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Abandoned Malls Help David Giffels Understand Ohio

A photo of Rolling Acres Mall in Akron.
The site of Rolling Acres Mall in Akron will soon be redeveloped as an Amazon fulfillment center.

In an effort to understand Ohio, an Akron-based author is traveling around the state. David Giffels believes the key to understanding the country ahead of the 2020 presidential election begins in his own backyard.

His quest continues this month by looking at the realities of Ohio’s economy and the president’s promises to bring jobs back into the area.

Rusting and rotting
Giffels recalls President Trump’s visit to Ohio during his campaign where he referred to the state as "the rust belt."

"'You'--meaning us--'are all rusting and rotting,'" Giffels says, quoting then candidate Trump. "And that phrase really stuck with us."

Giffels says the Trump implied that he was going to do things as president to bring jobs back to the state. The promise was taken seriously by people who were desperate for some change.

"When we look at what’s happened so far in a place like Lordstown, where the jobs did not come back and, if anything does come back, it’s probably not gonna be the kinds of jobs that were there," Giffels says.

Giffels says the question then becomes what’s happening in these areas to bring jobs back and what kind of jobs they are.

"Who gets the credit for it?" Giffels asks. "And what will those jobs mean to people who really do need those jobs and who really did buy into those promises?"

Outside the Orange Julius
Growing up in Akron, Giffels says he does have fond, nostalgic memories associated with the malls in the area.

"Rolling Acres, to me, is the place where I bought my first guitar," he says.

He recalls going to Sears with a certificate he’d gotten for his birthday and finding an acoustic guitar in his price range – a guitar he still owns. "I associate the mall with that, even though it seems like a place you wouldn’t have that emotional connection to," Giffels says.

A photo of Rolling Acres Mall filled with snow
Photographer Johnny Joo photographed an abandoned Rolling Acres Mall with a layer of snow.

Johnny Joo is a Cleveland-based photographer who photographs abandoned structures, including malls. Giffels says Joo has done a lot of photographs inside Rolling Acres and other Northeast Ohio malls.

A photo of David Giffels' acoustic guitar.
David Giffels purchased his first guitar at the Sears in Rolling Acres mall - an acoustic he still owns.

Over and over, Giffels says, Joo heard heartwarming stories about from people about the time they spent inside the shopping malls that didn’t have anything to do with the questions of American commerce and consumerism.

“It was of meeting their eventual spouse, you know, outside the Orange Julius, or whatever,” Giffels says.

Retail changes
Euclid Square Mall is similar to Rolling Acres. The Euclid mall’s last store closed in 2006. In 2017, it began demolition to make way for an Amazon distribution center on the site.

Giffels says Amazon has been using old malls as a template for its distribution centers. He says it’s because they’re generally close to large population centers, major transportation resources and it allows them to get packages out in one or two days.

"And Ohio, for better or worse, has this higher abundance of failed retail spaces because of our population trends," Giffels says.

He was able to spend time talking to the planning director of Euclid, Jonathon Holody.

Giffels says the story of Euclid’s mall is very much the same as Akron’s and North Randall, where Randall Park Mall has also made the transition to an Amazon fulfillment center.

"People recognized the mall as this very visible symbol of failure," Giffels says. "And now recognize it as this really strong, powerful statement that our place has worth and can move forward."

Two steps forward, one step back
Giffels says cities have to make sacrifices to bring these kind of changes in, such as tax incentives and investment in infrastructure. There’s a lot of compromise.

"There has to be an understanding that it’s not just this sudden sort of, like, pot of gold that’s dropped in," Giffels says. "But it’s the real kind of compromise that a modern-thinking city has to have to make a step forward."

Giffels thinks something Ohio, and the Midwest, understands is that it’s always a grind. There’s an understanding that nothing is just a simple solution and the problem is gone, but that it’s a constant effort to fix the problems.

"It’s always two steps forward, one step back."