Tulsa, OK

Tulsa, Oklahoma's Promenade Mall Is a Prime Example of a Dying Tradition

Aimée Gramblin

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Empty Movie Theatre at Promenade Mall, Tulsa, OK. September 2019.Author photo.

I grew up in the 1980s and 90s — the era of the mall rat. My friends and I got dropped off at the mall before cellphones. We were young free-roaming teenagers until our parents came to pick us up. What freedom for 13 and 14-year-olds!

Saturdays we’d browse the CD store, shop for the best clothing sales, look in Bath & Body Works, drink an Orange Julius, and play ski ball and Ms. Pacman at Tilt, the arcade. We had the freedom to flirt, gossip, and just be. It was a glorious time.

My love for the American shopping mall came from my dad — kind of unusual, right? When I was in elementary school he’d take me to Sooner Fashion Mall (which still stands to this day in Norman, Oklahoma) to get pipe tobacco at the pipe shop.

I can still smell old leather, sweet cherries, and aged tobacco in my olfactory memory while I type this out. Later, we’d go home and he’d light his pipe while telling me his original “Red Fred” stories — a children’s tale he wrote just for me.

He also took me to the mall to get my ears pierced at Claire's and many years later I took my daughter to get her ears pierced at Claire’s — that was a disaster which ended up with earrings embedded in her earlobes and a trip to Urgent Care.

The Claire’s at Promenade Mall is now closed down, as are many other stores. About a year ago, in September of 2019, I took our daughter, to Promenade on a whim to check out the 75% off sale at Hallmark. I don’t like going to malls anymore. They house unoriginal chain stores. When I was your age, I can hear my dad say, the stores in malls were unique. Not anymore. Now, despair oozes from their walls.

The American Shopping Mall is dying. “Death of the Mall” is what one of my friends suggested I caption the photos in this story.

Our children belong to Generation Z and although they don’t know shopping malls like I do, they have memories of them. Our son, now 12 — almost — 13 remembers socializing with other kids and climbing in the play zone on the first floor. Our daughter, now 9 — almost — 10 remembers that, too. She also remembers the little rentable vehicles you could use to tow kids around the mall and the quarter candy machines — I loved them when I was little, too.

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Author photo.
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Author photo.

Both of my kids had birthday cookie cakes from the American Cookie Company. Cookie cakes were their favorite birthday treat for a few years in a row. They are pricey but were worth the joy on their face. I despised going into the mall, but I’d make the journey to the food court to pick up their cakes for the birthdays.

Now, the American Cookie Company at Promenade Mall is closed and there was only one food court restaurant open on the day we went. Birds were in the building. A friend told me the air conditioning had been shut off the week before. It was a hot September day and we were glad the air conditioner was working again.

The elevator was out of order and so was the escalator. We walked through Dillard’s, a rough-and-tumble mom with her tween. I generally don’t give a damn about how I look. I could see our daughter’s disdain for the old lady aesthetic Dillard’s has to offer. As we marched through, looking for the exit into the mall, several salesmen and women asked if we needed help.

Yes, please — help us get out of the department store and into the mall. Why, oh why did I come in through Dillards?

“No thank you,” I said and we walked into the wide expanse of the mall with barred-off stores to our left and right.

“Wow.” My voice trailed off.

“What, Mom?”

“Well, when I was a little girl…”

Yes, I regaled her with what I’m regaling you with and she put up with it pretty well, although I could see her eyes glazing over.

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Author photo.
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Author photo.

I don’t think I’d ever seen empty movie poster displays. It felt stark and critically important to document; a sure sign of the decline of the American Shopping Mall when even a movie theatre can’t survive.

How were major brands like American Eagle, Gap, Victoria’s Secret, and others not staying afloat? These were mall staples of the 90s and 2000s.

After I posted on Facebook to wax nostalgic with friends my age, Robert said, “Your Amazon addiction has killed it. It’s all your fault!”

He’s not wrong.

Although, Robert, The New York Times disagrees with your theory in one of its Economic View columns from February 13, 2020: “Never Mind the Internet. Here’s What’s Killing Malls.” Its top offenders include “Big Box Stores,” “Income Inequality,” and an emphasis on “Purchasing Services Instead of Things.”

Nevertheless,

“Analysts say as much as a quarter of America’s malls may close in the next five years.” — Sapna Maheshwari, New York Times

I have such mixed feelings about this decline though. What about the elderly mall walkers? Where will they go now? Do they still walk in the sad halls of the dying mall? When will its doors shut? Or, will it turn into the office model that many malls are converting into now? Or, an indoor ice skating rink, arcade, or fancy apartment living? A Hewlett-Packard office, Google headquarters?

Our kids sat on Santa’s lap at Promenade Mall and I sat on his lap at Sooner Fashion Mall. Our kids played in the play zone, and I wandered around in the early days of motherhood when I was lonely and grasping for adult interaction, but Promenade Mall is just not that nostalgic to me.

I’d rather go to a local store, a thrift shop, or an online retailer than set foot in a mall on most days. Once a year is plenty for me which is why I don’t feel much despair about the American Mall being of bygone days, sooner than later, I’d suspect with the plot twist of 2020 (coronavirus).

Hallmark didn’t have anything worth purchasing. We wandered upstairs and our daughter put up with my photo documentation of a dying mall. We went downstairs and I let her browse Bath & Body Works. She loved all the little bottles and smells as much as I did when I was a kid. Me? It smelled of overpriced synthetic fragrance but I enjoyed letting her roam for a bit. We didn’t buy anything there either.

I glanced at El Chico’s, a restaurant I spent many of my teenaged days eating Nacho plates in with friends, and as we stared at the empty movie theatre and our daughter remembered the arcade inside, Kriss Kross’s “Jump” came piping through the speakers.

A huge grin plastered on my face and I said, “When I was a little girl…” and went into the story about the time I lived in Oakland, CA, and saw Kriss Kross with a schoolmate and my 7th Grade teacher, Ms. Beselo.

Once again, she humored me. Then we left, empty-handed.

Department stores account for about 30 percent of the mall square footage in the United States, with 10 percent of that coming from Sears (which filed for bankruptcy in 2018) and J.C. Penney, according to Green Street Advisors, a real estate research firm. J.C. Penney, which declined to comment, has said store closings will start this summer and could eventually number as many as 250. Green Street forecast in April that more than half of all mall-based department stores would close by the end of 2021.

RIP, American Shopping Malls.

Originally published on Genius in a Bottle on September 16, 2020.

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