Westminster Mall remembered

Originally published June 22, 2011, this photo essay was written only a week before the old Westminster Mall was demolished. After laying fallow for several years the site is currently in redevelopment. I recently stumbled across this piece which was a serendipitous experience as I thought it had been lost.

A Day at the Mall

A photo essay and musings of the end of the Westminster Mall by Roger L. Main

You can’t go in the side door – it’s already been closed off with a sign pointing traffic through the nearby JC Penneys or Sears – the only two remaining major department stores at the Westminster Mall. There used to be five with Dillards being the most recent to close. You can still see merchandise behind the glass, packed and ready to ship out. The lights are off and the store, like the rest of the mall, seems abandoned.

According to the directory, there’s room for some three hundred shops in five sections but the directory lists a mere thirty-seven from whenever it was last updated. I only counted four open stores as I walked through abandoned corridors. And like the building itself, their days are numbered. It’s an eerie feeling walking through a dying shopping mall. I had felt it on a much smaller scale walking along the much smaller, but equally condemned Lakeside Mall which is now a gravel pit. Following demolition no funds could be found to replace it and it stands, to this day, an almost endless abyss of dirt mounds. Apparently it’s slated to be a Wal-Mart but that rumour has been spread before.

The website deadmalls.com gives a history of dead and dying malls all around the United States and they list both Lakeside and Westminster, even though Westminster has still, technically, not been put entirely out of its misery. They also list Northglenn Mall (which, they claim, Westminster Mall knocked out of the business), Cinderella City, Villa Italia and a few others, the demise of which predates my days in Colorado.

When I was young I remember exploring abandoned warehouses in Chatswood, in the northern suburbs of Sydney, Australia. These warehouses were the homes of drunks and the homeless. Suddenly, somewhere between primary (elementary) school and high school (junior high) they simply disappeared and brand spanking new shopping malls sprang up in their place. It was a transformation – something that had gone from being fun to tool around in and get dirty to something that was fun to tool around in and hang out in – it came at a pivotal point in my life, when my childhood self, obsessed with slugs and snails, transformed into my teenage self, interested in friends. The mall became a sanctuary – I could get away from the dictums of my parents and away from the classrooms and just, well, hang out. And this transformation seemed to be happening all over the world. It was an integral part of that generation.

The 80s is badly underrated – even true Generation X don’t revere the decade to the same extent as other generations. The world is filled with people who dress like James Dean, listen to Elvis and try to find a 1958 Chevvy Impala (very cool looking car, by the way, particularly the convertible model). It’s not too hard to find a group of mop topped mods listening to the fab four and riding Vespas nor would you have to look far to find tie-dyed hippies burning incense and playing Ravi Shankar.

Even more recently there’s been the 70s revival with those pointy take-an-eye-out collars, disco and shag carpet. “That 70s Show” was to the 70s in the 90s and 2000s what “Happy Days” was to the 50s in the 70s. There seemed to be a twenty year cycle – everything old is new again. The greasers were back in the 70s, the mods came back in the 80s and disco came back in the 90s and then the rules changed – the 80s seemed to miss its turn.

And now, slowly, step by step, we’re tearing down what’s left of the decade. It’s old. It’s not working. It’s got to go.

Name a teen film from the 1980s that does not feature a shopping mall. In the 80s the mall was “it” – it was “the place”. Where did Moon Unit Zappa go to as the “Val” in Frank Zappa’s 1982 hit “Valley Girl”? Answer: The Galleria – a shopping mall. Where did much of the action take place in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”? The Ridgemont Mall (actually, Santa Monica Place with scenes from the Sherman Oaks Gallaria – the same Galleria referred to in Zappa’s song).

In the 1984 film “Moscow on the Hudson” Vladmir Ivanoff (played by Robin Williams) decides to defect. And where does he decide to do it? In Bloomingdale’s department store. And just the existence of that year was a boon to retail. In 1984 sales of George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty Four” soared, based on the name alone, fueled with the film of the book, featuring Richard Burton in his last major screen role, released in, well, 1984.

Malls were pandemic in the movies in the 80s. To illustrate this point I lend my expertise to my good friend Steve Spears’ [http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/80s/content/best-mall-movies-80s] “stuck in the 80s – Best Mall Movies of the 80s”. He lists his top five (in ascending order):

1 - Back to the Future (1985) - Marty's adventure begins in the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall
2 - Valley Girl (1983) - No discernable connection to the Zappa song, but this adventure opens at the Sherman Oaks Gallaria (yes, that Gallaria)
3 - The Blues Brothers (1980) - "The new Oldsmobiles are out early this year" - "This mall has everything"
4 - Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) - Joan of Arc, Sigmund Freud, Genghis Khan and other figures of history aren't appreciated by mall cops.

and, of course,

5 - Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) - "Did you hear that surfer guy pulled a knife on Mr Hand?" "No he didn't. He just called him a 'dick'."

It’s exactly as Steve says: “malls ARE the ’80s.”

The question has been asked of me, on many occasions, why I should care about the Westminster Mall. I first walked into the place around six or seven years ago when it was less dead but, still, unquestionably, on its way out. I was looking for a CD and had heard that there was a very good record store there. I found the store and they had the CD (incidentally, the CD as a medium saw its public debut in 1982 – another triumph of the 80s) but I wondered whether or not I would be able to find it cheaper on the Internet. And then it occurred to me – malls were dying. Why would anyone want to traipse on out to a mall when they could simply shop at home?

But looking at it now I have come to realize that these malls are more than just a place to shop. They are a symbol of our generation and of our youth. They’re reviving the old roadside diners, Route 66 is becoming more popular than ever, historical restaurants and motels are becoming tourist attractions. But they’re tearing down the shopping malls. Clearly thirty-four years is not enough to make a historical site. One day someone will find a mall in disrepair and will bring it back and everyone will wondered what happened.

And what if it were a historical site? I’m reminded of the Queen Victoria Building which, again, when I was younger, I snuck into while it was in a semi-abandoned, dilapidated state. Admittedly this building was over eighty years old when it was restored (as opposed to Westminster’s mere thirty). It’s now a landmark. But I remember my father suggesting, at the time before restoration, that it should simply be torn down – that it was an eyesore.

According to Deadmalls Westminster Mall was restored, at the expense of the owner and the city of Westminster, to the tune of ten million dollars, back in 2000 / 2001. And yet it was not enough to curb its inevitable death. Ask the locals about its demise. The reason seems to be simple neglect. The owner of the mall and the property just didn’t care that the mall was dying. The property was fully paid for and, therefore, was profit no matter how small. Eventually the city began to withhold services that it had hitherto supplied as stimulus and, as the mall fell into disrepair its death was inevitable.

After I’d walked Westminster’s hallowed halls I felt like I needed a drink so I stopped in at the local liquor store on the way home and I mentioned to the guy behind the counter that I’d been photographing the mall. He’s young compared to me, but he perked up when I brought up the subject. He reminisced that there was once a time when you couldn’t find parking. Now you can simply drive up to the front door and park (and be told to enter through JC Penneys).This was the same story I had heard from other people. Deadmalls says that “Westminster Mall still had no equal in the northern part of Denver, much less northern Colorado” but then he threw in something I hadn’t heard before. In 2000 Flatiron Crossing opened and “that just killed it,” he said. I arrived in Colorado in 1998 and I remember some hullaballoo about some mall but was too focused on other things to take notice.

As I pass yet another closed down store – this one has no sign – I notice something. I passed a still active store a while ago and they were playing music – it was the first sound I’d heard since leaving JC Penney’s and entering this mausoleum. But now I’ve passed that shop and I can still hear music. Through a tinny speaker the Talking Heads are belting out “Once in a Lifetime.” I stop for a moment and think about what the mall must have sounded like in 1981 when the song was released. I looked around and imagined all of the stores open and groups of kids sitting around on the edges of the slate and marble planters, gossiping about the latest. It’s a bustling corridor and then, as I come back to reality, the people fade away, but the Talking Heads are still playing – a little softer and a little tinnier, but they’re still there, almost as though the mall doesn’t want to let go of the past.

Walking further into the mall I see the directory. There’s a movie poster – it’s for “Despicable Me”. The poster is displaying the DVD release which I got my son for Christmas. It’s now June. When I walked through the mall with my father a couple of weeks before, there was one remaining food court store – a popcorn and hotdog store. Today, he was closed.

I’m at the far end of the mall, now. Through the window I see the security guard pulling up. Another day on the job. We get talking. He tells me that the mall has had a good run – it’s thirty-two years old (in actual fact, it’s thirty-four years old, having been opened in 1977) and, he says, on average malls last twenty-two years. That would make Westminster Mall twelve years past its prime – long due for demolition. Even my wife who worked at the Westminster Mall feels no remorse – blow it up and do something else. I’m tempted to think that this is the disposible society taken to the extreme. Perhaps she has some baggage there. Or, perhaps, like so many others, she simply sees no worth.

I’m outside of the doors of what used to be Foley’s – the first major “anchor store” to close and I can hear footsteps and I can hear voices. It’s the echo through the empty halls of the people near JC Penney’s, where I started this sentimental odyssey. But these sounds, like the Talking Heads, are ghosts, haunting the halls with memories of the past – from when it was a thriving shopping center. I wasn’t here – I was half a world away, but oddly, the place is tainted with memories of my past.

The mall was univeral in the 80s – it gave our generation the “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping” attitude that we had. The Cold War was completely non-relevant – for most of us it was that previous generation’s problem. Although I’ve had vehement arguments on this point, I like to think that it was the new-world attitude that sparked this new world. On the rare occasion when the Soviet Union allowed its people to visit the West, what did they most want to do? Visit a shopping mall and buy blue jeans.

What do they plan to do with it? Sears plans to stay, possibly JC Penney’s but the main mall is slated for destruction. Also on the 108 acre lot is a Brunswick Bowling alley that is still open, but the 6 screen movie theatre is closed and will, inevitably, be destroyed. And what will they replace it with? Box stores – those big, ugly, boxy chain stores that have no style. People complain about malls – that they have to walk all the way through them to get what they want. The solution? Drive to a boxy chain store to get what you want. Walk back to your car with your purchases, get back in your car, drive to the box store next door and do it all over again. No music, no kids hanging out, no regard for the environment, no style at all.

Many will feel relief when the wrecking ball takes out Westminster Mall. But I hope that some of us from Generation X will feel the way I do – that this is one more step in the systematic extermination of our youth.