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The Mall of Memphis lived for a relatively short 22 years. In 1987 over a quarter of a million people a MONTH visited the Mall of Memphis. Management felt sure that they were the future of shopping. What happened? Everyone has their own opinion and opinions vary wildly.
Ron Filbert, the mall's last manager, said it was big tenants' "business decisions" that killed it: in 2001, Dillard's and J. C. Penney left. "I think it was plain and simple," he said. "The majors left us," though "the downturn in the economy hurt us, too."
"Crime," he said, "had nothing to do with it."
Mr. Filbert may have been wrong. Crime did have something to do with it but not in the way most people think. It wasn't crime itself that killed the mall.
Of course, no one will argue that the Mall of Memphis did suffer because of crime. The Perkins and American Way area continue to lead the city in crimes committed today even though the mall is long gone. Crime is an unfortunate part of life in Memphis and one that is not being addressed stridently at the citys peril. The mayor has a staff of bodyguards - the rest of us are on our on. That's a topic for another time.
If you take a look at the Rhodes College study on the demise of the mall, you might disagree with Mr. Filbert too.
Based on study information, the Mall of Memphis was safer than the other local malls compared in almost every category. Why then, did only the Mall of Memphis rise and fall so quickly and why was IT the mall so well known for crime in the public mind?
At casual glance, the story is too easily filed under "Crime and Racial Issues". Even the New York Times reported on the Memphis Mall's demise - The New York Times (or New York Times article)- and they quickly/cleanly chalk up the failure as a logical result of "the" problem in Memphis; Race. Or more specifically, 'White flight'.
From the New York Times:
The Times did hint at another contributing factor - "Crime, and the PERCEPTION of crime, grew among blacks and whites alike"...
In this city, especially with its "history of racial tensions", it has perhaps become too easy to blame everything wrong on race. For many years, powerful political machines stayed in power by relying on that infamous racial tension. It served a purpose to promote racial discord - it brought in the vote that kept them in power. Mall management was not immune to racial difficulties either. MoM on K97
In fact, the Mall of Memphis WAS NOT well off the path of prosperity, as the New York Times implies. It was far more accessible than any other mall in town. 225,000 cars passed within 100 yards of it every day, commuters going to and from work on I-240.
In 1987, Dennis Allen, Marketing Director for the Mall of Memphis said “Our typical shopper is 31 years old with a salary of $27,000. He or she comes here on an average of once a week and spends $50 each time.” Mall research revealed that there were 219,000 people living within 5 miles of the mall, with an average income over $65,000.
White flight did of course change the demographics of the area. In 1990, the median income for Memphis was $22,674 - the median income for the area around the Mall was $26,129 - 15% higher than the city in general. By 2000 the median for the city was $32,285 and the area around the mall was $30,674 - 5% below the city in general. The white population around the Mall comprised 69% of the population in 1990 and had dropped to 39% by the year 2000.
But that is not the indictment of race and white flight that many would have you believe. During that same period:
Hickory Ridge Mall went through am almost identical shift in surrounding median income and both malls saw a slight increase in nearby hispanic population (4% for Hickory Ridge, 7% for MoM). The white population surrounding Hickory Ridge Mall dropped from 83% to 30% - a whopping 53% change compared to the Mall of Memphis area change of 30%. To believe that white flight killed the Mall of Memphis infers that it would have evaporated the Hickory Ridge Mall. It did not. White flight changes were most dramatic in the area surrounding Hickory Ridge Mall. The primary shopper shifted from white to black. The shopper did not disappear completely.
Southland Mall enjoyed an increase in surrounding median income between 1990 and 2000 while its nearby white population dropped from 26% down to 8%. It also suffered TWICE the crime per 1000 people that the Mall of Memphis did - 11.46 vs 6.69, a 10% higher property crime rate and a 14% higher violent crime rate than the Mall of Memphis. Oak Court Mall had a 30% higher property crime rate than the Mall of Memphis! In spite of these facts, the PERCEPTION was that the "Mall of Murder" was THE dangerous place to be.
Southland Mall, (which recently celebrated it's 40th Anniversary) adapted to the changing demographics and updated strategy to serve it's new customer base. It didn't just survive, it flourished.
White flight changed the surrounding neighborhood demographics of both malls. Even so, the facts show that there were still plenty of prospective shoppers nearby. People just quit going to the Mall of Memphis - white people, black people, everybody. Southland Mall saw it's shoppers change from white to black. Mall of Memphis saw it's shoppers of all colors disappear completely.
The reason people quit going to the Mall of Memphis was not racially based - it was fear based. The PERCEIVED danger of going to the Mall of Memphis was very high. Shoppers still frequent Southland Mall and Hickory Ridge Mall even though they are statistically more risky than the Mall of Memphis was.
The New York Times said that shoppers migrated to the more fashionable Oak Court Mall as white neighborhoods moved "farther and farther east". The median income of the area surrounding Oak Court stayed consistently above the Memphis median and its surrounding white population changed just 5%, from 94% to 89% between 1990 and 2000. Oak Court Mall is due North of the former Mall of Memphis location, not in the pattern following white flight to the east. It is in fact far closer to the inner city blight than the Mall of Memphis. Prospective Mall of Memphis shoppers did not all move out East with white flight nor did they migrate North to the more fashionable Oak Court Mall. The prospective shoppers still lived around the Mall of Memphis - they just chose to shop somewhere else.
Inept management responses to the public perceptions of safety problems compounded the issue. Choosing a cottonmouth snake as a member of a cast of endearing mall 'characters' for the Grand Opening was a bad decision, but easily corrected. Having elevated platforms constructed in the parking lots was a bad decision that could not be corrected in the public mind.
In fact, the construction of the infamous "prison guard towers" may have been the Jump the Shark moment for the mall. Why? Guess what a big, monolithic windowless structure with 90 acres of roof, lots of empty space surrounding it (empty parking lot) and guard towers looks like to passing motorists?
The public perception of the Mall being unsafe was only reinforced by the appearance of the Mall itself. Reporters actually reported the addition of the guard towers from the parking lot of the Mall and noted the prison like atmosphere.
Even though the towers were quickly removed, the PR damage was done.
If you have bothered to read this far, you have to be wondering why the perception of crime at the Mall of Memphis was so widely held. The facts show that the Mall of Memphis was not actually more dangerous than other Memphis malls. Most people living in Memphis in the 80's will tell you that there was always a higher awareness of crimes in and around the Mall of Memphis. You didn't hear that much about crime at other local malls. When a woman was tragically murdered at the Oak Court Mall, it was reported of course. The story was updated when the murderer was captured, tried, etc. but the mall name didn't become associated with a crime or crime in general in the public mind.
The Mall of Memphis was the largest mall in Memphis and and as such it became an instant landmark. This would normally be a good thing for a business by raising name awareness. In the same way that hotels in downtown St. Louis might advertise themselves as being in the "St. Louis Arch area", hotels and other businesses around the Mall came to be known as being located in the "Mall of Memphis area" or similar.
Soon, TV and print news outlets started to report East Memphis crime as "in the Mall of Memphis area". This was disturbing to Mall management almost immediately for obvious reasons. Stanley H. Trezevant, the man who built the Mall of Memphis explained that even in the first few years the Mall was open, crime that was sometimes eight or ten miles away from the Mall was reported as being in "the Mall of Memphis" area. There simply weren't any other notable landmarks nearby and sometimes new, green reporters or reporters new to the Memphis area didn't really know what section of the city they were in. This inaccurate location reporting problem proved to be an issue not just for the Mall but for the TV news industry in general as former Memphis TV news reporter Joe Larkins notes on his personal blog. Joe Larkins with more "Media at it again?" Know What You Report.
This situation could have been just a nuisance for Mall marketing to overcome - no business wants to be associated with crime reporting in any way of course. But fate had one more unfortunate misstep for the Mall of Memphis. An unfortunate item that is seemingly so small and trivial some people laugh it off as a ridiculous idea. The unfortunate item? The name of the Mall itself. The Mall of Memphis.
At some point after one of the more serious crimes at or near the Mall, someone quipped a reference to the Mall as "The Mall of Murder". It was just catchy enough to stick, unfortunately. Over time, and reuse the phrase rose to almost iconic status in the minds of shoppers in Memphis. When the reporters started using the dark name, it reinforced the negative connotations in everyone even more. The media missed no opportunity use the name as a dramatic hook to bring in viewers - every crime in the Mall or area became another chance to use it. "More trouble at the Mall of Murder, tonight at 10!".
Oak Court Mall, Hickory Ridge Mall, Southland Mall and Raleigh Springs Mall may have been spared such unfair negative reporting on their problems simply because their name wasn't as easy to work the word "murder" into for the early edition.
Mall management understood this though the insight came far too late for it to save the mall. In 2000 a renovation was planned and along with a park along the bank of Nonconnah Creek, to be built in conjunction with the Memphis Park Department - the Mall was to be renamed Memphis Park Galleria.
Memphis has long been burdened with politicians who use the racial problems that do exist as their personal meal ticket. And so far, it has worked great for them. However, new generations of white and black children are growing up here and most of them don't see the big problem with race the way their fathers and grandfathers did. This is most likely due to the fact that on the street in Memphis, race is becoming less a factor all the time. In the political rhetoric though, it's still the 1960's. As the next generation reaches voting age, it will spell the end of the "divisive leaders" winning by playing on color. In fact, In 2006, the 9th Congressional District - a long held black stronghold elected a white man to Congress - Steve Cohen. This is the beginning of the end for the "vote color' crowd.
Memphis truly has long been a racially polarized city, but as noted, that is changing with the newer generations who are now comprised of many races - all growing up together. The current Memphis Mayor does little to help fuel change because as the city's first black Mayor, polarization has served him well as a political strategy. Voting fell right along racial lines, regardless of candidate qualifications. Naturally then, one of the first "reasons" city leaders cite for the malls failure is "white flight". The "changing demographics of the area" is another way to say the same thing. The problem with these explanations is that the numbers don't agree. Was white flight a factor? Absolutely. Memphis could well be the world leader in white flight occurrences. Its obvious that a large percentage of the whites in the area moved away and were replaced by blacks and Hispanics.
Was this white flight the cause of the Malls failure as the New York Times implies? Unlikely.
The problem with blaming the dramatic Mall implosion on race and white flight factors is that it contradicts the facts in the Rhodes College study. Fear of crime is not racially based. It wasn't just white people who avoided the Mall. It was whites, blacks, Hispanics - everybody.
Even at the time, people knew it was happening... July 23, 1998
And no, it wasn't a media conspiracy.
Many factors lead to the perfect storm that destroyed the Mall of Memphis. There was increased competition from a new mall, Wolfchase (which is further out in the white flight migration pattern). Mr. Filbert suggested it was the big stores leaving the Mall. Government leaders with an agenda fall back on blaming race because it serves their purpose. In hindsight, the facts can be interpreted to indicate the heightened awareness of crime created by the media had much more to do with the Mall failure than the crimes themselves.
ALL the remaining malls in Memphis have lost big anchor stores, faced increased competition and certainly dealt with white flight.
In almost every category tracked in the Rhodes College study, other Memphis area malls and their surrounding areas fared worse in crime stats than the much maligned Mall of Memphis. Yet they they all managed to survive and adapt.
The Mall of Memphis did not.
In 2006, Wal-Mart evaluated the idea of building a Superstore on the former Mall site. The were attracted to the site because of the large amount of acreage available and the easy access to and frontage along the Interstate. The Mall location is an easy 10 minutes away from everyone living inside the loop (Interstate) in Memphis, according to Danny Buring of The Shopping Center Group.
When asked about the Malls history and the problems with crime, Gary Myers, principal of the Gary Myers Company had this to say:
"It (the Mall) truly was a regional mall, at one time, over 30 percent of their sales came from outside Shelby County". The site was always ideal for retailers. "It's just that the Mall of Memphis itself lost a public relations war against crime" Wal Mart
The Mall of Memphis lost a public relations war against crime.... the inaccurate perception of being unsafe killed the Mall. The perception was widespread and fueled by an unfortunately catchy slang name and the overuse of that reference in the by the media is the real story behind the Mall of Memphis failure.
Of course, there were many other contributing factors and issues and whatever the final combined reasons - the mall is now gone - forever.
When the Mall closed, its domain name www.mallofmemphis.com was purchased by Amazon.com (the "new" virtual mall) and used as a redirector into the Amazon.com site for several years.
After that, the MallofMemphis.com domain name was for sale by an investor who valued the name at about $5000.
That value continued to erode and in June 2011 we were able to purchase the MallofMemphis.com domain name for use with this site. We will continue to be located at both MallofMemphis.com and MallofMemphis.org in the future.
Want to financially help us keep this memorial online? Any help is appreciated and money goes directly to the hosting bill Support The Mall Site.
Could this story have a sequel? Hard Grip of Illusion Killed Mall
This site is about sharing opinions and ideas about what went wrong with our Mall and what can be learned from this story for the future. Everyone is free to add content to this site - no registration is required. We hope any former patrons of the mall will use this site to establish a meaningful tribute to our former hangout.
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