Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Modern Ghost Town

Gentle Reader,

We're on a road to nowhere.

A while back I took a day trip to visit three malls in my local area:  the Center Mall in midtown Omaha, the Brandeis Building in downtown Omaha, and the Southroads Mall in Bellevue.  These malls were built in different eras and in neighborhoods with very different personalities, yet they all have one trait in common.  Though each of them is still open to the public, they are all essentially dead, at least as far as retail business is concerned.  This has been the situation with each of them for well over ten years now.  Of the three, the Center has found a successful second life as an office complex.  Southroads briefly enjoyed such an existence but is now on its way to total abandonment and collapse.  All the while, the historic and quite beautiful Brandeis Building has been trying to reinvent itself as a desirable mixed-use complex of residential and business space, but with decidedly mixed results, at least so far.

A typical hallway at the Brandeis.

Let's look first at the Brandeis.  It was the original home of the JL Brandeis & Sons department store chain, and a destination in itself back when downtown Omaha was a shopping mecca.  (It's actually a great shopping area again, though only due to herculean efforts, following about 25 years of utter neglect and rot.)  Brandeis was bought out by Younkers in the 1980s and the store slowly faded from local consciousness.  I remember visiting the Brandeis many times in my youth, visiting the big store and the rare coin dealer and other shops, as well as eating at the McDonalds downstairs.  A few shops held on for a time after the big store moved out, but these were eventually replaced by office space.  I had to go there a few times in the early 2000s to pay my internet bill, and though there was no shopping to do by then, the place at least felt occupied.

Vacant business fronts at the Brandeis.

The Brandeis today is not in good shape.  The food court on the lowest level is pretty jumping during the week, and the top floors are now home to upscale condos, but woe upon anyone brave enough to explore the other areas of the building.  The first thing one notices is that it is VERY DARK.  These images are lightened up quite a bit because the originals came out almost black.  I can understand the management not wanting to waste money on lighting, but it creates an eerie atmosphere.  The other thing one can't help but notice is that the place bakes in the summer and is freezing cold in the winter.  Again, it's understandable, but it certainly doesn't make the building feel like a welcoming place to be.

Another road to nowhere.  (It's a theme.)

I understand that the condos at the Brandeis are absolutely gorgeous, and I can believe that.  The building itself is exquisite to look at, with lots of gargoyles, external lighting, and frilly decorations that give it a very Victorian feel.  The rest of the place though is foreboding and creepy, and also a feng shui nightmare, due to the way that the originally expansive areas have been divided up.  I was very surprised, while climbing a staircase that was labelled "ROOF ACCESS," to round a corner and find my face just inches away from a dark ceiling.  It really gave me a shock, like something from the Winchester Mystery House.  So, good luck to you, Brandeis.  I hope you can turn it all around, but...

Not much to do at the Center, really.

Next up is the Center Mall.  The Center was another Omaha landmark for decades.  It was actually one of the first enclosed malls ever built.  The DNA of the typical indoor mall is evident here, but one can also see that the whole concept was still in its early stages, as the setup of the Center is a bit off.  The mall consists of several public spaces over a 5-story structure.  What's odd is that some of the public spaces were originally connected only by the anchor stores, meaning that to get from one wing to the other one had to pass through the anchor stores.  This would have made good business sense for the anchors, but those anchors are no longer there, so to explore the place thoroughly, one has to go outside and walk around to one of the other exterior entrances.  One is at least shielded from the elements while doing so by the Center's other odd feature:  the entire structure is enclosed by a cage-like parking garage that winds along the outside of it.  This makes parking very convenient as all spaces are essentially right outside one door or another, but it has the side effect of giving the interior a sort of murky lighting level.  It always feels like a cloudy day inside the Center.

But at least it's clean.

With all of that being said, however, the Center was easily the happiest point on the tour.  It's sad to see all of the stores gone, as many of them were still hanging on even into my teen years, including a semi-prosperous Younkers anchor store.  Still, the entire mall is at a very high level of occupancy due to a large number of office-type businesses that have moved in.  There's no food court, but I did find self-serve snack stations, as well as a convenience store and a flower shop.  The place was empty on the weekend, but even with the lackluster lighting, it felt alive and upbeat.  Perhaps not as much as when there was both a bowling alley and a movie theater on site, but still, it's not bad, and not even slightly spooky.

The monolith.

I really wish I had a better camera.  My flip phone just can't capture the degree to which the Center is a veritable time capsule of 1960s aesthetics.  Wood panelling and dark brown tile abound, and all of the original (and quite distinctive) Center signage is still proudly in place.  The best part for me was the directory.  While the listings have been kept up to date (near as I could tell, anyway), everything about it screamed 1960s.  Today we're used to upright directory displays that are brightly colored and lit.  The Center's directory is a flat, black slab covered in tiny white backlit lettering.  It looks very much like a background prop from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  What a find, just so awesome!

Former anchor store entrance at Southroads.

The last stop on our tour is Southroads Mall.  This was by far the saddest point for me.  The Brandeis and Center were blips on the radar from my childhood, but Southroads, throughout my childhood and teen years, was THE mall in my world.  I suspect this is the case for most people between, say, 30 and 80 who live or lived in southern or eastern parts of the Omaha metro.  It was easily the smallest mall in the region, but dammit, it had heart.  Southroads was the little mall that could.  It was dwarfed by Crossroads, didn't have the ritzy appeal of Westroads, and was hopelessly dated next to the sparkling Oakview, but it remained the best place to shop for a huge section of the community.  The other malls were just too far away, so Southroads filled an important niche, and it did it well!

Just me and the tumbleweed.

There's been a lot of talk locally about what it was that killed Southroads Mall.  It's not difficult to explain the decline of this mall; the only controversy is in how great a role was played by each of the major factors.  For one, Southroads is on the extreme east side of the metro, whereas Omaha is always growing explosively to the west (as necessitated by geography).  So, as West Omaha grew and people moved west and new malls were developed out there, business shrank at Southroads.  There's also the fact that even with multiple ambitious facelifts, with bright paint and large exterior windows, the Southroads building could never be made to really feel like the newer, sleeker malls.  The most important factor, though, at least to my mind, was the development of the Kennedy Freeway.  It used to be that all traffic south, toward Kansas City and other areas, passed Southroads.  The final spiral of Southroads began after the construction of the freeway, and a quick drive down Fort Crook Road will show that the entire area has been economically blighted ever since.  That area is essentially an appendage on the south side of town, and with the cross traffic cut off, there was little to keep people coming through the area.  So, perhaps the death of Southroads was inevitable.  I tend to think so, much as I hate to say it.

Remember when...?

I moved away from southeast Omaha years ago, so I probably wouldn't shop at Southroads anymore even if it was still like it used to be.  Still, I get a little bit misty-eyed when I think back to the hubub of Southroads at Christmas, or eating lunch with my granny at the Woolworth's diner, or being treated to a new toy at Kay Bee and a gluttonous lunch at Pisa Pizza afterward.  Southroads was also the initial haunt of my teenage mall escapades, as it still had a lot of its old life left back in the mid-90s.  Even then, though, I think we all knew that the writing was on the wall.

Sorry, we're closed.  No, really.

The most fascinating part of the visit, I thought, was finding that the entire Southroads movie theater is still intact, from the ticket window to the concession area to the individual theaters themselves.  This came as a huge surprise to me, and I flashed back to all of the movies I'd seen there:  The Neverending Story II, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Hocus Pocus, The Rocketeer, Beauty and the Beast, and so many others.  I think the last movie I saw there was The Blair Witch Project, so the theater was still up and running around 1999 or 2000.  Not sure when it closed, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was one of the last elements to hang on.

Let's end it as we began it.

So what's there now?  Not much, really.  There's a gym that seems to be doing all right, and a restaurant, and a nail salon, and a couple of other small this-and-that.  The legendary Game Gallery arcade is long gone, as are all of the familiar stores, and even TD Ameritrade, who single-handedly propped up the mall for years by using the old Brandeis/Younkers suite as office space.

Is it sad to see these much-loved malls as they are today?  Yes, I have to say that it really is very sad indeed.  These aren't the only subjects I could have looked at, either.  The Crossroads Mall, situated at the busiest intersection in Omaha, died out rapidly in just a few years and is now slated for demolition.  Parkfair, an abortive attempt to jumpstart commerce near the Brandeis in the 1980s, died an early death and is now a parking garage.  Mall of the Bluffs, a very classy mall in neighboring Council Bluffs, also recently imploded.   I guess even the nicer malls are only safe until the next newest mall opens up.  It's really a downer to think about.

Humans seem to have evolved to expect permanence, but permanence is one luxury not afforded by life or nature.  Nothing lasts forever, even though it seems like it might, during the happy times.  That's just the way it is, and how it will probably always be.  C'est  la vie.

Ever Yours,

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