Ruins of South Jersey is a regular column featuring places that are now remnants of their former selves along with their stories, both historical and personal. If you know of a place that you would like to see featured here, and you have a good yarn to tell about it, email your idea to Dean P. Johnson at email@example.com.
By: Dean P. Johnson
I had done it yet again. Some mornings, we simply run on autopilot trusting our routine will get us safely to our destination without catastrophic event. But not this day. Here I was, in front of the lifeless, cold, weed strewn parking lot of what used to be my go-to WaWa. It did not matter that it had moved barely a mile down the street. That sort of deliberate deviation from a routine that took years to establish would still takes some getting used to.
Driving through practically any commercial zoned area in South Jersey, you are bound to pass a strip mall where you once regularly shopped that is now practically deserted or a former WaWa that was your go-to spot for that first cup of coffee of the day that is now empty and waiting to be repurposed.
According to the MLS, there have been eight area strip malls that have already sold this year, along with three pending sales in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties. However, there are three times as many strip mall listings that have expired without selling said Realty Mark Advantage sales associate, realtor, Linda Adams.
“Rural areas and those on the fringes of densely-populated areas are a harder sell, as are older buildings that haven’t been updated in awhile and so have a ‘tired’ look to them,” Adams said.
It’s not just the strip malls and convenience stores that are becoming seemingly disposable. The large enclosed malls are struggling, too. According to a report by Credit Suisse, a financial services company, an estimated 20% to 25% of malls will close over the next five years.
“America became over-supplied with malls,” Adams speculated. “There were simply too many of them. Too much of what was once a good thing and itself brand new once upon a time.”
Once upon a time, during the mid twentieth century, developers realized that suburbanites didn’t want to continue to drive into the cities to shop and began to create downtown shopping experiences in suburban areas. Many malls offered more than just retail therapy by adding educational activities, hosting concerts, pageants, and other special events.
But society’s tastes and lifestyles changed.
“The gap widened between the wealthy and the poor, and new generations were born,” Adams said. “The malls that have survived so far have managed to reinvent themselves to do so. For instance, Cherry Hill Mall and Moorestown Mall have both added trendy restaurants with more diverse cuisines into their mix, along with complete remodels of the malls themselves. I don’t know if they are doing as well as they were, but so far, they have managed to stay afloat.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, today many mall owners are now choosing to hand over their properties to lenders rather than try to restructure loans citing competition from online retailers. “Online shopping is now America’s go-to, so that has had a huge negative impact upon mortar-and-brick stores and malls,” Adams said.
While the closing of stores, of malls, of places we used to call ours may not have a direct financial effect on us, there may be some emotional fallout nonetheless.
A little over six years ago, when I first learned the Shore Mall (now called Harbor Square) in Egg Harbor Township, Atlantic County, was closing and portions were being torn down, my reaction was that of emotional loss. Even though I hadn’t shopped there in years (Hmmm…was I part of the problem or merely a manifestation of the larger societal shift?), the news of the mall’s demise affected me. So I loaded the wife and kids up in the minivan, and decided to take one last look.
It was eerie, almost post-apocalyptic. There was the place that used to be the arcade where I first played Dig-Dug and Q-Bert. Over there was the music store where I had bought the Grease soundtrack album, spending all the money I had with me and so did not have enough for bus fare home much to the chagrin of a very irritated mother. That empty space over there was where the cool kids always got their clothes, I told my children. Mine had come from the Sears catalog or hand-me-downs from older cousins until I got a job and was able to overpay for clothing myself. There was where we’d get pizza; there was where we’d get t-shirts; there was where we’d get this great orange drink and a hot dog!
These were the specific places that were foundational for who I was to become. These, too, were the places foundational of many of us. While the names and locations may have been unique, our suburban experiences, shared.
Many of the roadside ruins we now see are reminders of those collective spaces, those collective stories, we all share.
I’ll soon become accustomed a slight adjustment to my morning commute; although, we need to be careful not to become so complacent in what is that we have difficulty accepting what will be.