It’s easy to forget that the big box store is still young. Even in the relatively short history of U.S. suburbs, it’s a newcomer, spawned in the late 1960s and reaching its apex before the recession in the late 2000s. But within those four decades or so, tens of thousands of warehouse stores and malls changed what the U.S. looks like–a testament to how cheap and easy they are to build (about $45 per square foot, a third of what the average home costs per square foot).
“These places defined a very uniquely American experience,” says photographer Jesse Rieser. “There were a couple of years where that could have been a meeting place for you and your peers, a place to try to flirt with girls and fail miserably, or head to the arcade–or whatever it was. It was this 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s experience that a lot of people shared around the country.”
But over the past few years, Americans have stopped shopping at them as quickly as they started. The so-called retail apocalypse has seen tens of thousands of stores closed over the past few years, with e-commerce decimating fixtures like Toys “R” Us and Circuit City and hurting giants like Walmart, too. Rieser’s eponymous photo essay depicts hollowed-out malls and big box stores around Phoenix that have shifted to, as he describes it, housing “shipping, fulfillment, call, and server centers, now essential for e-commerce.”
The images hint at the less tangible effects of that shift, as well: “A lot of places, in smaller communities or suburbs, the grocery store or the mall is kind of a community meeting place–it’s a way that people find connectivity within their communities,” Rieser adds. “So what happens when that is beyond just endangered, but becomes almost extinct?”
Rieser, who grew up in Missouri but has roots in Arizona, talks about the suburban retail tracts of his childhood with a wary nostalgia. “It was so generic, and kind of depressing, and now, for whatever reason, I’ve started to find a lot of beauty in these spaces,” he says. In his photos, the sprawl he grew up hating looks romantic, full of sky-colored hues and neat, clean lines. The signage has been pried off, the traffic is gone, and the trash has been swept up by new owners.
They’re pleasantly empty, nothing like the familiar suburban ruin porn. Rieser hints at the complexity of missing a pre-internet incarnation of American suburbia–one that will feel familiar to, as he puts it, “People who grew up in an analog world now learning to navigate a very digital one–but for some reason, the digital one feels kind of sad.”