Why do I need a time machine to go to a good mall?

Malls are no longer the teen hangout they once were.

A+close+view+of+the+deserted+center+of+the+FSK+Mall...+with+its+ironic+%22Welcome+Back%22+sign.

Courtesy of Natalie Rebetsky

A close view of the deserted center of the FSK Mall… with its ironic “Welcome Back” sign.

In Season 3 of Stranger Things, when teen friends El and Max were skipping through the mall during El’s very first visit, the camera panned around at a bright, bustling scene with people everywhere. El hadn’t gotten out much, and her time at the Starcourt Mall was filled with excitement and delight, from trying on tons of outfits while 80’s music played, to eating an ice cream cone with her friend. 

Packed full of teens and families, malls were obviously one of the most popular places to be. I remember thinking that the television mall looked amazing, and I wondered where I could go to have that experience. 

Fast forward to 2021 and the weekend scene at the FSK Mall in Frederick is nothing like the mall scenes in Stranger Things. The fountain at the center of the mall is usually lonely, with just a scattering of people here and there passing by on their way to stores. Instead of crowds of people, there’s plenty of room for social distancing–because no one is there!

I don’t think it’s just the pandemic. Without a popular food court (there is only a Dairy Queen and an Auntie Anne’s Pretzels), there’s less reason to hang out at the mall.  And, we have so many choices outside of the mall–Starbucks, Panera, and  Chipotle.

Many stores are vacant, and fewer attract teens. It’s the last place I would think to go to meet my friends from school. 

Empty chairs near the center of the FSK Mall. (Courtesy of Natalie Rebetsky)

I started wondering how and why I missed out? Why do I need a time machine to go to a good mall?

My cousin Sydney Spradlin is a sophomore and occasionally we visit the mall together. She said, “The Stranger Things mall was lit, honestly. When I saw that mall and compared it with our sad little FSK, I was shook. Compared to malls like Westfield in Annapolis or Arundel Mills, there is a big difference. In Stranger Things, malls looked like a lot more fun though. And they were better lit and had cool neon signs.”

In the 80s, malls were full of brightly lit stores that gave teens tons of options in one place to find their style. Now, they are not as convenient as online shopping or even big box stores like Target, Old Navy and Kohls, with so many products in a single store.

More than just a place to shop, malls were also a place to have fun, hang out or meet friends. My dad, Scott Kilgore in the 1980s and had an experience more like the tv show. He would visit the mall with family or friends two or three times a week.

Kilgore lived near Westfield Wheaton Mall in Kensington, Maryland.  He said, “When I was really little, before it was an enclosed mall, it was a shopping center. They had a petting zoo and they had a huge Galapagos tortoise. You could sit on it and it’d take you for a ride. I remember riding it! In the summertime, Kenmont Pool was right across the parking lot from the mall . You’d go to the mall and have fun, then walk over to the pool and go swimming. We did that every couple of weeks.”

The unoccupied, coinless fountain at the FSK Mall. (Courtesy of Natalie Rebetsky)

He was often at the mall. “It was a two-level mall, and we’d walk up and down the whole mall and could spend an hour easily by getting a snack, window shopping and saying ‘hi’ to friends…it was always crowded and you’d always see people you knew,” said Kilgore. “Outside of the mall was Rivertown, which was an amusement park in a building. There was also a University Arcade that was a block away. We would go to those places, too, and play arcade games.”

It’s obvious that times have changed since those days. My cousin Niki Konkel was a teenager in the early 2000s. She recalled malls as a social hub, but she also realizes how that eventually changed.

Konkel said, “When I was a kid, I thought malls were one of the coolest places you could go on a weekend. Whether it was just to browse, meet friends to walk around together, or even tag along with my parents while they ran an errand. This point of view has really evolved because I don’t often think of going to the mall. It’s so easy to buy things online, try them on and send them back, so going to the mall can be quite a hassle.”

When I was a kid, I thought malls were one of the coolest places you could go on a weekend.”

— Niki Konkel

Even before the pandemic, malls were becoming noticeably less popular. With Covid restrictions and the explosion of online shopping resulting from the pandemic, people aren’t venturing out to malls much at all. Quite a few malls today are dying, with stores in the process of closing due to too few customers. Coresight research reports that 25% of the remaining U.S. malls will be closing within the next five years. 

Junior Emma Pratchios works at Hollister in the FSK Mall.  Hollister still gets a lot of foot traffic on the weekends, and teens are shopping.  “I think the store has definitely been less busy on the weekdays than it used to be, but weekends are normally very packed and remind me of pre-Covid.”

She added, “Most of the people coming in are older teenagers and younger kids with their parents.”

Nikki Konkel has some favorite memories at the mall, but, she doesn’t see the mall being a hangout for people who don’t have a specific shopping purpose.

Konkel said, “As a teenager, I went Black Friday shopping with one of my friends. We woke up super early, around 5 a.m., and waited outside of our favorite store to be among the first people to get their Black Friday deals. It was a one-of-a-kind experience and I’m glad I got to see exactly what Black Friday is like in person. This is one of my favorite mall memories because I don’t think I would go Black Friday shopping as an adult, mostly because of how easy it is to get online deals now, and I got to share it with one of my best childhood friends.”

The days of malls being the best place to find your own style, make memories, and interact with friends are disappearing. With everyone attached to their phone screens, you’re more likely to find teens posting on social media, texting or shopping online. Maybe it is just being on lockdown due to Covid making me crave lively mall excursions and old-fashioned hangouts with friends. Instead, all I can turn to these days are Instagram highlight posts and dull Snapchat exchanges.

Watching drone footage of the Frederick Towne Mall (older mall in the Frederick, Maryland area) is an easy way to see how empty, rundown and depressing an actual dead mall looks. The mall closed in 2013 with just Boscov’s and Home Depot open at each end today. There is new life at the mall today with Warehouse Cinemas but the movie theater will not revive the mall. The old mall will just be a different place altogether.

The nearly-empty center of the Francis Scott Key Mall. (Courtesy of Natalie Rebetsky)

I really wish I had a time machine because it seems to be the only way to get back to what malls used to be.

These days, I go to the mall once every couple of months for browsing and designated family time, but it is nothing like the Stranger Things experience. It’s not even like I remember from when I was young, with fun activities like fashion shows, trick-or-treating and other special events. At least we all have our memories!