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Illustration by Jeremy Luther

Magazine | Okiecentric

Eastland: Where Malls Go When They Die

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Posted 07.20.11

Mock-tiled carpet, beige and hypnotic, spreads out beneath a grim gunmetal ceiling that is broken only by the central tented skylight—once a bright shade of pearl, now as brown and dingy as the unswept ground. The doors that open onto the southern suburbs bear no attractive signage or any indication of commerce. The glass awning is cracked and filthy, and odd electrical cords hang from the ceiling. The only furniture in the south entry anteroom is a single pay phone that seems appropriate here if nowhere else. Eastgate Metroplex, formerly Eastland Mall, bears the creepy aesthetics of a world unfinished, but also of a world worn down.

An IBC Bank franchise corners one entry. It is bordered by a nail salon, an office for Global Ventures, and almost nothing else save for a fountain, which sometimes spouts, and a gigantic sign for the Coca-Cola Enterprises taking up the department-store space at the faraway end of the western hall.

Eastland opened in Tulsa in the mid-1980s in the far-off northeastern corner of town, and you’d miss it today if you weren’t actually looking for it. Removed from retail hotspots and highway expansion, it is a ghost mall. Eastland’s glory days were in the 1990s, when it attracted out-of-towners from the near north—sometime commuters who lacked large shopping centers in their own cities and didn’t mind the occasional drive that a trip to the Eastland Mall necessitated. On weekends the mall’s north doors opened to a constant stream of visitors whose repeated patronage gave success to sit-down eateries such as the unapologetically midwestern Old Country Buffet—a spacious restaurant accorded prime real estate at the very front of the building.

But by the end of the decade, Eastland was all but dead. Anchor stores evacuated to more thriving locations and smaller venues drowned without their support. Shops fell like dominoes, and the building fell into ill repair. The neighborhood nearest the mall, ostensibly populated by its immediate customer base, became increasingly disparate. Occupants of the neighborhood began to ignore the mall in favor of a growing number of multicultural stores and service centers, from Asian and Hispanic food markets stocking spice, rice, pocky and shark meat by the pound, to churches catering specifically to Vietnamese worshippers. Taken as a whole, it provided the commerce and the pulse that the dying mall left behind.

Eastland looks different now and not for the better. What is not simply broken is instead painted and patched together crudely, with bland and uninspired signage adorning outer walls in a black-on-beige style that contributes significantly to the building’s look as innately ugly, and vaguely unsettling—both inside and out.

The property is not an impressive sight in any literal sense. It is no looming monolith or barren block of urban decay in the midst of prosperity.

Instead the mall is a curiosity, a rogue element out beyond the edge of town, where the traffic is light and the people are sparse.

While it certainly had its day, Eastland Mall did not get off to a good start, and the story of its labored beginnings is nearly as dreary as the chronicle of its demise, with the building taking an entire decade to construct and open.

“It took so long to get going,” said James Morrow, owner of a plumbing and mechanical business who worked on construction for parts of the original building in the early ’80s. One notable lull in activity resulted when a man doing plumbing work fell to his death through the unfinished Dillard’s roof, a blighting move that contributed to out-of-state financiers pulling out their funding for the project.

Despite the mark of tragedy that an on-site death brought to the construction, Morrow—whose company was hired onto the project sometime after work had already begun— believes that the main reason for the fledgling mall’s financial woes was more simple.

“I’m pretty sure they saw it wasn’t being developed anymore,” he said. Efforts to build further have largely been cancelled, with reasons ranging from the region’s odd geology—its limestone base is difficult to work with—to its far off location at Tulsa’s furthest borders.

Work on the mall stalled for years at a time, shifting management from one property company to the next until the cumulative work proved ample enough to call the Eastland Mall completed. By 1984, it was open to the public—and by most accounts, successful. “It was a real boomin’ place for a long time,”

Morrow said, vividly recalling weekend visits to Old Country Buffet, buying toys for his grandchildren and converting countless dollar bills to tokens in the game room downstairs. “Down at the east end is the only place they had spaces that they didn’t fill.”

Now, empty spaces are the building’s forte, and Morrow can remember its last days of prosperity well. “Everything just seemed to move on to greener pastures. Penney’s was the biggest anchor store, and that store just wasn’t making any money, so they closed that down.”

J.C. Penney’s was not the first store to vacate—that honor goes to the little- remembered large appliance outlet, Service Merchandise—but it was perhaps the most important. Staged at the heavy-traffic western end of the mall, it was Eastland’s flagship store. The sudden disappearance of these big anchors sent an obvious message both to consumers and potential vendors.

“I forget what they put in there, something temporary,” Morrow said of the empty space that the Service Merchandise left behind. Though it would eventually be filled by oddities such as Mickey’s Family Fun Center—a hybrid bowling alley, laser tag arena, restaurant and go-kart track. Its neighboring stores, no longer able to survive off of the foot traffic attracted by the larger merchant, began to close up shop en masse, being replaced not by more mall-friendly retail but by all manner of eclectic services.

“There was a Western music place that went in across the bowling alley,” Morrow remembered, recalling the brief tenure of a live country music bar, and straining to recall more. After a moment, he came up with nothing. “Doggone,” he said. “After [the bowling alley], I just didn’t pay much attention to it.”

Nobody else did either. As larger chains such as The Gap closed their Eastland locations in search of higher profits in other outlets, other small, unmemorable businesses arrived to replace them, none of which were typically characteristic of a shopping mall. Spacious stores became martial arts dojos, dance studios or storage for Tulsa’s public library. None of these ventures survived for long, making little impressions on consumers whose main goal in coming to the mall was to shop, not to sing karaoke. They did serve one purpose however; no customer to the mall could avoid the smell of the near-dead mall.

“It just died,” Morrow mused wistfully. “Died a horrible death.”

A closed mall is a surreal experience, its open spaces once decorated with fake plastic trees now barren and unadorned. The central promenade stretches from end to end, bordered on its sides by closed doors and darkened lights, with most outlets plastered up and concealed away behind fake-looking, dirt-colored walls, housing in hollow holds what was once a bookstore, or a clothing shop.

The cumulative effect of so many stores gone is striking. Call centers and telemarketers stationed in garish offices hidden away behind layers of sheetrock and closed doors are an odd commerce for this environment.

People work here but there are few visitors. As I entered, a fellow patron troubled me for the “driver’s license place,” a location that has been the property’s top draw for the last several years. Later, as I sat alone in a closed- for-the-day café, I was asked the same question. The third time someone drew near I felt compelled to offer directions.

“The DMV is by far where we see the most people,” said Monty Cockrill, a security guard for the mall who spoke with me as we stood, alone, in the mall’s north hallway. “[Though] the Subway does alright, too,” he added. Which seems reasonable—aside from the nail salon, whose only occupants were its achingly bored employees, the Subway housed the only customers in sight, treating themselves to the only fast food within a half-mile’s walk.

The DMV is massive, unusually so, and locating it is strangely difficult. The mall’s entire lower level has been converted into what is essentially a de facto waiting area. Only when you squint can you tell it was once a food court. The theater is a vacant void―dark, haunted-looking, separated from the rest of the emptiness by little more than three limping strands of caution tape, and the space that was once occupied by the arcade is now the fluorescently-lit work area of the DMV’s employees.

“That’s the most stark difference right there,” said one young man waiting in the court who, as a child, had often visited the mall. “It’s crazy how something that used to be so fun could become so boring.”

The origins of the shopping mall as a concept can be traced back to 1939 in New York, when it emerged half-formed from the mind of an architect named Victor Gruen. Gruen, an Austrian immigrant to the United States, knew he was on to something when he was commissioned to design a leather goods shop and created for it a flashy, eye-catching customer trap of a storefront. Decked with imitation marble and cages of ornate glass, his innovative design proved effective enough that he decided it if it worked for one store, it could work for an entire commercial center. In 1954, he put the idea to use with the Detroit-based open-air Northland Mall. Two years later, he designed the Southland Mall in Minnesota—his most famous work, and the country’s first indoor modern shopping mall.

The concept was revolutionary, and mimics of Gruen’s model began emerging all across the United States over the course of the succeeding forty years, with the most monumental example of its potential being the mammoth four-story Mall of America in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

Yet some malls like Eastland have floundered—and Eastland is far from being the most striking exemplar of the phenomenon. The Six Flags Mall in Arlington, TX, for instance, once a successful mall with a commercially-viable theme park companion, now houses only two stores within architecture that is firmly stuck in the long-decayed style of the 70s. Others, like the Dixie Square Mall south of Chicago, even lack appeal as relics,standing inhospitable as destroyed and dilapidated sites that today appeal to urban explorers as much as they ever served paying customers.

But the fates of most failing malls are hardly as interesting as these sites. For the most part, these sites follow the same trend as Eastland, either abandoning retail to become office spaces, or being razed to give realtors the chance to start from scratch. Regardless, it is very rare that a mall on the brink of death is revived in any significant way.

The future of Eastgate is vague, a leasing agent’s afterthought and a tenant’s awkward dread. The only certainty that the complex’s owners stand by is that the building’s time as a commercial center is over, with spaces instead open to services like the OSU Medical Center, and the University of Phoenix. Requests for restaurant spaces are heavy but go tentatively denied until such time that the Metroplex builds enough business to support more. As of now, no new restaurants or shops of any kind have been opened. In fact, there is nothing in the Metroplex that sells hard goods of any substantial sort—only fast food, coffee and candy for the employees who share the roof.

So where do shopping malls go when they die? Do they decompose into constituent companies, which all then beat retreats back to their home bases? Do they lose themselves to graffiti, rust and tangled weeds? As a child, I suppose I never could really tell whether the Eastland Mall was successful or not. I remember throwing my grandpa’s coins in its wishing fountain, and monthly visits to the bookstore. Though the building that housed the mall is still there and can still be entered, nothing from anyone’s childhood happens there anymore.