The End of Austin

an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas

Familiarity in (Sub)Urban Form: The Death of Highland Mall?

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Where do malls go when they die? They go to deadmalls.com, or, alternatively, Facebook. In 2009, deadmalls.com visitor “Susan” warned that Austin’s Highland Mall was one foot in the grave:

“I would estimate that about 40% of the mall is vacant, and it’s falling fast. In the two remaining anchor stores (Dillard’s and Macy’s), large sections of the stores were walled off! In Dillard’s they’ve done away with two whole floors of merchandise, and Macy’s had about 1/3 of an upper floor walled off.”

But death did not come swiftly for Highland Mall. User Mike Massey checked in on the mall’s slow decline in January 2011:

“Dillards closed their big store a few years back and wants to close their smaller store, and Macy’s (formerly Foley’s) announced it’s closing its store in the next two months. That’s all the anchors…. Anyway, I wanted to walk the mall one last time. I don’t get down there much, we live in the northern suburbs now, and I wanted to see it again.”

I know how you feel, Mike. I never had a chance to say goodbye to my childhood mall.  Lakehurst Mall of Waukegan, Illinois, was built the same year as Highland—1971—and was a mere shell of its former self when I went off to my junior year of college in 2004. By the time I came home for Christmas, she’d been leveled. I did my holiday shopping at Amazon that year.

Macy’s and Dillards be damned! Highland Mall lives on! Her pavements are cracked and oil-stained. Her anchor stores are shuttered and haunting. Sure, The Domain offers a high-brow aesthetic, and Barton Creek Mall has its Cinnabon (I’m guessing), but, at forty-three years old, Highland Mall still has a bargain or two hidden up her sleeve.

Or so I imagine. Something must be bringing shoppers to Highland Mall. She’s got a detectable, albeit faint, pulse. Yes, her extremities have atrophied; they’ve been sacrificed to salvage her vital organs:  Lids, Footlocker, Zales. Despite her grim prognosis she’s still home to at least fifty operating businesses, according to the online store directory.

I’ve been fascinated by Highland Mall since I moved to Hyde Park about a year ago. I first came across it while jogging along Airport Boulevard, and soon began incorporating a circuit around this beige Mecca into my running route. It’s hard to articulate my fascination with the place. I’m drawn to Highland Mall the way Richard Dreyfus was drawn to Devils Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It speaks to me. Our connection is psychogenic, potentially paranormal.

I have no interest in exploring the inside of the mall; it’s the exterior space that consumes me. When I first saw the architecture of the complex, I recognized it instantly from the now-deceased Lakehurst Mall of my childhood. You might call it Brutalist Lite. The unforgiving, seamless blocks of concrete are present, but lacking are the geometric flourishes that resemble tank tread. Brutalism for the suburban family, you could also call it. I can almost taste the Happy Meal in my mouth.

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Stripped of any signage, the mall buildings look naked, almost vulnerable; they have the presence of laboratory specimens, frozen in time. The surrounding ocean of parking lot only enhances the impression that this half-dead mall has been put on a pedestal for display. In this state, with the expansive parking lots wide open, the profane blemishes of commercial signage removed, the trees mature in their tiny square patches of earth, the Highland Mall may more than ever resemble its original blueprints. I wonder if the architects have paid Highland Mall a visit since she turned 40.

As it turns out, not all dying malls meet the same fate. Austin Community College purchased Highland Mall in late 2011, and has begun to convert a large portion of the mall to educational space. Construction crews have just recently started gutting the former JC Penney. While future plans for the mall remain uncertain, many speak loftily of creating an idyllic “new urbanist” environment comprised of mixed retail and residential spaces. It’s difficult, of course, to take stock in developers’ promises, but it would seem that at least part of the Highland Mall will endure, in some form. I will miss her as she is today—brutal, but not unwelcoming; aged, but not impaired; out of place, but not placeless.

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John Clary is a graduate student in the Department of Geography and the Environment at UT. His research employs GIS to explore the relationship between international migration, information and communication technologies, and the production of transnational spaces.

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