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Life and Death of the Pierre Moran Mall

I watched the Jasper Mall documentary a few weeks ago. It was interesting, but there was something bugging me about it, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. A few days later, I figured it out: Jasper reminds me a lot of Pierre Moran Mall in Elkhart, Indiana where I grew up, but in an alternate universe where PMM didn’t get torn down in 2006 and somehow lived on.

I should take a deep dive on Pierre Moran Mall and brain dump what I still remember, while I still remember it. There’s a good (old) page on Labelscar about the mall, but not much more. In fact, I think the third or fourth result in a google search is one of my pages about Concord Mall. And that’s a good summary for the mall: a strange afterthought to Concord, the less-known sibling, that has now completely vanished.

The basics, partly cribbed from Labelscar: Pierre Moran started as a strip mall, opened in 1958, a row of shops on Hively between Benham and Prairie, just south of downtown. An indoor mall was built right next to this strip in about 1970, with about 400,000-some square feet, including anchors Sears and two other department/softlines stores that varied over the years. (The number of anchors is vague and arguable, I’ll get into that later.) This was Elkhart’s first real mall.

I remember this mall as a little kid only because it predated the Concord Mall by a few years, and was the closest mall to us. I lived in Edwardsburg, Michigan (just north of Elkhart), and we sometimes shopped at a Kroger that was attached to the south end of the original strip. We also visited the GL Perry store, which anchored the other end of the strip.

GL Perry was a small chain of five-and-dime department stores. They had maybe eight locations around Michiana. (Details are sparse, here’s an article from when they closed in 1997.) They were a typical variety store like a Woolworth or Ben Franklin: clothes you wouldn’t want to wear if you were cool, hobby supplies, candy, toys, records, and some other staples and sundries. We used to go there a lot, although I don’t know what my parents bought there – maybe gardening supplies or something. I remember being particularly fixated on the toy aisle, and later the records. They also had a great Halloween section, which is where I got my Spider-Man get-up in October of 77. Most of the functionality of GLP was later superseded by K-Mart, but we ended up there a lot as kids. (The GL Perry was previously a Grant’s, but that was way before my time.)

A note or two on the name Pierre Moran. He was an American Indian leader, of the Potawattomie tribe. He sold his land to Dr. Havilah Beardsley in 1832 and it became downtown Elkhart. I vaguely remember learning about him as a kid: someone bit off the end of his nose in battle. He was part of the siege against the white man at Fort Wayne. Our Indiana History classes were probably not as neutral as they could have been, so I don’t know how much of that is true. (See here for a good article on it.) The acceptance and denial of Native Americans sort of ebbs and flows over time in this region, and I guess in the early 60s, someone thought it wise to name a mall (and a neighboring school) after Pierre Moran, which was good. But they also decorated the mall with various Indian statues and logos on signs, which were both straight-up early-70s mall decor, and probably a bit more than politically incorrect (although people in the local nostalgia groups would heartily disagree.) I remember the Indian decor when I was a little kid, but I think they were gone by the time I was a teenager in the mid-80s.

After the enclosed mall was built, the interior was more or less a T-shaped concourse. Floor tiles were a solid dark maroon/brown, with lots of dark wood, no skylights or grandiose architecture inside. The center had a couple of wooden benches and a few spider plants in planters, but no real conversation pits or incidental decoration to speak of, aside from a wooden Indian with a somewhat grotesque face. They later put a small fountain in the middle and lightened the place up slightly, but this was always a somewhat dark and foreboding mall. And that original strip of stores didn’t connect to the internal mall. I’ve seen strip-mall-to-mall conversions where they built a second strip so all of the old external entrances were now internal, with a roof over it. (Aka Northgate in Seattle.) But these old stores all faced out, disconnected. They did build an entrance right in the middle of that strip leading into the mall, and a drug store did have a side door going into the mall, but that’s it.

Because of this strange construction, the mall had a very patched-together arrangement to it. Most mall concourses have long lines of similarly-sized stores, rows of identical spots next to each other. You know how malls like this would sometimes have an oddball store at the end of a hall with the entrance facing the wrong way and the interior footprint in the shape of a strange truncated triangle instead of a square? Every single store at this mall looked like this. It didn’t feel like any two stores in Pierre Moran were the same size, or even close to the same size. It looked like someone collated together a mall from discarded stores left over from other mall construction, maybe adding another store every other week when they could afford it, with no overall plan for continuity. Every store had a different front. Every wood front was a different shade of wood, the planks angled in a different direction. Every chunk of brick facing was a different color, a different shape of brick. Every section of the concourse had a different height roof. The hallways were too wide, and the storefronts were too narrow. It was almost disorienting how it was put together, and the general feeling every time I went was there is nothing here. And that’s when it was fully occupied.

The Sears was decent, as far as Sears goes. I remember shopping there with my mom for Tuffskins and getting the tires changed on the car at their auto center once. I think I first played the Atari 2600 there, the “Tele Play” version that Sears OEMed. When their record department closed out in the early 80s, I remember sifting through the 4-for-a-dollar remaindered 8-Tracks, struggling to find four things worth buying. I also knew a few folks that worked there when I was a teenager, and would swing by to bother them.

Other stores I remember:

  • The aforementioned Hooks drug store, which was a local chain that eventually got bought by CVS.
  • A photocopying/printing place called Skinner the Printer.
  • A coin shop that sold comic books and baseball cards.
  • A sad arcade without many machines.
  • A somewhat Christian book/card store.
  • A place called The Cookie Jar that sold giant hot cookies and was pretty decent.
  • A Finish Line shoe store, one of the few nationally-branded stores inside the mall.
  • A shoe store called The Leather Banana.
  • A sewing supply store.
  • Various “interior decor” stores, if you were decorating a home in deep Appalachia in the 1930s.
  • A sit-down restaurant. When I was a kid it was called Meeting Place and was a general cafe sort of place old people went after church. After I’d left for college, it became a 50s-style diner called Ally Oops. It was basically like a Johnny Rockets, with the checkered floors and jukeboxes and sundaes and whatnot. People in Elkhart loved this place, but people in Elkhart judge food by portion size, price, and how unhealthy it is, so I was pretty indifferent.
  • The outside-facing strip had a Rent-A-Center, a really grim-looking liquor store, and a barber shop for old men that used a suck-cut and where I got the worst haircut of my life in 1988. Just a guess that there was probably a dry cleaner and a jewelry store that bought gold there, too.
  • Next to Sears, there was a branch of the Elkhart Public Library, and I went there a lot as a kid. Around 1989 or 1990, they moved that branch into a dedicated building, and it became a car parts place.

The TL;DR is that there were almost no national-brand stores in the mall. It was a lot of one-offs and local chains. There was never a great shift of new up-and-coming stores moving in (like University Park), or a big die-off when leases timed out (like Concord). It just sort of stayed the same, year by year, decade by decade.

Aside from Sears, one of the other anchors was Kline’s, a local clothing/department store, which then became a similar store called Ziesel’s. The other anchor was I think a Carson Prairie Scott when I was a kid. These didn’t interest me when I was a child because my mom bought my clothes for me. When I was old enough to buy my own clothes, the anchors at PMM didn’t interest me because it wasn’t 1947 and I didn’t want to dress like an octogenarian in high school.

The one cool store there was World Records. It was a tiny, hole-in-the-wall record store not much bigger than a bedroom, with maybe three or four racks of albums, a display of car stereos, and a wall of t-shirts. I don’t know why or how, but World was an excellent record store. Two mulleted guys working the register knew a ton about obscure metal, and would get in all sorts of weird imports and immediately turn me onto them. Back when everyone in my high school was obsessed with Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam or Milli Vanilli, this guy Rodney was selling me the Metallica Creeping Death/Jump in the Fire EP (UK import on Music for Nations, years before the US release) and talking my ear off about obscure Gary Moore solo albums. I think World Records was the only place in Elkhart County where one could get a Metallica shirt before the Black Album came out.

In about 1985, that C-P-S anchor turned into a Target. This was a pretty new chain for us in Indiana – Dayton-Hudson bought out Ayr-Way locations in Indiana and flipped them into new Target stores. I thought Target was awesome back then. It seemed much more bright and new and modern and 80s than a K-Mart or Wal-Mart. And they had a good mix of things I liked: music, video games, electronics, but also staples and candy and housewares-type things and whatnot. It seemed very un-Indiana to me at the time, which is silly now, but it was one of the only reasons I really went to that mall.

To cap off this random brain dump of stores, there are a few outparcels to mention. One is that there was a Hardee’s on the corner of Hively and Prairie. This was the old-school livery, brown and orange, and I think it may have been a Burger Chef before that. In the early 00s, this was torn down and the CVS moved from the mall to a freestanding building. There was also a Long John Silver by the Sears. An ever-changing bank that was primarily drive-through an ATMs hung onto the side of the GL Perry. It’s a Key Bank now, but I think it may have been a First National, and a few other brands over the years.

One other interesting one: there was a two-screen theater as a freestanding building near Sears. This was called the Holiday I and II. In the 80s, all of the movie theaters in Elkhart were owned by one man, Bill Miller. He also owned the Elco and Cinema I movie theaters downtown, the Holiday, the Concord I and II at Concord Mall, and the Encore 1-3 on Cassopolis Street. Bill Miller was killed at the Concord theater in 1987, shot by a disgruntled employee, apparently over the theft of concessions. By 1990, all of his theaters were sold to the GKC Theaters chain, and within a few years, all but the Encore would be closed. The Holiday was essentially split in half, with one half being a few fast food restaurants, one being a Subway. The other half became a Hollywood Video chain, which has since closed and been abandoned, and still has a vaporwave pink and teal interior you can see through the windows, forever trapped in 1993 regalia. [More on Bill Miller here.]

* * *

Two memories from the Holiday I+II. One, I saw Silence of the Lambs there on opening night. Two, I went to see Flatliners, and the late show was in the same auditorium as the early show of Young Guns 2. While we were there, a group of heavily-Aquanetted, acid-washed denim-wearing girls came in, thinking YG2 was on in the second time spot. They sat through an hour of Flatliners, loudly wondering where Christian Slater was and when Bon Jovi was going to make his appearance.

* * *

My time at Pierre Moran is divided into two phases. As a child, like I mentioned, we went to the Kroger, Sears, and GL Perry a lot. This was before I had any geospatial awareness and knew anything about the distance between us and various malls, and I only knew we went to this one less than others. And we seldom went inside the mall. The only times I remember, it was because some kind of craft fair or flea market or bazaar had sale stuff on card tables through the mall’s hallways. I wasn’t old enough to know better or shop elsewhere, and my only judgment was that aside from the toy aisle at GL Perry and the toy section in Sears, there was no toy store at the mall, while Concord and University Park had a KayBee Toys and a Walden Books that sold D&D stuff.

Also, my parents didn’t want to go to this mall that much, and I never understood why. It was just a silent “we don’t go to that mall” and I didn’t know why. I always thought it was just personal preference, but I figured out what “that mall” meant later.

* * *

When Pierre Moran was built, it was a pretty sleepy bucolic suburb south of Elkhart. Looking at a 1952 aerial, there’s at least a half-mile of farmland on every side of where the original strip mall was constructed. Very little housing was in that area, and the core of Elkhart’s population lived a mile or two north, in downtown Elkhart. But jumping to a 1967 aerial photo, most of the area surrounding the strip mall has been developed, with dense, serpentine roads snaking around artificial subdivisions of identical homes built on little token yards. Every house: exactly two bedrooms, exactly one bath, exactly 1000 square feet, on a yard that was exactly 10,000 square feet. A quick Zillow search shows this entire neighborhood being spun up in 1956-1957, probably right after the strip mall was added.

At this point, Pierre Moran was the suburb of Elkhart. And in the late 60s, the suburb pushed further south. In 1964, the Elkhart Housing Authority built Rosedale High-Rise, the first of EHA’s six public housing projects, about ten blocks north of Pierre Moran Mall. The older housing stock on the south side of Elkhart became more working-class as people fled further away for the suburbs.

Elkhart was and is predominantly white. I don’t know the census numbers from when I grew up, but in 2000, it was 71% white. Elkhart has seen an increase in Hispanic population since I left, mostly because of the large manufacturing base, and I wouldn’t doubt if that 71% was much higher when I was a kid. (Not to add fuel to this fire, but Goshen, the county seat just south of Elkhart, was a sundown town, with the Chamber of Commerce claiming it was 99.5% white-only as late as 1978.) Demographics of the area changed in the seventies and eighties, like they did in many Midwestern cities. The suburbs outside of the city grew with white exodus. Their school systems exploded with the new tax base. New malls (like Concord) signed sweetheart deals to grow tax-free, develop new super-stores, attract national brands, and pry away classic stores from the collapsing downtown district. The middle class fled the downtown. And malls like Pierre Moran were left behind. I’m not trying to spin some big revisionist history racial conspiracy theory about this. I’m not a historian. It’s just how it happened, or how I observed it to happen. As a little kid, I never noticed it. Now, it’s fairly obvious.

* * *

My family moved to Elkhart in 1978, when I was seven. We bought a tri-level in a subdivision a few miles south of Pierre Moran. The houses were about 50% bigger, the yards twice as big, and there were now four different floor plan templates to choose from for the nearly-identical dwellings. We had a new school. There was a big park nearby. Every neighbor had the typical 2.5 kids, all about my age, and it was a safe place to ride bikes all day and play sports and hang out.

I led a fairly sheltered childhood, and we almost never spent any time in downtown Elkhart. I have a strange gap in my personal history because of this. When I go to Facebook nostalgia groups, people talk about grocery stores and restaurants I never heard of. I don’t know anything about growing up in downtown Elkhart. I only knew the suburbs, our almost-new grade school, the Concord Mall.

The only thing I know about where we moved was it had “good schools.” After buying my first home 30-some years later, I found that “good schools” is code for something more than just having actual good schools.

* * *

After I got a car and a job in high school, I had a lot more freedom to see parts of the city I didn’t see before. It’s not like Elkhart is a giant metropolis – it was maybe 40,000 people then. But like I said, my parents never wandered much. We drove the same half-dozen routes every week, from our house to my relatives’ houses, to the same three stores, to the same school and church. With my own wheels, I got to explore a bit more. And even though I loved Concord Mall, I also worked there, and some days I needed to just go somewhere else.

I used to go to Pierre Moran every now and again mostly because of World Records, and then Target. My buddy Larry worked at that Kroger and we’d go harass him, and Tom Sample lived a few blocks up Prairie, and I was always there. It wasn’t much of a destination, though. Concord was the default; University Park was the place to go when you had a day to kill and you wanted to see other teenagers outside of your school’s ecosystem.

Pierre Moran was where you ended up. I remember my old friend Jim always wanted to go there because he was a recovering drug addict, and he said Pierre Moran was a mall so boring, you couldn’t even score drugs there. It was a place for old people to go to buy religious greeting cards, sewing supplies, and Dickies work clothes. It was an interesting novelty, but it was by no means cool.

In my second year of college, I lived at home and went to a regional branch of Indiana University. Because of this, I often drifted around town when everyone else was at work in the factories. I’d run errands – my drug store was the one in Pierre Moran – and wander around. So I’d often end up at Pierre Moran during the day. (Or late at night – the Hardee’s was open until like midnight, and I grabbed dinner there on the way home from school frequently.)

I think my love of dead malls developed greatly in that period. People think malls were all 167% busy in the early 90s, and that the dead mall is a recent development. If you’d ever been to a midwestern second-tier mall at 10:07 AM on a Tuesday in 1990, you know this wasn’t true. Malls were always empty on weekdays and mornings. I loved walking through a half-size mall that hadn’t been touched since 1974, the entire place to myself. It helped when the mall was such a bizarre place like Pierre Moran, where you couldn’t tell if it was light or dark or raining or snowing or January or July from inside, because there were no windows and it always looked dreary inside.

There’s something almost liberating about walking through every aisle of Target at eleven in the morning, seeing exactly zero shoppers, only the five or six stock clerks and cashiers working, and then spending an hour playing Tetris on the Game Boy display in electronics, without a single person talking to you. This imprinted something deep in my head that’s still there today. My friends hated that I always wanted to go to the mall back then. My friends who worked with me at the mall thought I was delusional when I spent my day off at a different mall wandering around, sometimes facing merchandise at a store I didn’t even work at out of instinct. Almost nobody understands why I still go to malls. But that’s something the Jasper Mall doc made me think about, that strange desolation and how it sparks the dopamine in my head. There’s a certain womb-like comfort I feel being in a gigantic hall of commerce, but being the only person there, like I was on the surface of the moon.

* * *

I never felt unsafe at Pierre Moran. I had a car stereo stolen a few blocks away, but it never felt like a gangland or an inner city slum or anything else. But that was the perception. My parents were always scared that I was hanging out near “The Projects.” Pierre Moran was the “other mall.” I never saw it, but there were always rumors about people getting carjacked, businesses getting stuck up, bank robberies and stolen cars. And just guessing, but maybe that’s what led to its downfall, its inability to attract more retailers: that rumor of unsafeness.

There was crime. Lots of shoplifting, thefts. High school students fighting each other, rumors of knives and guns. They added a police substation in the mall, which is never a good sign. It was a hotbed of cruising. (One of the only hits you can find on the mall is a listing of the bathroom on a cruising web site.) I don’t know if the level of crime or the perception of crime was higher, or maybe that the clientele of the only remaining stores was markedly more senior than the people who roamed the mall for fun.

There was a very high-profile murder in 1999 where a 19-year old African-American named Sasezley Richardson was killed by Jason Powell and Alex Witmer. Powell killed him in the Sears parking log as an initiation into the Aryan Brotherhood. This was in the papers for a long time, and was national news. Not to stir things up more, but killing a stranger to get into a white supremacist group was not considered a hate crime in an Indiana Supreme Court case. There’s a strong undercurrent in the city that I don’t even want to get into, but this was an obvious big issue.

* * *

I left Indiana in 1995, so other than the occasional visit, the final chapter of the mall was not on my radar. But it was typical: Target bugged out to build a larger-footprint store a few miles south of Concord Mall. The standard Target hypermart footprint was nothing like the aging 1985 store built in a 1970s shell of a department store. And there was a large no-mans-land between Elkhart and Goshen, where Wal-Mart plopped down a store and a handful of outparcel strip stores, then a Meijer followed, then Target. (This area’s siphoned off the majority of Concord Mall’s stores in recent years, but that’s another story.) The old Target became some kind of Mexican event hall that held rodeos and amateur wrestling shows on and off, but couldn’t attract another tenant.

Also, when you have local retailers, they’re owned by local people. And people get old, reach a certain age, they want to cash out and move to Florida or whatever. Or when retail models change, a national chain can funnel in money for a big remodel, spread the pain across hundreds of stores. A mom and pop can’t adapt.

At some point, they did that remodel with the new tiny fountain. Maybe this is when they removed all the remaining Indian stuff, I’m not sure. They also painted the brown awnings outside bright blue. None of this did too much.

There’s a dirty little secret about malls: they’re usually built as a tax dodge. Back in the Seventies, you could come to a town, ask for a tax break on developing a corn field into a mall under the premise of enhancing the neighboring subdivisions, and then your REIT could take twenty years of depreciation and write off their taxes. After the twenty years, your little town of 40,000 is trying to support two or four malls plus whatever Wal-Marts on the edge of the city are also prying loose the main-town merchants. That’s when the REIT dumps the mall on new owners for pennies on the dollar. The anchors signed sweetheart 99-year@$1/year leases in 1973 to prop up the small stores, so the mall has to double the rents on the mom-and-pops, and they’re now cash-hungry at the time when the mall needs a bunch of deferred maintenance and probably could use a facelift to trade the wooden Indians and brown tiles for a more vaporwave aesthetic, but half their stores are empty, and everyone would rather go to Wal-Mart and get everything in one stop for less. That’s when the jenga tower has all the bottom pieces pulled out from under it.

But, you could start over. Bulldoze everything, claim people want strip malls again, and reset the tax counter. De-mall. That’s what Pierre Moran did. No wait, it’s not Pierre Moran. It’s Woodland Crossing!

So here was the big plan in 2006: raze the entire interior of the mall, including the Target and the other anchor, which was last a US Factory Outlets, before they went under. Nuke the old Kroger. Keep the Sears, but seal off its mall entrance with a new set of exterior doors. Build a new Kroger, twice as big, along with a set of gas pumps. In a strange bit of irony, keep the original strip of stores, with some paint touch-ups, and add another row of small strip mall cubes of stores, so some cash-for-gold places and vape stores can make an occasional appearance.

You can guess how this went.

* * *

I visited Elkhart in 2018, and on Christmas Eve, I drove out to Pierre Moran Mall Woodland Crossing. It was cold as hell out, maybe in the teens. I parked my car in front of the Sears, at the entrance where I used to go with my parents to get my Garanimals and Toughskin jeans. The Sears closed the year before, going for over a decade in its decapitated state, before being killed off by Fast Eddie Lampert and his real-estate ponzi scheme gone wrong. Sears looked almost identical to the way it did in the Seventies. The labelscar above the door had both the faded remains of the old 70s logo and the newer 80s version.

If you look at the photo above, that large chunk of asphalt is where the entire mall once was. I was standing with the Sears behind me, so this stretch of parking lot is where the entire concourse and interior stores once stood. I walked across the large parking lot, and tried to visualize where the mall used to connect to the Sears, how the distant space by the new gas pumps used to be Target. The row of old stores still stood in the same place. You can see the new strip of stores in this shot. There was a health clinic, and the rest were 100% vacant. The Long John Silver was closed. The Subway was gone. The weirdo empty Hollywood Video was frozen in time. I didn’t go in the new Kroger.

I did hop into the Big Lots. It was a typical Big Lots, full of weird liquidation merchandise, the place where you’d go to find Crystal Pepsi or brands of candy bars that were released for a week in an Ohio test market and then pulled. But the store still suspiciously looked like the old GL Perry, but with different merchandise. The windows were in the same places. The floor had the same worn Sixties linoleum on it. I could still imagine flipping through the row of records by the front registers, walking up and down the aisles by the toys, smelling the sweet chemical stench of Miracle-Gro contrasting the odor of 50-pound bags of Alpo stacked by the back door that was no longer there. I bought a drink for the road, then walked back to my rental car in the cold.

The desolation around the completely empty parking lot was surreal. A different kind of weird than walking around as a kid, but still bleak and dismal. I have a distinct memory, a fragment, of sitting in that Sears parking lot in 1987, playing an Anthrax tape for a fellow dishwasher named John, doing absolutely nothing but killing time. Then, the mall seemed like it was falling apart, a late 60s dream of friendly family shopping gone bad, but a place to do nothing. Now, it felt like a mid-00s version of the a similar dream, with a giant parking area carefully planned and sculpted with dividers, landscape islands, and token trees, designed for cars that never came.

* * *

I spent a lot of time scouring the web for any photos of Pierre Moran Mall while writing this, and there are few. It died at the perfect era for it to never be remembered, because it lived in a pre-web world, and the mall barely knocked a site together right before it died. This is true for a lot of malls of this pedigree. Newspaper searches are fruitless, as newspapers themselves die and lock off old archives behind paywalls. (The Elkhart Truth is useless for any research because of this.) These malls, and a large chunk of a cities’ history, will be completely forgotten in a decade.

What caught me is that the few photos I could find were all of community events. For example, go to wayback and check out this page. There’s a few shots of what looks like a birthday party, and a coin fair. I found a few other loose pictures showing a karate demonstration, a local history booth, a book signing for a local author. One of the only videos I could find was an Elvis impersonator putting on a performance in front of the Target in 1993.

My very first memory of this mall, probably from 1975 or so, was going to an indoor “sidewalk sale” with tables set up in the hallways, local flea market vendors selling their wares. That stuff was always going on at Pierre Moran: car shows, swap meets, Easter egg hunts, Humane Society adopt-a-pet events, indoor trick-or-treating, church fund-raiser bazaars. Regardless of how “bad” the neighborhood or the mall was, there was always this sense of community in the events held there.

De-malling a mall like this basically strips away that community, distills the mall into just a row of boxes where people go in, go out, and that’s it. I think my big takeaway is that these things are vanishing, and it further contributes to where we are right now.

* * *

One footnote I’ll add to this: there is a “donut effect” of migration, where people move outward from the core of a city, then move further out, abandoning the old ring of suburbs. But in some places, the young and hip will move back into the center of the city and save it. You see this in a lot of bigger Midwestern cities, in places like Chicago or Indianapolis. This hasn’t happened in Elkhart at all, but in neighboring Goshen, this transformation has completely taken place. Goshen is practically an arts district now, with a restored historic downtown full of antique shops, book stores, a newly-restored classic theater, even an old-school butcher shop and natural grocery. It’s strange and amazing that the Goshen that I remember as dismal in 1990 is now more Williamsburg than Indiana. They’ve reinstalled that sense of community. So maybe there is some hope.

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Holes

I’ve been back from Indiana for a while, but I’ve been thinking about something I can’t exactly shake, something I saw during my drives around old stomping grounds. This was further drilled into my head when my pal John Sheppard came out to Michiana for a day-long Konrath Reality Tour leading all through Elkhart, Mishawaka, and South Bend. As we drove around, and I pointed where things were, what used to be something else, I noticed a common theme: holes.

By holes, I mean a few things: abandoned properties, massively downsized operations, national-brand grocery stores that were now Mexican bingo halls only open a day a week, the endless regional-brand drug stores that are all a sad Dollar General now. There were also blighted properties, weather-beaten properties, faded and un-maintained properties. But beyond that, there were holes: Blighted properties that would never come back, or that had completely vanished, plowed under and destroyed, vacant lots that would probably remain vacant forever.

It was disheartening and depressing comparing the geography of my childhood in my mind to the current landscape and what still remained. For example, the area of Dunlap that was once the main drag when I was in high school is largely bulldozed and gone. The two-mile strip of US-33 from maybe CR-13 to Hively has lost a majority of its businesses. I’ve already covered Concord Mall a million times, but there’s that. Then there’s my old Taco Bell, sitting abandoned for years; the Arby’s next to it is a vacant lot; the tile place on the other side was torn down by the city because it was blighted. The Astrobowl bowling alley is leveled; the Shakey’s pizza is leveled. The Aldi’s grocery store was abandoned, then was briefly a Guatemalan fruit stand, but is now abandoned. The place next to it was I think a Goodwill; abandoned. Optical store, empty. Bank, empty. Martin’s grocery store, they started rehabbing it, hit asbestos and a leaky roof, and abandoned it half torn apart. Movie theater, abandoned. There’s a small strip mall that had a band instrument place and a furniture store; half the slots are empty, and it has a gold and pawn and a tattoo place. A long, long stretch of this highway was eminent domained to put in a US-20 bypass exit, and is eerily vacant, never redeveloped. This is all within two miles, and there are a lot of other parts of the city also pock-marked with similar holes.

I don’t want to get into a political argument about the wage situation or how Elkhart is being made great again by wage-labor jobs that will all vanish when gas hits four bucks a gallon again. That’s not the point; the point is, it seems like a lot of retail landmarks have vanished, and haven’t been replaced by anything. Some of this is because of Amazon, I’m sure. Some of it is Walmart killing off mom-and-pops. Same with big venture cap hostile takeovers to pick the old retail giants clean of any value and leave them for dead. (I’m talking about you, Sears.) Some of it is that the remaining nationals and regionals have moved to other locations, like the swath of businesses south of Elkhart, or the constant growth in Mishawaka and South Bend. There’s also the possible case that the area was just massively overdeveloped when I was a kid. In the pre-Reagan years, a good investment was developing real estate like malls and using accelerated depreciation to reap a greater tax deduction. (See also.) Elkhart may not have been a city big enough to support two malls, a vibrant downtown, and the suburban Dunlap retail corridor, all of which are gone now. (The two Walmarts are doing okay, though.)

Other reasons: a lot of gas stations of my youth are gone, scraped bare and vacant. That’s probably rusty underground tanks that were easier to abandon than clean up. A lot of these have also become used car lots, the u-work/u-drive type that quickly flip auction sale cars at predatory interest rates. But if it can’t become a car lot (or a church – lots of those there) it becomes a vacant lot. The same environmental issues are also an issue for rehabbing old architecture for new use. The Martin’s grocery store I mentioned is a prime example, and one that has happened many times. Asbestos, perpetually leaking roofs, piss-poor insulation and bad HVAC (try heating 100K square feet when it’s 45 below zero out, like this week), sinking and broken foundations that were laid on the cheap back during the construction boom. and just bad configuration and layout which would require more than just a full gut.

There’s also the “white flight donut” going on. In the Seventies, everyone left the inner city for the suburbs, where subdivisions were hastily built from plowed-up cornfields. (That’s where I spent my childhood.) When those quickly-assembled houses fell apart twenty or thirty years later and their owners retired, they moved further out into the country. In some American cities, when this happens, you get the “donut” effect, when the core downtown is gentrified by yuppies. (See also Chicago, or even Goshen.) This hasn’t happened in Elkhart, but the suburbs that were created when I was a kid aren’t as active as they used to be.

I recently read the book Obsolescence: An Architectural History by Daniel M. Abramson. It brought up this concept that I never really thought about, and is contrary to most of the old retail/dead mall/preservationist thought I see on various blogs. The thesis was that architecture has planned obsoleteness, just like that three-year-old phone of yours that won’t keep a charge anymore. There is an idea that a building or a house is built for forever, that it is a landmark that will last an eternity. But historically, starting in the Sixties, architects moved to a frame of thought that buildings had a shelf life. It was cheaper to make something that only lasted thirty years, and this also fit into the general tax code, as I mentioned above. But also, if you designed something trendy in 1961, it would be played out in 1991, and you’d level it and start over.

There’s two sides to this school of thought, and I’m sure this horrifies some people. Just the idea that something would be destroyed after one paid so much, both in money and ecological impact, would seem disturbing to some. But it’s something I think about a lot when I see these buildings that basically implode and vanish. There’s no money in rehabbing these buildings, replacing them with vibrant businesses. It’s more economically viable to leave them blighted. It’s a real paradigm change to think of housing and property to be a temporary investment, an expendable purchase, instead of something you buy forever. Most people can’t deal with the mental concept that a purchase like a phone or a car isn’t designed to last forever, so this school of thought is beyond them.

I guess the thing that’s sad to me is that it’s one thing to think that buildings become obsolete and should be replaced when their time is up. I see a lot of that here in Northern California, but here the movement is upward. Single-story houses are replaced by townhouses; single-floor stores are replaced by shopping centers. Old corporate headquarters buildings are torn down and replaced with modern ones that are several times the size. (See also my old office.) But the value of land here is so high, it’s a no-brainer, aside from the nostalgic component, to scrape an old building and replace it with a higher-grossing structure that can do more, hold more, make more money.

In Elkhart… that isn’t happening. Houses don’t get scraped like they do in Palo Alto. Commercial development doesn’t seem to be over the top. Maybe factories are expanding, but the retail corridors look vacant or underutilized. Like I said, there are probably numbers to counter that, but from what I saw, it was depressing. It makes me wonder what will still remain if I visit again in another ten or twenty years.

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general

End of 2018

I’ve been back from Indiana for a few days now. Been slightly sick, working on unpacking, cleaning, resetting, all the usual crap before I get back to work on Wednesday.

The trip was probably my longest visit to Indiana since I left in 1995. I was there from Friday night to the following Saturday morning, with all of it in Indiana (save a quick spin through Edwardsburg and an afternoon in Dowagiac.) I had family stuff pretty much every day, and we tried to find new and neat things to do during the week, museums and other things I’d never seen. But I also had a lot of time by myself, and the heavy nostalgia thing I mentioned in my last post was problematic.

As far as stuff to do, we went to the Studebaker museum, which I’d seen years ago, but has since moved to a new building they share with a South Bend history museum. Spent some time downtown and went to The Griffon, which is an old RPG/D&D game store I last went to in maybe 1990, and it’s great they are still up and running. Went to the old Orbit Records in its new location a few slots over, and the whole vinyl thing has kept them running. Ate at Tippecanoe Place, a giant mansion turned restaurant, which I last visited on the night of my senior prom. Dinner buffet on Christmas night at the new Four Winds casino in South Bend was solid. Didn’t play anything, and then my sister played a slot machine for like two minutes and won $260. Also visited the history museum in Dowagiac. And malls. Lots of malls.

John Sheppard came out for a day, and we did the whole Jon Konrath Reality Tour, visiting every place I lived and shopped and worked and whatever else back in the day. The highlight was stepping into a completely vacant Concord Mall, which was like breaking into a tomb that had been sealed shut a thousand years before.

We started off our day by visiting fellow writer Steve Lowe, who now owns and operates South Bend Brew Werks. Had a great lunch, took the tour of their brewing operations, and saw a great example of how downtown South Bend is on the upswing. At the end of the tour, we hit Bruno’s for a pizza after walking around University Park mall, which seems like it has doubled in size since I left, with almost no vacant stores and every single thing except JCP and Sears replaced by a higher-end chain. It was a stark contrast to Elkhart, where things have closed and not been replaced.

The rest of the trip was me going stir crazy, walking around the mall, wondering what would have happened if I never left Indiana, and wondering what there was to do except eat, watch TV, or spend money. Family stuff, I guess, but I have this conversation with myself every time I go back, and it never goes well. Anyway, I’m back home, away from the snow, so there’s that.

* * *

End of year crap – don’t really want to get into that. I quit Goodreads, so I can’t tell you how much I read. I did exercise every day, although my total distance walked wasn’t as high, and I ended up gaining almost six pounds over the year. So I need to work on that. All the usual new year new me crap. Stop reading news. Stop obsessing over nostalgia. Write more. Whatever.

This year will be tough on the nostalgia front, because it’s thirty years since I graduated high school. and there are lots of various anniversaries there for me to obsess over. I need to find some writing project to distract me from this crap. Maybe I’ll blog more, although I don’t know what I’ll write about. I have a project that’s maybe 80% done, but stalled. Maybe I’ll take up knitting. I have no idea.

OK, going out to dinner in a minute. I’ll probably be asleep by ten. Hope you all have a good new year.

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general

Hello from the former 219

Exactly thirty years ago, to the day, I was here.

It was Christmas Eve. We closed at five. I was telling people we had no Nintendos. I probably worked forty hours that week. I’d listened to the same four-hour loop of taped holiday Muzak at least ten times. Mariah Carey was still waiting tables, so no, that song wasn’t on.

Today, I poked around what’s left of the Concord Mall, trying to visualize exactly where this was. The Montgomery Ward where I worked is gone now, having closed 18 years ago. The above picture is what used to be a door and a set of windows going in to the Auto Express department. Take a quick right, and you’d see me at a Nixdorf cash register, telling someone that no, we had no Nintendos.

Most of automotive is now a dentist’s office. Two of the bays, all of my old department, and a good chunk of housewares is now a warehouse-type electronics/appliance store. I went inside, and compared the layout of the poles and roof inside to some pictures I had from 1988 and more or less figured out where my department was. The warehouse store was empty, a ghost town. I talked to the manager, asked him if he remembered the Wards there. He didn’t. I don’t think he was alive thirty years ago.

The rest of the store is now a Hobby Lobby. I nosed around there a bit. You cannot tell it used to be a Wards at all. The area that used to be Electric Avenue is filled with floral arrangement kits, and “live laugh love” placards. I think their bathrooms are in the same place as the ones by the customer service center in Wards. I looked into an open door that led to their warehouse area. It’s the same warehouse where I used to unload trucks at six in the morning back in 1993. Same gray paint. I painted that warehouse at one point.

The mall was absolutely deserted. Echoing Christmas music. Zombie apocalypse. Almost every store closed. I went on facebook live, started doing a tour. Three minutes later, a mall cop told me to stop. Oh well.

Santa was gone. The winter wonderland booth was already partly disassembled. Nobody was around. The mall closed at five. There is no way this mall will survive another year. It was supposed to be torn down in 2017. Maybe if the economy tanks and there’s no money to rebuild it, they’ll chain the doors shut and let it rot. I spent almost every hour of my time there for a formative decade of my childhood. Best case scenario, they will turn it into a storage facility. Maybe tear it down and build some soccer fields for the high school. They turned Pierre Moran into a strip mall, and when I was there today, every store except one was vacant. So no need for that.

I have been on such a heavy nostalgia trip, just wallowing in a horrible pit of memories. I drove by my old house today, saw my dead uncle’s house, cruised past my dad’s post-divorce single-wide trailer. I went to the dead Sears at what used to be Pierre Moran mall, stood in the parking lot where the mall once was, tried to figure out the layout of where things used to be. I went in the Big Lots that used to be the G.L. Perry department store where I’d buy Star Wars figures and Halloween costumes, where I first studied the Kiss Unmasked LP and wondered why the hell they took off their makeup. I went to the grocery store parking lot where my car blew up in 1991. They started remodeling the grocery, ran into asbestos, ran out of money, and abandoned it. There’s a lot of that around the area.

An old friend from New York messaged me this morning, and said she had stopped in Indiana to eat breakfast at a pancake place, asked me if I knew it. It was literally 1500 feet from where I was sitting. I ran over and talked to her for a few minutes. I think I last saw her in 2002. It was such a weird coincidental mindfuck. It was like walking into a K-Mart and seeing Iggy Pop and Gerald Ford playing Uno. It was a great surprise, but also fed into this weird nostalgia thing I’m far too deep into.

If you’ve seen Mad Men, you’ll know I’m ripping this off from Don Draper, and I’ll steal it from the Apple thesaurus to make sure I don’t screw it up. The word nostalgia comes from from the Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain’. After living in a dozen cities, it’s sometimes hard to say where home really is. But put me in a car in Mishawaka and tell me to go to the Tastee-Freez in Dunlap, and I will make every turn from one to the other without thinking. There is a deep familiarity there, things burned into my head, both good and bad, that are the basis for so many parts of my life. And revisiting that brings some pain I can’t avoid, that I want to continually revisit. I don’t want to move back here; I never could. But I have some sick fascination with going back to those memories, even as the physical world that formed them crumbles.

I feel a great need to stop doing this. I should be thinking about what book I should be writing next, or what I should be doing with my career, not trying to think of every record store that was open in the 219 area code in 1992. This area isn’t even in the 219 area code anymore. And there are almost no record stores. And I don’t live here anymore. You can’t go back. Whatever. I’m mentally ill. I should meditate or jog or take up knitting. I don’t know.

That night, thirty years ago, I got a ride home with a girl I had a crush on, because the starter on my car was broke. The next day, my family went to Chicago, stayed with my favorite cousins. We went to a mall that night and I saw the movie The Naked Gun, going into it blind, not even knowing it was a comedy, which was perfect. We drove back to my cousin’s after midnight in his 5.0 Mustang, blasting the song “Fade to Black,” which is an awesome song to listen to in the middle of the night on a highway in a big city in a fast new car. I was amazed that we were in a place so big and so cool that they played Metallica on the radio, and knew that someday, I would have to leave small-town Indiana. I was a senior in high school. I was getting ready to leave for college, start a journey that would eventually take me to the very end of that same highway, on the west coast, as far as I possibly could get from that point. That’s another story, another set of nostalgia points.

Anyway. It’s Christmas in 24 minutes. I have to Ambien out, see more family tomorrow. Hope your holiday is going well.

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general

Indiana, travel, suitcases, quarries

I’m taking off for Indiana tomorrow morning. Haven’t been back in three years; I’ll be staying for eight days, which might be too many, especially in the cold. I’m done with work until the second, so today is full of last-minute errands and packing and whatnot.

I had to replace my suitcase today, which broke a little while ago, and then our spare broke on Monday while S was packing it up. I ordered a new one on Amazon, paid for the one-day delivery, and of course it didn’t show up, and it got stuck in that weird limbo where the tracking was dead and I couldn’t pull up any info or cancel the order. The damn thing was coming from a warehouse fifteen miles away, and they couldn’t get it here in a week. I cancelled the order today, and went to the mall and bought another one.

The death of my old suitcase is bittersweet, because I got so much damn use out of it. It’s a Samsonite hard-shell case I got for Christmas in 1995. It’s covered in every imaginable sticker; any time a band or an author or a zine or whatever sent me something, I slapped it on there. It’s pretty much got a solid laminated layer of in-jokes and obscure products and old memes caked on the outside. I brought the thing on every vacation, dragging it to Hawaii a half-dozen times, every trip to Germany, and probably half the states in the union, from Alaska to Florida and many in between. It had a ton of wear and tear, but it took a fatal blow to a corner and broke all the way through. I’ll have to take some pics of all the stickers before the thing goes in the trash.

I went to the Sears at Sun Valley, thinking maybe I should help them out with the purchase of a replacement. I looked there, and then looked at Macy’s, and the same exact thing was like fifty bucks cheaper at Macy’s. Look forward to my “death of Sears” article in the next month or so, I guess.

* * *

Here’s a weird one about Indiana that is related to nothing: I heard reports about a month ago that the big quarry in Breaking Away has been filled in. There’s a picture of it circling around, a before and after, which is disturbing if the place has a nostalgic spot in your brain outside the movie itself.

I’ve been to the quarry twice: once in the spring of 1990, and again a year later. This guy Sam who lived across the hall from me in the dorms was trying to make it a regular quest we’d do every year, like a long-term thing from a buddy film, where it would be twenty years later, and we’d all be in our mid-life crises and hiking out to this hole in the ground to have a moment. But I think the group did it twice and that was it.

An explanation, for those who don’t know what I’m rambling on about: southern Indiana is full of limestone, a light-colored rock that is used in lots of big buildings. Most of the IU campus is made of limestone, and the veins of the stuff around Monroe county have been excavated for everything from the Pentagon to the National Cathedral to Yankee Stadium. So between Bloomington and Bedford, there are large tracts of rural land covered in deep rectangular holes like Tetris pieces dug into the earth and hauled across the country for architectural projects. Those holes fill with water, and are great places for kids to drink beer and jump in and swim. Like I said, they made a movie about this.

Our first trip down there was right before the end of the school year. I think five or six of us piled into two cars and drove south of town, following complicated third-hand directions that started with us ditching the vehicles on the old State Road 37 and hiking through various forests and climbing barbed-wire fences. Part of the allure and danger is the fact that these are still functional quarries, and are all private property, no trespassing. And in the pre-Google Maps days, even finding the places involved some work. People were, and still are very secretive about the locations of the quarries. In fact, there’s a listing on that Atlas Obscura site, and it has obfuscated vague instructions that are 100% wrong.

The particular quarry in the movie was called either Rooftop or Sanders quarry, or maybe it’s neither of those. There’s also Empire or Empire State quarry, which is supposedly where they got the limestone for the skyscraper of the same name. (Maybe that’s another quarry. Or maybe rooftop is the rock at the edge of Sanders. I googled it, and there’s conflicting info, so, whatever.) The quarry was a long, rectangular hole, maybe the size of a football field, with sixty-five foot walls on each side. It was in the middle of a wooded area, an absolutely beautiful juxtaposition of nature and excavation. The water was nowhere near as clean as it was in the movie, and hundreds of empty amber and green bottles floated on the surface.

None of us were brave enough to try cliff diving. (Hell, I can’t even swim.) But we did run into a group of townies who were swimming. I’d brought an SLR film camera with me, and took a great shot of a dude with an epic mullet doing a backflip off the cliff and into the water, beer in hand. Thinking back, I have no idea how I hung out at the edge of this cliff. I used to work at heights in theater, but I’ve completely regressed and have a horrible fear of anything more than a step-stool these days.

The second visit wasn’t as exciting — it was raining, and we hacked through the woods anyway. Nobody was there, and it was pretty cool to see the place during a storm, the raindrops breaking apart the surface of the water twenty yards below us. But we didn’t see anyone, and didn’t stay long.

So I never partied there all summer like some kids did. But I did get a brief look at the place. And the thought of it being filled up and destroyed was a bit of a punch to the gut. Their rationale was simple: a number of people had been injured and even killed in the quarry, and it was a liability nightmare. And it’s private property, so that was that. Still, very sad.

Of course, as I say this, there are a million other old memories at IU that are gone or changed or obscured with new construction or whatever else. I haven’t been back there since 2011, and that was just for a few hours. I wish I could go down this week, but I’m overbooked as it is. And I’ll get my dose of crippling nostalgia up north anyway. I look forward to seeing the desolation of Concord Mall one last time.

I haven’t even started thinking about what camera gear goes with me, let alone packing up this new suitcase with clothes, so I better get on that.

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Toys R Us

I was not a Toys R Us kid.

No, I wasn’t one of those weird religious kids who weren’t allowed to play video games, and I didn’t have hippy parents who thought GI Joe was promoting war. TRU just wasn’t an option for my corner of Indiana.

Like I mentioned in my previous post, K-Mart was a big part of my childhood. The two K’s really — K-Mart and Kroger. This was before Target, before Wal-Mart, and those two stores were the bulk of my retail experience in the mid to late Seventies. I spent all my time in the toy aisle of K-Mart; I could probably still note its location on a store map, had the store not been gutted and turned into a Big R farm supply. I also did a lot of my toy gawking at a now-gone variety store called GL Perry’s, which was just down from the Kroger in the also-gone Pierre Moran mall. But it was a few years before I really got locked into a proper toy store for my Lego and Star Wars needs.

The Concord Mall didn’t have a Toys R Us, but did have a Kay-Bee toy store. I was definitely a Kay-Bee kid. They originally had a narrow little store just to the left of the anchor that was then Robertson’s, and was later Meis, Elder-Beerman, and most recently Carson’s, before dying. It later moved into a bigger location in the middle of one of the arm’s spokes.

In my mind, Kay-Bee was slightly more disorganized and second-rate compared to TRU. The aisles were narrower, the shelves were more floor-to-ceiling and packed tighter, and the front half of the store was this blue-carpeted dumping ground for pallets and bins of toys, with little walking space between them. All the video games were locked away in glass cases behind the front counter, which was counterintuitive to browsing them for hours. It didn’t have the flow or the larger footprint of a bigger, standalone TRU store. It was a bit of a mess, but wonderful as a kid.

Another thing is that in retrospect, they had a lot more discount/clearance stuff, oddball brands and closeouts. It was a bit of a dumping ground for weird brands on the way out. And I used to fixate on that stuff, both because it was weird, but because it had the magical yellow tag on it saying it was discounted, showing the old price slashed out in red, the perfect argument for convincing a parent that you needed to buy it. And these strange off-brand things are now impossible to find online.

One weird example I was thinking about: so there was this big market for third-party Atari joysticks back in the day. Atari used a common 9-pin connector on the 2600, and they used the same circuit on the Commodore 64. I was always on the lookout for a better controller, a cheaper solution for the C64, and Kay-Bee was the dumping ground for every small company that tried to get in on the video game craze and got burned when it crashed. I remember buying a pair of the garbage wireless 2600 joysticks when those got dumped on clearance. I also had a weird touchpad controller that was like a mix of an Intellivision disc-style stick and the Atari keypads used by Star Raiders and nothing else. It wasn’t that great, but I have some obsession for finding it online, and it’s impossible.

The other big example was that Kay-Bee was a big dumping ground for the liquidation of the Mattel Aquarius, which was my first computer. I’ve already written about this at length, but the bullet is that Mattel crashed and burned about fifteen minutes after they quick-released this underpowered, chicklet-keyboarded machine, and they started showing up at Kay-Bee for like a hundred bucks in a bundle with four games and joysticks and everything else. I got that for my thirteenth birthday, and that started a whole great career that led up to where I am now. (Not sure if that’s good or bad, but middle management at a software company is probably better than coal mining.)

Anyway, Kay-Bee became my default place to go in the mall. Any time there was Christmas money or extra allowance or a birthday coming up, I’d gravitate to that spot in the mall. And every obsession of my pre-teen world was there, almost like a cycle of things I fixated on as a kid. It went from Star Wars to GI Joe to model trains to model planes to D&D to video games. I know a lot of people talk or write about how music or punk rock saved their lives, but for me, in those years, it was everything in Kay-Bee. I don’t know what path, better or worse, I would have traversed if I had not spent the beginning of junior high memorizing the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but going to Kay-Bee (and to Walden Books) to pore over the collection of modules and figurines and dice was a major percentage of my time.

At a certain point, things changed, and the fixation went to the other wing of the mall, the one with the independent record store, Super Sounds. The toy store was somewhat forgotten. It changed its name at some point to KB, and the later, Mitt Romney and friends drove them into the ground, a story that would later repeat itself with TRU. I never shopped at Kay-Bee after a certain point, although sometimes out at College Mall, I’d duck into that location as a nostalgia trip. I remember Kay-Bee going under, but I was tuned out of the news for whatever reason, and never really mourned it in any way.

Much later, Toys R Us did come into focus for me, but it was a place to look for video games. I remember buying a Nintendo 64 there, at the one in Seattle at Northgate Mall, and I’d always check them out to see if they had any weird cartridges, in the pre-Amazon days when you could just look up every cartridge in the world and be a click away from owning it.

But Toys R Us never had that strong reverberation with me, that primal childhood pull, just because it was off my radar. I think Chicagoland had many locations, and there actually was one just north of University Park mall, but I never regularly went to UP until I started driving, and then the interest was in music (and girls, but nothing ever happened there).

I can relate to the same angst that people have about the TRU bankruptcy, and the various rumors about brand necrophilia, the stories that they might come out of bankruptcy court as a holiday pop-up, or a mini-store inside Target, or whatever. I went through this with Wards, which I really missed after working there for years. And some random mail-order place later bought their name and use it for this pickwick-like catalog of Chinese junk, which never sat well with me. Wards vanished quickly, and it’s impossible to find any traces of it anymore. I’m guessing the same will happen to TRU. Lots of people are taking pictures now, but they’re uploading them to cloud services that will also die or be killed. Try finding a picture you put on Kodak Gallery or MySpace ten years ago — that’s what will happen to all deadmall history in a decade.

There was a TRU in Emeryville, a few miles from my house, which is now becoming some sporting goods store. I took a few shots last weekend of the one out in Dublin, which is just sitting there. I’m always curious to see what will happen with these places, and what direction retail would go. I should archive more, but like I said, the more I get into this, the more depressing it gets.

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Death of the Concord Mall, Redux

Almost two years ago, I wrote a long eulogy for the mall of my childhood: Death of the Concord Mall. This was after I heard of plans of the de-malling of the forty-something shopping center. Well, plans have changed. Here’s an update.

First, since I last wrote about this, more stores obviously closed. The christian book store that was there was part of a national chain that went under. The bizarro book store that took over the old Walden’s books folded. A BoRics hair place that still had the old logo on the sign has vanished. I haven’t kept track of whatever else, but today, just for kicks, I went to the mall web site and tallied up their directory list. (It’s a bit deceptive, because they list stores by category, and then list the same stores in multiple categories, to sort of hide that nothing is left.) Anyway, a 2015 planning document showed 62 total spaces and nine kiosks. The current tally is 29 total tenants (including kiosks). That includes a few dubious spots, like the “conference center” that’s really an abandoned jewelry store. And that includes the various half-baked stores, like the place that’s just a bouncy castle indoors.

Also, one of the anchors, a Carson’s store, is about to close. This store was originally a Robertson’s, which was a local department store chain. Back before my time, they had a sprawling multi-floor old-school department store in downtown South Bend, the kind with a beauty salon and a tea room on one floor, a place where people would register their china pattern before their wedding. Then they moved to the malls, and scaled back a bit. The store was bought during the mid/late 80s mall expansion bubble, and it changed to a Meis store. I never shopped there — I wasn’t wearing Izod shirts and sweaters — but I do remember they had an electronics department with gray-market Japanese gear, like Sony Walkman tape players much smaller than the ones normally sold in the US. They got bought again, and around the time I left Indiana in 1995, they became Elder-Beerman. They got bought by the Bon-Ton corporation in 2003, and renamed to Carson’s at some point. And shortly, they will be gone.

One odd memory of that store: it is probably one of the first times I was ever on an escalator. In contrast to the rest of the single-story mall, it has a voluminous first floor, with a second floor far above it, and a set of massive escalators connecting the two. Most of my childhood was in single-story buildings and malls and stores, and I can’t think of a single place where I would have encountered an escalator other than that store. So that’s weird.

Next up, that big fifty-million dollar project to demolish the mall and drop in a bunch of freestanding stores that was supposed to happen in 2017? Well, it didn’t. It never got further than a bunch of renderings and some “coming soon” signs at the mall. No tenants got on board, and no financing happened. They did move the old Martin’s supermarket to a new building just over from the old one, and started rehabbing the old building to move the JoAnn Fabrics there. But nothing else happened.

And now, the big news is that the mall is in receivership. The owners have stopped making payments on their bank loan, haven’t paid property taxes, and there are multiple liens on the property, meaning they probably aren’t paying bills. Jones Long Lasalle is the new receiver, and will continue running the mall for the time being. (Oddly enough, they also were the receiver at my local deadmall, Hilltop.) The bank has asked to foreclose on the property, which means it will likely go up for a sheriff’s sale. This happened at Erskine Village, the old de-malled Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, in 2016. It was bought back by the bank, and I have no idea what happened to it, except it’s still running. But it’s just a Target and a bunch of other random stores spread across a parking lot.

I have a feeling not much will happen with Concord. They won’t be able to attract new tenants; there are Walmarts and a Target nearby, and any possible stores are either in nearby strip mall shopping centers, or wouldn’t pull enough customers to be viable. Nobody will be able to fill the old Carson’s store. The JCPenney can’t be too far behind. The only other national chains in the mall are Claire’s (which is going bankrupt), GNC (which is about to go bankrupt), Champs, Spencer’s, and Kay Jewelry. (All three seem to go down with the ship in a dead mall.) There’s still Hobby Lobby, which is going strong. (Except on Sunday, because, Jesus.) My guess is that each store’s lease will time out, and they’ll board things up and let it sit for a decade, until they eventually tear it down. I’m sure the Hobby Lobby will be decoupled and live on. But what else can they do?

It’s so sad to me, because I spent so much time there as a kid, and have such vivid memories of the place. When I look at pictures of it now, the decor inside is exactly the same as when I worked there in 1993, when I was unloading trucks at the Wards store at six every morning. We’d work for four hours, and then I’d go out into the just-opened mall to grab a drink, and it would always be empty, just the mall walkers and the day shift of store managers getting their day started. This strange calm would be there, a vacancy, an odd quiet, when nobody was there. It contrasted so much with the hellish rushes we had at nights, on holidays, going into the holiday season. In those boom times, I would work twelve-hour shifts, long lines of people for the entire twelve hours, everyone on their late Eighties Greed-is-Good kick, maxing out their plastic to live the Reagan era of excess. And then when I was there in the day, in those early hours, there was so much tranquility and quiet, just hearing the sound of the central fountain echoing through the halls. It was so magical, yet so out of place. And now, when I go to these malls, it’s like that same feeling of calm, except all the potential is gone, all the shoppers have vanished, and all the stores are abandoned. For me, it’s like the quiet of a battlefield long after a war. It’s eerie, and it’s sad.

I have a lot of problems with nostalgia, and with memories, and with looking back. I think it becomes more painful as things like this vanish. I don’t want to go back; I never would want to live there again. But it still bothers me. I can’t explain it, but I can’t get past it.

Anyway, we’ll see what happens here, but it probably won’t be good.

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KONCAST Episode 8: Joshua Citrak

http://koncast.libsyn.com/episode-7-joshua-citrak

In this episode, I talk to writer Joshua Citrak. He is the creator and co-host of the podcast Hangin’ With Old Lew.

We discuss: the Raiders and North Korean Juche; the nuclear war, wildfires, and hurricanes trifecta; the Elkhart connection; post-industrial Binghamton; the rise and fall of IBM America; the synergy between nuclear holocaust and evangelical churches; Vegas betting on earthquakes; fun and profit in outsourcing and Superfund sites; the Great Elkhart Garbage Fire; Apple and the eco brand; on getting the hell out of your home town; getting started writing; the internet gold rush and Cow Town; William S. Burroughs and post-apocalyptic writing; Pessoa, Johnson, and other writing influences; fiction vs. poetry; the Castro Writer’s Coop; Mike Daily; Jeffrey Dinsmore; shit-talking about shit-posting on social media; Jon Konrath the Facebook persona versus Jon Konrath the person; starting up Hangin’ With Old Lew; why podcasting is great; Facebook sharing is killing us all; the ROI numbers game; and why the 49ers suck.

Links from this episode:

Hangin’ With Old Lew: The Podcast: https://www.hanginwitholdlew.com

Jon Konrath: http://www.rumored.com

The Day After: https://youtu.be/yif-5cKg1Yo

The Centralia Mine Fire: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centralia_mine_fire

Fernando Pessoa – The Book of Disquiet: http://amzn.to/2xpfyp3

Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son: http://amzn.to/2xikOJt

Kemble Scott: SoMa: http://amzn.to/2wAaSxT

The Castro Writer’s Coop: http://www.castrowriterscoop.com

Kevin Sampsell – Creamy Bullets: http://amzn.to/2hmRjhU

Slouchmag: http://www.slouchmag.com
Click here to for more details on this new episode of The Koncast

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bones and memories

I visited Indiana recently – actually, it wasn’t that recent, but I meant to write about it at the time, and now two months have passed. It was an interesting quick trip, for a few good and bad reasons, so I wanted to play catch-up and get a few words down on it.

I booked a quick solo trip at the beginning of August, partly because of my sister’s birthday, and partly because I had to cancel a family trip to Florida in the spring and felt bad about that. I got an out-on-Wednesday, back-on-Monday long weekend, which seemed to work well for me. Time was at a bit of a premium, but it’s a bit like visiting Vegas; a week is overkill, but a weekend is not enough.

Not to dwell on the bad, but here goes: first, I screwed up my rental car reservation. Arrived in Chicago, and had a car waiting for me in South Bend, when I really needed a car in Chicago to drive to South Bend. Second, on Friday, at about 5:00, one of my crowns came off. After much panic and calling a bunch of phone numbers, I found a dentist nearby who opened back up and glued the crown back in, which was awesome. I still ate mostly liquid for the rest of the trip, until I could get back home and have my dentist permanently glue in the tooth. Also, on the last day of the trip, I lost my credit card, and while at the airport waiting for a very late flight, I found out and had to cancel it. So that’s the bad.

I stayed in an extended stay hotel in Mishawaka, right near the University Park mall. It was on Main and Douglas, which was mostly vacant when I left Indiana, but since, a second main drag of big box stores and restaurants has started there, one big street over from the Grape Road arterial of the same sorts of big boxes. It’s always odd and nostalgic and weird for me to stay right by the mall where I spent so much time as a teen, but it’s a newer hotel, close to everything, and that works for me.

Every time I go back, it’s amazing to me that the default routes and streets and terrain immediately pop back into my head. A lot of Indiana hasn’t changed, or at least the “bones” have not. If you asked me to drive from UP mall to the IUSB campus, I could do it without thinking, just on muscle memory. Never mind that the IUSB campus has basically doubled, and every store in UP mall has changed hands, but the roads and turns are still the same.

Indiana does change, but on a very slow scale. I think people find a certain comfort in that, and it’s understandable. There are changes, and things fade and vanish, plus simple economics dictate amendments and revisions. Some chains die, and some mom-and-pop businesses go away with time, but new ones pop up. Sometimes things are completely bulldozed, like the Scottsdale and Pierre Moran malls, which were both torn down and “de-malled” into plazas of freestanding stores. But other things still have the same “bones” for better or for worse. Old first-generation Taco Bells get painted blue and turned into Chinese buffets. The UP mall got additions and food courts and new Barnes and Noble grafted onto its front, with the concourses updated and the tenants being bumped up in scale and stature. (Like the tiny Software Etc. is long gone, but across the way, there’s a giant new Apple store.) I walked the mall and tried to think of what was where, back in the day, but I couldn’t spot any one store that was the same, aside from the big Sears and JC Penney anchor stores.

Driving, though – driving from Mishawaka to Edwardsburg, Elkhart to Millersburg, those things all looked almost identical. The amber waves of grain were still amber waves of grain. A few were turned into new industrial parks or large retirement communities, but for the most part, it looked like Indiana had aged two California years in the last 25. And normally, a twenty-something me would have found this disgusting, that all of the state should get off their ass and progress at a rapid rate. But like I said, part of me sees the comfort in this, the idea that things wouldn’t change. I’ve always thought that many people in that area feared change, and I think there’s some truth in that. When I was 18, that pissed me off beyond end. As a 44-year-old, I could see why someone might like that.

Some things, though, have atrophied beyond belief. I went to the Concord Mall, which was a mile from my house, my default mall as a kid. When I was a teenager and worked in that mall, I practically lived there. I would go to the store and hang out even on my days off. Now, it looks like nothing has been done to the mall at all since the last time I punched out at the time clock in 1993. The Wards store where I worked is gone, converted into a Hobby Lobby that has locked itself off from the rest of the mall with huge glass doors. Almost every store in the mall has closed; most are covered in plywood. The old Osco’s drug store was converted to a food court, and every stall is currently empty, except for a single, lonely Subway sandwich shop. Some shops have these weird, temporary businesses in them, like a vacant store with a bouncy castle set up inside it, or the horribly sad dollar stores with nothing worth a dollar in them. There are multiple churches in the mall now; it seems like every business in Elkhart that goes bust turns into a church or a Mexican bodega. There was even a “church” that just beamed in the services from a megachurch in Kansas or Nebraska, and of course took your money. The mall itself was almost abandoned, nobody in sight, like an empty shopping center in a zombie movie. After seeing that, I made it a point to not do anything else in Elkhart, dredge up any more memories or see the old subdivision or school or anything else.

Not all of the region was that destitute, though. The UP mall was filled with customers, even on a weeknight. And I went to Goshen one day, and it was actually transformed from what I remember. Most of the main street was art galleries, and small mom-and-pop businesses, a wave of hipsterization running through there. In 1990, I had a girlfriend who lived on Main Street, and at that time, it was largely abandoned, boarded up and done. Now, there are these brewpubs and artisanal butcher shops and groceries, almost like something I’d see in the hippest part of a college town like Bloomington.

The thing that struck me the most was the feeling, the weather, the atmosphere. I haven’t visited Indiana outside of Christmas in years, decades. I think in the late 90s, I made a trip or two in October, and I drove through Indiana in April of 99, during my Seattle to New York move. But I don’t remember an August in Indiana probably since 1994, the year before I left. I’m very sensitive to temperatures and weather and the feeling of a place at a certain time of year, much more than I could ever describe it. And when I was there, the air held the same feeling as the summer before I first left for college, in 1989.

I so distinctly remember that summer, because it would be hot in the day, maybe in the 80s, but then at night, it would cool to the 60s. I was working days in a department store, just started dating someone, and we’d meet up at 9:00 every night, when the mall closed, to drive around aimlessly, stay up all night, go from Perkins to Bob Evans to Big Boy’s, making the loop of the few 24-hour places in Elkhart at that time. And I’d come home late at night, or early in the morning, and feel the summer’s humidity converted to a light mist, to dew on the grass. The summer had a certain freedom, of the end of high school, a brief period where I almost thought I had my life together and was leaving behind the shroud of depression that blanketed me throughout my four years there. But there was also the uncertainty and excitement and fear of packing up my entire life and moving it off to campus in a few short weeks.

Each day of the visit, I did the family stuff during the day, and it was good to see all of them. But then I’d return to the hotel, and either drive around by the mall, or walk at night, and just feel that weather, the cool evenings and the dew on my sneakers. (That’s another thing – there were no sidewalks by the hotel, and everyone was staring at me for walking, like wondering what happened that resulted in me not having a car.) Or I would sit in the hotel writing, with the windows open, feeling the air outside.

I spent a lot of time wondering if I could ever go back. There’s a part of me, as I plummet into The Crisis that has hit at this age, that wishes I had a three-bedroom ranch and a garage and a lawn and everything else, working on an old car or a boat or something. I know I could never live in Indiana because of the politics and money and career. And the crippling nostalgia of being back there would consume me. But it was interesting to see it for a moment.

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I wish someone would slap me every time I think probiotics will make my life complete

I always get disoriented when I fly open-jawed and land in an airport that’s different than the one I left from.  I don’t remember the last time I did it, but last night I landed in SFO a week and a half after departing from OAK, and it really fucked me up.  I walked down the concourse with this strong unconscious feeling that nothing was right.  I mean, I spent the whole flight sitting next to this bald dude with a handlebar mustache, black leather boots, and a crushed velvet suit jacket in a bright shade of burgundy, who read The Fountainhead in that sort of “look at what I’m reading” pose, and I really wanted to just say “okay, we get it, dude” but I didn’t.  It took me a lot of time to get used to being in the wrong airport and mentally figure out that I was on a different mass of land with a different drive in front of me, but the 50 degree temperature difference really negated that.

I haven’t been back in Indiana in two years, and I always hesitate to write about the experience, because I don’t want to piss off the people who call it home, or make it sound like I’m ungrateful for them taking time out to see this asshole who flew out from California that won’t stop bitching about a lack of vegetables and heat.  But it always puts the zap on me to see stuff back there.  I think this visit, I spent less time in a nostalgia black hole, and avoided a lot of old haunts, although it wasn’t entirely intentional.  Both the night of Christmas Eve and Christmas itself, I headed back to my hotel semi-early, and had thoughts of driving around University Park mall, maybe finding an old place to eat, and doing some serious people-watching.  And, of course, both times I was an idiot and didn’t realize that they closed damn near everything early, and I ended up back at the hotel eating candy bars for dinner.

I got a chance to meet up with fellow writer Steve Lowe, which was cool, because our Venn diagrams of South Bend-dom probably briefly touched decades ago and we didn’t realize it.  This leads me to my new year’s resolution (yes, another one of those posts): I really don’t know half of you people out there, and I never see the other half of you.  I need to make more of an effort to see people in the next year.  So if you’re in the bay area, please ping me, and I will do likewise.  I don’t care if we haven’t met before – we should grab a cup of coffee or hit a book store or whatever.  I need to do something with my life besides clicking the Like button on facebook posts.

So, saw the family.  Suffered through the cold.  Ate a lot of garbage, but only gained about a pound.  Almost hit a deer.  Didn’t write, which I wanted to do and of course I didn’t, so what the fuck.  I left Indiana a day earlier than I thought, due to a scheduling issue, and drove up to Wisconsin, then drove down to Chicago the next day to hang out with John Sheppard.  We went to this weird diner that was all classic diner food but vegan, built up out of various soy products, which was actually pretty damn good.  We got to hang for a bit, and scheme about our next big project, which is always awesome.

Speaking of, next project – you should go over to Paragraph Line and bookmark that shit.  We’ll be posting daily (we hope) dispatches, fiction, news, and other distractions.

Anyway, it’s good to be home, and I have to unfuck a million things here, piles of half-unpacked things and gifts that need to find permanent homes, and whatnot.  I got some nice little things, but after every trip back to Indiana, I always want to go Fight Club on my shit and start donating everything.  I also feel a need to do the same thing digestion-wise, hence my current issue with probiotics.  At least I will get a lot of reading done in the next few days.

Ok.  2013 done.  2014 coming up.  Still writing 2012 on my checks.  Gotta go finish this book now.