Great Long Read: Ontario’s Failed Downtown Malls

February 20, 2018
Notable Nonfiction

Thanks to a friend on a Facebook group, I got to read Sean Marshall’s wonderful round-up story about struggling malls throughout downtown Ontario.

Marshall’s work mostly follows the narrative journalism structure form of notable nonfiction. He begins in the 60s and 70s before outlining the thesis of his article. and moves forward to the recent closing of Sears and how that will effect.

…downtown malls — mostly built with municipal and/or provincial government support — have been, without exception, commercial and urban development failures. Not only did they suffer from high vacancy rates, they helped to wreck the downtown cores they are located in rather than foster the economic revitalization they once promised.

After a brief look at the first Ontario mall in Hamilton in 1954, he then outlines the experiences various towns have had over time, describing creative adaptations to the spaces and demolitions when that occurred.  He ends with the recent closing of Sears and questions how that will effect malls that have functioned as built until now.

His story works well to capture emotion, in part because his overview of what happened in these malls encourages readers to think about their own experiences in them.

As Marshall described municipal attempts to use malls to renovate endangered downtowns, I couldn’t help remembering all the weekends spent at the mall as a teenager in Orangeville, a small town in Ontario. It makes me realize how much of a consumer culture I grew up in. All our meeting places involved buying something, even if it was only a hot chocolate. We met at the mall, at the donut shop and at the coffee shop in those days. Thinking about it, I’m not sure whether much has changed except that now I meet people in restaurants.

I like how Marshall kept his focus on the big picture of the rise and fall of downtown malls. At one point, he describes how various cities, such as Guelph, recovered the urban space taken up by malls. This also struck a chord with me because I spent some of my teenage years in that town also, usually studying at their library. Guelph has a wonderful downtown full of cafés and small boutiques. I didn’t even know it had a mall.

At the other extreme, the City of Guelph purchased its Eaton Centre in 1998, demolishing or rebuilding most of it. The Eaton’s store was replaced by the Sleeman Centre, an arena hosting an OHL junior hockey team and concerts. Most of the remaining mall was rebuilt as Old Quebec Street, designed to look like the original downtown street the mall was built upon.

Whether you live or lived in Ontario, I think Marshall’s story is well worth reading. Many of the trends he describes were duplicated across North America. If you’re in your fifties or older, let me know if it sparks memories of your youth as it did me.

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