices and public auditoriums to foster community. He was just a little ahead of his time as malls across America are finally adopting those exact ideas today, including in L.A. at dated centers like Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza (the renovation plans of which include luxury housing and offices above shops).

In the meantime, I keep finding time to pace the halls of the Westside Pavilion before it’s gone and reconfigured for good. I want to remember the curves, quirks and charm of a mall like this, one stretched between a bright past and an uncertain future, with tears apparent at the seams.

I don’t have long. Last year, Westside Pavilion owner Macerich declared early plans for a rehaul, which would tear down some walls in favor of windows and natural light, and rejigger the third floor to debut creative office space. This fall, however, brought different news: They’re now trying to sell within a year, per the Wall Street Journal. So if I were to bet, I’d say the mall will be razed to make way for housing, which frankly would be a better use for such expensive property in a city with a crushing housing shortage.

Still, I’ll always remember the sight of its grand atrium skylight and gleaming cream tile, the backdrop for all those teens who once roamed its PacSun and Hot Topic like I once did in a different city. Not to mention, the sensation of soaking in the feeling of a lazy weekend with not much else to do but wander.

I can’t help but miss it already.