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Death of the Hilltop Mall

Hilltop mallNot a shocker by any means, but it appears that Hilltop Mall in Richmond has finally met its fate. It was just announced that logistics giant Prologis purchased the mall, which has been more or less closed since last year (although anchors Walmart and Macy’s were mostly open during the pandemic.)

Hilltop’s a weird one for me. I wrote about my first visit there in 2017, and covered the basics: built by Taubman in 1976; four anchors; a million square feet. Bought by Mills, it ended up in Simon’s hands in 2007, who completely ignored the property, and defaulted on their loans in 2012. It had a Walmart as an anchor, which is bizarre because it used to be a Macy’s, and it looks like Walmart spent fifteen minutes remodeling this mid-70s Macy’s into a Walmart by slapping on a set of signs they printed at Kinko’s and painting various trim blue.

Since I wrote that last post, the mall was purchased by a group that was going to do a full renovation and go with an Asian theme: stark white and chrome interiors, a Ranch 99 grocery store, a food court with various sushi restaurants and boba tea places and poke bowl vendors, etc etc. There were lots of fancy renderings with stock art pictures of white people walking around shopping, and lots of pretty landscaping and this futuristic space village look to it. They put up a ton of white-painted plywood with stickers and banners of the big planned reopening in 2018 2019 2020 late 2020. There were no signs of progress, except a constant hemorrhaging of stores. JCP closed, then almost every national chain (except Foot Locker) closed, and then the mom and pop places started quickly vanishing. I think when the pandemic hit, they were at something like 16% occupancy. I don’t know if they ever got money for this big remodel, and I think every store they said was going in never materialized. And then the pandemic hit.

I never knew Hilltop when it was alive and thriving, in the 80s/90s. It once had all the big national stores, and two movie theaters inside the mall, an ice skating rink, three toy stores, and lots of places to eat. All the various posts I’ve been seeing this week are filled with memories about this era, and I’m a bit jealous to never have seen this place in its full splendor.

I went to Hilltop maybe a couple times a month in the last few years. It was the closest indoor mall to my house, and I’m an old man mallwalker, so that’s what drew me. I had a fond relationship with the place because I love empty malls, love going walking in them in the middle of the day when nobody is around, and Hilltop was perfect for that. It also had that weird Taubman Logan’s Run-looking architecture I love, futurist-in-1976. It was like my secret spot, the place I could retreat when it was rainy out or the December weather went south and I wanted to hear loud holiday Muzak echo through a large, empty building.

There’s a nostalgia reverberation point for me with Hilltop that I can’t fully explain. It is a Taubman mall and has the same look as old Taubman malls like Woodfield in Schaumberg, Illinois, so it reminds me of the few times I visited in the late 80s and saw that astounding place. I remember going there with my friend Larry in 1989 and walking a lap around that place, which is double the size of Hilltop, and I think the biggest mall in the world back in that pre-Mall of America timeframe, and wondering when it would ever end. Hilltop looks exactly like Woodfield’s baby sibling, minus the stores and remodel.

But the thing Hilltop really reminds me of is Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, Indiana, the pre-remodel Scottsdale of the 80s. First, it’s a two-story mall, which was rare in Indiana, and had a second story with a balcony walkway that overlooked the courtyard on the ground floor. And before they redid Scottsdale in 1993 with bright whites and garish neon vaporwave colors, it still had this 1972 color scheme of brick and wood and hexagonal burnt umber floor tiles and a general dreariness, like a bad regional campus of a commuter college or an office park complex you went to make a car insurance payment or take a urinalysis test.

The 1990-1991 school year is a bad nostalgia point for me, because I attended and worked at a commuter college (IUSB) and only had a couple of friends there and really missed the main campus I went to the year before in Bloomington. Every payday, I would pick up my check at 9 AM, not have to be to work until noon, and would shuffle off to the largely empty Scottsdale to walk around, buy stuff I didn’t need at Target, and play Tetris at the Aladdin’s Castle. (I had a Tetris problem back then. Still do.) It had the same vapid, bleak feeling that Hilltop had, and I loved it, because it perfectly matched my emotional state. I had a lot of problems that school year, with money and dating and where I was going in life, and of course my brain goes back to those points in life more than those boring years when I didn’t have struggle. Since Hilltop was never changed, and still had that time machine back to 1990, that’s what I took from it.

(Scottsdale is long gone, demalled in 2004. I recently did some research on it, and I probably need to do a much longer article on it. Someday. These write-ups are getting more frequent and more redundant as the retail world implode. Maybe I need to stop writing this stuff.)

So, Prologis. They redeveloped the old Oakland Army Base a few thousand feet to my west, making it into logistics warehouses for the Port of Oakland. It was sort of amazing, because they tore down these old World War II-looking barracks buildings, and almost instantly, these large white and green warehouse buildings suddenly appeared. They would truck in giant concrete panels and put them together like Lego bricks. Seriously, it looked like a million square feet of brand new, modern warehouse would be teleported into place in like a week.

I know there’s a lot of talk about them redeveloping Hilltop with all the latest buzzwords people want to hear, and that they’ll have low-income vegan housing and live-work space and dog parks and a farmer’s market and whatever the hell else they can put in their fake renderings. I fully expect them to either completely demolish the mall and put in two million feet of generic warehouse space that looks exactly like every other Prologis warehouse. (Go do a google image search on “Prologis warehouse” and you’ll see hundreds of absolutely identical white buildings with green trim. It’s almost creepy.) If the building is structurally sound (it probably isn’t) maybe they will just paint the outside white, shut the entrances, gut the interior, and use that for storage. Or they’ll spend years in arguments with the Richmond city government, and end up bowing out in three years with nothing done.

Anyway. Fun while it lasted. I should probably buy a treadmill so I can walk during the rainy season. Here’s a Flickr album with a dump of my 2017-2020 photos: https://flic.kr/s/aHskQsQ4P1

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plotless brain dump

I never update this thing, because I don’t know what I should be writing anymore, and I don’t have the energy to write any “bloggy” sort of articles, like a listicle of top ten weird google earth photos and a deep-dive on why Indiana built nuclear missile silos in the fifties. (They did, BTW.) I also think that Pierre Moran Mall article burned me out. So did writing a book almost nobody read last year. Anyway, time for a plotless brain dump.

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Had another death in the family recently, an aunt. I’m hesitant to write any details about it, because I don’t want this entry to be the first result when someone googles her name, and I don’t want any family members to take any eulogy out of context, which will inevitably happen. I’ve had two aunts die since the start of COVID (but neither one from COVID) and the whole ritual now puts the zap on me because I couldn’t travel for either of them, and the only family reunions we have now are funerals. Also, now that I’m in my second half-century, I’m starting to see more people die. I mean, I lost my last grandparent twenty-five years ago, but the aunts and uncles are all in their seventies and eighties so, yeah. I can’t really unpack this, especially in public, but it’s something hanging in low orbit, and sending cards and flowers and looking at a Zoom doesn’t really solve things.

* * *

There is a actually a documentary I found the other night that’s (indirectly) about my grandfather’s death. He’s not in the documentary — I mean, I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m assuming he wasn’t. He died during that massive Chicago heatwave of 1995. He was 84 and had leukemia and looked like death when I saw him the last time a few months before that, so it wasn’t like he died directly from the heatwave. But he died because he was an 84-year-old with leukemia who lived in a brownstone with no air conditioning and refused to leave the house because he was afraid of being robbed. Anyway.

* * *

(This was the same grandfather who was in a Steven Seagal movie, BTW.)

* * *

Still struggling to find things to do that don’t involve writing, malls, or doom-scrolling through politics garbage. I spent some gift cards on Amazon to buy some flash photography stuff, like a good knockoff speedlite and some remote triggers. I spent like a week playing with macro photography, because most of my photography has been travel stuff, and we can’t travel, so I thought it would be good to get all of the gear to sit around the house and take close-up pictures of objects or bugs or something. Then I remembered I do not have the patience for stuff like that, spending an hour setting up a tripod and focus-stacking a million exposures and finding out they were lit wrong and starting over. Also, everything in my house is covered in microscopic super-fine cat hair, and I spent more time dusting than photographing.

I also had this wise idea to get another synthesizer and start making weird music or something, and spent way too much on a Teenage Engineering OP-1, and I’ve done very little with it. I actually have a better Arturia controller and would rather use Logic Pro and 19 different plug-ins to make Chihei Hatakeyama ripoff ambient stuff, but I’m too lazy. I have like 13 minutes of an album or EP or whatever done, but I don’t know that it’s ready for public consumption or anything. (Actually one of the songs is already in the wild, as a soundtrack for a dumb short movie I made.)

I think I’ve only taken the drone out twice this year. It was too cold, and now it’s too rainy. At least the grass will be somewhat green when I get back out in a few weeks.

I took a break from writing after the last book, which is completely unnatural for me and has been leading to more panic and dread, so I’m back to it, but not sure what’s going on. I’d like to figure that out, but I’d like to figure a lot of things out.

* * *

Just read Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. I’m sort of meh about Dazed, because i have little nostalgia for 1976 culture. The stuff about the creation of the movie is great though. Also, I do have a memory (which I might be confusing with another time) about watching it in one of my last nights in Bloomington in 1995, and it having some reverberation with my leaving town forever.

The part of this book I enjoyed most was the discussion about Slacker and Linklater’s early attempts at film. It’s amazing how he worked on an oil rig for a few years, saved all of his cash, and then went to Austin and shared a house with a bunch of people and did nothing but watch movies and write and hang out with punks and slackers for most of a decade. That reminds me of Bloomington in the late 80s/early 90s, or the Bloomington I wish I knew, had I not spent all my time going into debt and flunking out of school. I didn’t really start writing until most of my friends had already graduated and left, and I didn’t have a community anymore, other than work buddies.

Slacker captured this, but the real fun one to check out is his movie right before this, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. I’ve written about this before (here and here) but the movie is worth watching, if you can deal with a plotless movie with minimal dialogue. (It’s on youtube here, or with commentary here.) It’s such an excellent plotless burn, grainy Super-8 footage of traveling around the country in 1988.

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I have the day off today, but have nothing planned except going to the doctor to get my feet scanned and probably ending up at a mall. At least it’s not work.