Thursday, December 30, 2010

The death of the Washington Square Mall...

The death of the Washington Square Mall has not been exaggerated.  Seriously.  And I have recently witnessed this particular death while Christmas shopping. 
For those of you unfamiliar with Ghetto Square (as a few east-siders call it), it has Target, Dicks, Burlington Coat Factory, and that’s about it.  Macy’s pulled up stakes a while back; there used to be a Gap, but they bailed years ago.  Upon entering the mall, the first thing you notice is that every other store is gated and locked.  The mall is literally half-empty, with signs promising us new shops coming in the near future, one-offs like “Ken’s Trinket Hut” or “Gold Diggers- We’ll Pay Top Dollar For Whatever You Steal From Your Grandmothers Jewelry Box.”  A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of walking past the new Hymnal and Prayer Book Shoppe, offering the best in Christian reading and Sandi Patty CD’s.  A few days later, it was closed.  However, the church that has opened in one abandoned store is thriving, giving multiple services through the week.  The lone holdout sprucing the place up a bit is a Victoria’s Secret, and God only knows how long they’ll stay. 
The food court always used to be my favorite part of going to the mall.  When I was a kid, I loved an Orange Julius or hot salted Sam’s pretzel.  Most malls today have anything from a Cinnabon to a Sbarro, some national chain offering halfway-decent food at your normal inflated mall price.   Those do not exist at Ghetto Square.  Instead, you get false and untrue “Asian” cuisine, mom-and-pop grease fryers suffering from an identity crisis because they really don’t know what the special of the day should be, their egg rolls or corn dogs.  And, due to the lack of a hungry throng of shoppers roaming the aisle, the guys behind the counter sulk at the register, staring off into space while their uneaten food broils for hours under the heat lamps.  Of course, you have your mandatory MCL Cafeteria at one end, and a BW3’s on the other.  Add in the Mexican restaurant with the guy playing Beatles covers on his nylon string guitar, and your east-side fine dining choices are complete. 
The kiosks in the middle of the mall aisles are always the most baffling.  One sells nothing but cell phone accessories, which is fine, except they’re hideous.  One will buy your gold at absurdly low-ball prices (man, when they open the Gold Diggers outlet, that kiosk is toast!).  Another does nothing except print dead relatives’ names and photos onto cheap hats and t-shirts.  And almost all of them have a sign on the counter:  “Wanted- full time experienced sales associates to work for a growing company!”  Which really means “We need someone to stand here and pretend like they enjoy selling crap.  By the way, no benefits.”
What makes it worse is the fact that the east side of Indianapolis already has an empty, decaying hulk of concrete and steel that used to be the pride of the shopping community- the former Eastgate Consumer Mall on Shadeland Avenue.  I did some research on the place, and discovered through that (ironic twist alert) one of the reasons Eastgate did not survive is because a lot of their stores left for Washington Square.  The building now sits silently idling- waiting for the big “makeover” while, in the meantime, the United States Marines and Indianapolis Fire Department use the structure for practice drills. 

So, while we understand why Eastgate didn’t make it, what’s the excuse for Washington Square?  Why is it that this side of the city has not one, but two failed shopping centers, and every other area has the gleam of a successful Simon Property investment?  I’m drafting my letter to the Simon Group, and though it might not end up this way, here’s what I have so far:
Dear Simon people,
In case you did not realize it at your headquarters, I thought I’d relay this message to you: the Washington Square Mall is dying.  As a consumer living in the Irvington area of Indianapolis, I enjoy shopping on my side of town without having to deal with the hassle and traffic in Castleton (worst traffic in the state on a Saturday) or Greenwood (the new Castleton, second worst traffic in the state).  However, you leave me with no choice, since you’ve created a watered-down, half-empty insult to the shopping community. 
Instead of quality, nationally-known name brand stores, we’re left with a plethora of knick-knack outfits, offering us items we’d only buy if we needed a $10 or less white elephant gift for the office Christmas party.  Indeed, you have no control when a store bails out due to bad sales, but it seems to me that you could have more influence in changing the image of the mall as a whole.  As much as I appreciate the fact that someone has turned an abandoned store into a miniature Apollo theater, I still have to drive 30 minutes or more to find what I’m looking for… yada yada yada. 
I guess I could say that it’s our fault, as consumers- we decided a few years ago that online shopping was the way of the future, and that places like Circle Center were the best thing since sliced bread.  But I still feel the sting, the slap on the face that only comes when you realize your side of town is considered second-rate, and businesses completely agree with the assessment.