Thirty years ago, the Rolling Acres Mall outside Akron, Ohio, looked like the prototypical suburban shopping center of the time: High school students eating Sbarro in the food court, and crowds of people shopping at now-defunct stores like Waldenbooks. Today, boarded up and awaiting likely demolition, it’s filled with snow.
Photographer Seph Lawless, who previously documented the mall for a photo book called Black Friday, made another visit after a recent snowstorm. “The skylights had caved in,” he says. “As I looked up, snow fell on my face.”
The mall closed in 2008. “It’s up for auction, and it’s going to be demolished this year if no one buys it,” Lawless says. “It doesn’t really look like anyone’s going to be buying it. It’s been suffering a lot of damage…the roof was intact up until maybe six months ago. There are bullet holes throughout.”
It’s one of many dead and dying American malls. More than two dozen malls across the country have closed since 2010, and another 60 are nearing their end. Many more are in swift decline, including, ironically, the mall where George Romero filmed Dawn of the Dead in 1975. The zombie mall may soon look post-apocalyptic in real life.
Not every mall is struggling–those in affluent areas, that have stores like Apple or Tesla instead of JCPenney or Sears, are often thriving. But malls in more struggling neighborhoods may not last long. Lawless sees the malls as a symptom of larger economic problems.
“I was drawn to abandoned buildings, malls, and structures because the goal of my photo projects is to show a more vulnerable and honest depiction of America,” he says. “I don’t think the problems we face as a country will change unless we face these problems, and I thought we could start by simply looking at them.”
The decaying malls are also part of a larger shift; the suburban mall is just not a place that people want to hang out anymore. “Malls are nostalgic for me,” Lawless says. “Before social media and smartphones people went to the mall to talk to people. You just didn’t shop at these malls. It was a communal space.”
Lawless plans to continue documenting other abandoned malls, including those in other countries. Just as the original concept of the American mall spread around the world, so has its decline.