The Fall of the Mall

Our community’s annual campaign continues to move forward as we have now raised over $2.7 million – with a wonderful 6% donor-for-donor increase. Help our community continue to meet its needs and provide necessary programs and services. With only 11 days left until the end of the calendar year, please make your Campaign 2014 commitment or pay your previous pledge. Your support makes an incredible impact on Jewish life today and tomorrow.


On erev Rosh Hashanah in 2007 (or should I say 5767), the Jewish Federation offices in Atlanta (where I was working) closed at noon time. Before going home and getting ready to go to synagogue, I raced to the art house movie theater to see a new documentary titled, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. The film follows Steve Wiebe as he attempts to break the world record for the 1980s arcade game Donkey Kong. I know it sounds a bit silly, but the film is a fascinating battle between the “good guy,” Steve, and the “villain,” then current record holder Billy Mitchell. If you have never watched the movie, I highly recommend it.

I will admit I am a product of the 1980s – the movies, the music, and the culture. I was one of those kids whose parents dropped them off at the mall to spend their day walking around with their friends. And, yes, the $10.00 we were supposed to use for food and a movie was often spent in the video game arcade.

But times change and perceptions change – very quickly! Between 1982-1985 (only three short years), video game arcade revenue dropped 97% and they seemed to close overnight. No more lines to play Pac Man, Donkey Kong or Centipede. What happened? Home computers and Nintendo hit the market giving people the opportunity to enjoy video games from the luxury of their own home. But something else was happening – the concept of the shopping mall had changed, as well.

Earlier this week, USA Today ran a story titled, Are Malls Becoming Extinct? I am not a real estate developer, but this article captured my attention. According to the author it is possible that 10% of the nation’s enclosed malls will fail by 2022. Many currently have vacancy rates of 35-50%. Those malls catering to higher income levels have fared well, despite the recession, while lower-end malls are struggling. In fact, middle and low-income shoppers seem to prefer freestanding establishments anchored by “big box stores” (Target, Costco, Best Buy, etc).

The possible demise of the shopping mall has to do with differing generations. Following World War II, the “GI Generation” came home and developed the suburbs with malls as a symbol of America’s future. The malls were efficient in that they lured customers from the city to suburbia to get all their shopping done under one roof. (Jack Ukeles, a well-regarded Jewish demographer, believes that Jews typically live near their favorite shopping mall, which is one reason why Jewish communities migrated to the suburbs).

Then you have the suburban Boomers, who grew up with these new malls while they were children. But they soon soured on what they regarded “as the soulless and artificial consumerism of malls and began to champion the experience economy.” People wanted something more than just a store – they wanted to go to a place that offered more than just a bunch of stores. This lead to the development of “lifestyle (or town) centers,” which unlike enclosed malls and strip shopping centers facing a parking lot, they became open-air, walkable, mixed use neighborhoods combining business, retail and leisure activities.

This change meant that Gen Xers (my age cohort) never really saw the mall as a place to shop – it was more like a tourist destination. It was the place to go to watch a movie, play arcade games, and eat lunch. It was the perfect hangout spot for teens and young adults (the films Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Mallrats come to mind). And let’s not forget that years later this generation was the first to experience and adopt online shopping.

And then there is the Millennial generation – they were less interested in the mall in part because their parents deemed them too dangerous. According to Monitoring the Future, an ongoing study of young people, the share of 17-year olds who “never visit the mall or visit only a few times a year” jumped from 19% in 2003 to 29% in 2009. (I wonder what Monitoring the Future would find out about 17-year olds in the Jewish community and whether they visit Jewish communal institutions or not? And what will that mean going forward?)

Malls are just that…large buildings. What makes them special is what they have to offer you – your favorite store, kiosk, restaurant, place to hang out, etc. Their goal is to create a feeling for why you should go back to that location again and again. Malls may look the same on the outside, but “inside” is what will keep you coming back. The same holds true for our own Jewish institutions, yet far too many, including Jewish Federations, feel as they always have. What may have been inviting or necessary for one generation may mean very little to another. And, today, based on the Pew Study, far too many Jews do not “walk into the doors of our Jewish communal mall.”

It is time for dramatic change – for a reimagining of Jewish life in Portland – for today’s generations and tomorrow. And, in my first Marc’s Remarks of the new year on January 3, I will share a clearer picture of what that could look like.

Shabbat shalom.



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