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In-person interactions have declined steadily in every single American demographic since the 1970s, a U.S. time use survey shows.Hannah Yoon/The Canadian Press

Kate Black is a Vancouver-based writer and the author of Big Mall: Shopping for Meaning.

I can’t imagine who I would be without the mall. Growing up in St. Albert, Alta., my destination of choice was West Edmonton Mall, once the largest one in the world. And it was always more than just a place to shop – or ride a roller coaster, or sunbathe at an indoor beach, or watch live dolphins dance to pop music.

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Kate Black is a Vancouver-based writer and the author of Big Mall: Shopping for Meaning.Courtesy Kate Black

As a teenager, driving with a friend to the mall was the best part of my week. Looking back now, we weren’t going there to shop, but to talk – from the moment I got into the car, to the moment we beat the early-setting sun to the parking lot. We didn’t stop talking as we idly pawed at necklaces and racks of clothes, making sense of a season of life that, at the time, felt as interminable as our Albertan winters. With the seriousness of United Nations delegates discussing international conflict, we’d analyze the horrors of pining after guys who didn’t know we existed, the ways our friends disappointed us, how our lives threatened to change with high-school graduation looming – all in this third place, away from our parents at home or our teachers and potential gossip targets at school. I finally unbuckled my seat belt after my friend drove me home, only stopping when, in the steps between her car and my front door, I would punch the code into my parents’ garage, pause, and take a deep breath.

The mall wasn’t just where I bought my annual armful of back-to-school clothes. It was a vast unsupervised place that gave me the freedom to risk becoming myself. (That the West Edmonton Mall was also home to an array of other attractions helped: I remember feeling the first pangs of being trusted when I was allowed to burn off steam on World Waterpark’s slides with my friends, and I remember first realizing my power to save myself when an errant tube trapped me underwater for five breathless seconds.)

I love the mall and hate how it felt like the only place to have a true social experience in the suburbs – and I’m not alone in feeling this way. Last weekend, at the Vancouver launch of my new book, I asked each guest to write down their own favourite mall memory. Their answers painted a charming image of early-2000s youth carving out a sense of agency: greening out in the food court, hooking up in the wave pool, asking the hot Hollister cashier for his phone number, longing after one’s first thong through the glass at La Senza Girl. A liminal space for a frustratingly liminal time, the mall was the rare place where we could be teenagers, not the big kids we were at home or in school.

But by consigning them to the realm of memory and nostalgia, we were also acknowledging that the malls of our youth are gone – perhaps permanently – and that today’s teenagers might be missing something essential from our own adolescence.

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Shoppers sit near a statue of oil field workers, at West Edmonton Mall, in Edmonton, in 2013.JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

Part of the problem, as has been widely reported, is that malls are closing, compounded by COVID-19 and the surge in online shopping. But the issues have mostly affected small community malls, which were drained of life after their anchor department stores went out of business. Many of the largest shopping centres across Canada and the U.S. are actually still thriving: According to a 2023 report by Coresight Research, top-tier American malls continue to grow their revenue, earning a combined US$7.5-billion in 2022; Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall enjoys annual sales of more than $2-billion; and the West Edmonton Mall sees an estimated 30.8 million visitors a year. But foot traffic remains lower than it was in 2019, even for Canada’s top 10 malls, which continued their downward trend; the year before, traffic had already fallen 22 per cent, according to Deloitte. And the hollowing-out of smaller malls can still leave craters in suburban communities.

With its traditional habitat in decline as a whole, the mall rat is evolving into a radically different species. Instead of the gritty, food-court-loitering Silent Bob types of the 1980s and 90s, we have the teen begging her mom to shell out $98 for a single candy-coloured bottle of retinol cream at Sephora. If she’s lucky, mom will relent, and then the teen will mine the haul for content: She’ll close her bedroom door, prop up her phone, and hit record before carefully dissecting each of the purchases – the retinol, the exfoliating toner, the cream blush – for the eager eyes of TikTok.

And all of it is done alone, unless you consider the thousands of young people who might be watching her, similarly alone in their rooms, each of them a data point in North America’s current crisis of loneliness.

The stats back up what you have probably already observed: According to the American Time Use Survey, in-person interactions have declined steadily in every single American demographic since the 1970s – a trend that predated the pandemic – but the most troubling decline can be seen among young people. In the 1970s, around 80 per cent of Grade 12 students reported hanging out with their friends at least twice a week; by 2022, that number had dropped below 60 per cent. “In fact, it is genuinely difficult to find any category of play that isn’t experiencing some kind of Mayday! Mayday! descent among this group,” Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic. “Teens are dating less, playing fewer youth sports, spending less time with their friends, and making fewer friends to begin with.”

Teens also have more leisure time than past generations, and phones have filled the void; they only seem to compound the mounting pressures on young people’s mental health. Studies have shown that loneliness and smartphone overuse have a positive correlation among middle-school and college students. A 2023 commentary in the Journal of Pediatrics observed that young people today have fewer opportunities to take moderate risks and hang out in person, away from adults – ”possibly a major cause,” the writers suggest, of the mental-health conditions plaguing the youngest generations.

These figures are depressing, and they’re enough to make me want to encase the mall of my youth in metaphorical, if not literal, protective glass. Maybe that explains the current cultural obsession with mall nostalgia: the subreddits dedicated to images of dead malls, and the popular YouTube channels (such as my hometown’s own Best Edmonton Mall channel) dutifully documenting the urban legends and collective memories of our beloved local haunts. By preserving the memory of these places, it seems we’re also trying to preserve the magic they once held for us.

Writing Big Mall, however, made me reckon with the rose-coloured glasses I’ve been wearing. We should not strive to replicate the malls of our youths to benefit today’s teenagers. In fact, if we look past the sheen of nostalgia, we can see the mall for what it is: a failed response to the loneliness of suburban life.

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Shoppers attend a Savage X Fenty Valley Fair Mall Pop-Up Shop at Westfield Valley Fair, in Santa Clara, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2018.Kimberly White/Getty Images

Businesses began organizing (and isolating) public life in the decades after the Second World War. To accommodate the soldiers coming home and the resulting baby boom, governments and banks incentivized private developers to churn North America’s fields into vast swaths of housing with hefty subsidies and low interest rates. The newest class of homeowners traded the crowded housing stock of the cities – and the typically close-knit communities therein – for lawns and picket fences of their own. They became dependent on cars and gasoline to get around, see each other, arrange playdates and hang out.

Today, research tells us that low-density suburbs are associated with higher rates of depression and fewer social ties within the neighbourhood. But even in the 1950s, it was clear to many that the suburbs were segmenting us. Those critics included Austrian-American architect Victor Gruen, who designed the very first mall, the Southdale Center in suburban Edina, Minn., as an attempt to develop a cure. Opening in 1956, his invention brought stores inside, controlled the temperature with air-conditioning and offered artwork, fountains and a garden of trees and vines to visitors in the hopes of bringing the walkable pleasures – and lively crowds – of the high street to the suburbs. The idea was a hit, but not in the way Gruen intended: Over the next decade, hundreds of malls sprawled across the newly developed plains of Canada and the U.S. This only enticed even more people to take up life out in the suburbs – a period in which social interactions began their long decline. The Southdale Center, Gruen’s vision of suburban freedom, became the prototype for the giant suburban mall as we now know it.

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Tuesday night movie crowd at the Eaton Centre, in Toronto, July 9, 1985.Hans Deryk/The Globe and Mail

Here was the flaw in Gruen’s idea: Malls, unlike downtown streets, are private property. And as such, freedom in malls has never been equally distributed – nor was it ever intended to be that way. If you were white and middle-class, these shopping centres offered the promise of walking with ease among people who looked and spent the same way you did, without the impoverished, racialized blight of the mid-century high street. They were, effectively, selling the idea of self-selecting on the basis of class and race. I know, for my part, I was never seriously punished for loitering; it is now clear to me that the freedom I experienced in the mall had everything to do with my being white and wearing Hollister. My memories of the mall may be defined by a sense of liberation, and yours may be, too – but that’s far from true for everyone.

In fact, for all the hand-wringing about what the decline of malls might mean for teens, it increasingly appears that malls don’t actually want them anyway. According to Curbed, the Target in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal Mall, which sits atop a busy public-transit hub, recently joined the growing number of mall tenants banning youth from visiting without adult accompaniment. “The reasons given run along the lines of rowdy behaviour and the comfort of other shoppers,” Kim Velsey reports. “But, really, they reflect our current mess of anxieties: the national retail panic over shoplifting shuttering the chain pharmacies that we hated a few years ago, fears about teens and TikTok, fears about teens in general (they’re never like they used to be), and some deep-seated discomfort about public and quasi-public spaces that set in during the pandemic and refused to go away.”

What, then, are we supposed to do about loneliness in a potentially postmall landscape? The answer must begin by addressing the reality that exclusion is a feature, not a bug, when the private market is given the power to determine the terms, conditions and sites of our free time. The issue isn’t necessarily a lack of third spaces, because our suburban landscapes still have them: the malls that are left, gyms, indoor trampoline parks, Starbucks and McDonald’s as far as the eye can see. They just aren’t accessible to everyone. They aren’t designed for people to linger and spend time building relationships, but for people to swipe a card and leave in an economical amount of time. Something similar can be said about the addictive virtual third space of social media, where platforms generate revenue from every idle moment in which young people pour their attention into the apps, no matter the potential cost.

It’s no coincidence that loneliness isn’t equally distributed, either. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, time alone has increased the most for low-income, non-white Americans, and Black teens have encountered a greater decline in in-person hangouts than white teens. But all youth deserve public (and publicly funded) offline spaces to be themselves – spaces that don’t require them to be productive shoppers in order to be welcomed and protected. If we take anything away from the history since the mall’s invention, it’s that we’ve only become lonelier as the mechanisms of capitalism have become more involved in our lives.

Malls are evidence of many things. They’re evidence of capital and space – the sheer volume of it held just beyond the grasp of so many – but also of humanity’s innate desire to connect, despite conditions that try to push us apart. They’re proof that despite Gruen’s efforts, one business or one building can’t solve a problem as universal as loneliness. Most importantly, they’ve shown us that the best part of shopping has nothing to do with shopping and everything to do with each other. That’s the part worth fighting for.

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