The tiny mall in my town survived through economic recessions and department-store closing and consolidation, but now the end is on the horizon. All of the anchors except for Target and the movie theater are gone, killed off by the retail apocalypse, and last week it was sold at auction. It’s a sad story being repeated all across the country.
So, now what? What do we do with this relic of a bygone way of life, this symbol of How It Used To Be?
Maybe there’s a bigger question, too. What are we going to do with suburbia?
I grew up right smack in the middle of the Age of the Shopping Mall, the 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, malls were the biggest deal around; that’s where everybody went. Massive malls took over the earth, but so did small and medium-sized ones in town after town. They were such a craze that people started building malls in the midst of the urban downtowns they’d helped to destroy.
Whenever my family wanted to go do some serious shopping, we all piled in the car and drove from our house in Newington up to Westfarms Mall, a sprawling behemoth of a place with department stores like G. Fox and Sage-Allen, fountains, weird statues, and what seemed like an endless variety of shops. I mostly cared about the toy store and the Sam Goody next door (they sold cassette tapes), and the Doubleday book store on the second level.
I know, I know, rheumy reminiscing about old stores gone by isn’t exactly compelling, but it’s one of the cultural markers for generations of Americans. Do you remember the old G. Fox? Oh, man! And the Sage-Allen had a restaurant on the third floor!
I had a job at Westfarms, one of my first. I worked as a seasonal hire at J.C. Penney, folding shirts and ringing up customers. That’s where I got to experience the glorious desperation of men who came in on Christmas Eve, just before we closed, looking for last-minute gifts, and then the absolute hell of the day after Christmas when thousands of cranky people tried to return things they hated.
When I moved to Enfield after college, the Enfield Square mall was central to life in the town. It was — and still is in some ways — the anchor for the thriving commercial area of big-box stores and restaurants surrounding it. But the slow decline of department stores and the rise of online shopping took their toll, and when big chains like Macy’s and Sears looked for stores to close, they picked the small, less-profitable ones in Enfield.
We’re left with a mostly-abandoned building surrounded by empty acres of parking. A few stores hang on inside, but most of the traffic is for the Target. The parking lots are used by a local car dealer for overstock, and as a park-and-ride lot by CTTransit.
That’s not just a question for a single town up on the Massachusetts border, but a broader existential question for suburbia in general. Shopping malls aren’t doing so hot anywhere. The big ones are okay for now, but they’ll eventually have to adapt to changing times or face extinction as well.
And things are changing. The suburbs are built around the idea that cars will take you everywhere, from school to work to shopping and back home again. That’s how it’s been since the 1950s, but I look around and I feel certain that it can’t last forever. Besides, this kind of suburban life isn’t what everybody wants anymore, especially younger people who flocked to the cities. They want density. They want walkable neighborhoods, public spaces, and access to actual transit.
That’s what I’d like to see in my town. It’s already been done in places like West Hartford’s Blue Back Square. So why don’t we turn the Enfield Square mall into an actual town square surrounded by retail and housing, something Enfield conspicuously lacks? Why not create a walkable, mixed-use development and add to our housing and rental stock?
Places like that are destinations. People want to go there, and they want to live there. In places like Enfield, where the old “downtown” in Thompsonville was largely bulldozed in the name of “urban renewal” in the 1970s, development like this can help undo some of the mistakes of the past.
Shopping malls are dying out, and it’s hard to let go of that. But maybe from their ashes a better kind of suburbia can rise.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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