D Magazine (Oct 2011): Letter from Six Flags Mall
-or- Shopping Mall at the End of the World
Inside you will find a reminder of your own mortality.
By David Hopkins
One weekend, while trying to find a movie theater with no teenagers, I came across a listing for the Cinemark Tinseltown at Six Flags Mall. I paused. Six Flags Mall is still alive? The dread you often see in horror movies overcame me, that dread where the victims realize that their horribly disfigured and discarded friend is still breathing.
Of course, I had to see the damage for myself.
Six Flags Mall is located on the forgotten edge of Arlington, along Highway 360. It’s not that people don’t live there. They do. It’s not that there aren’t businesses nearby. There are. General Motors’ Arlington assembly plant, Cowboys Dancehall, and a few strip clubs such as Flashdancer have all managed to survive. However, as is the tendency with city improvement, one area is developed while another is neglected. Citizens of Arlington like to dismiss this barren, broken area as “practically Grand Prairie.”
At one time, Highway 360 was the main artery of Arlington consumerism. From the south going north, there was Traders Village, Forum 303 mall built in 1970 (which was downgraded to flea market status as “Festival Marketplace” in 1998 and then torn down a few years ago to make room for the Pioneer 360 Business Center), and Six Flags Mall, which was also built in 1970. This 5-mile stretch along Highway 360 is immediately before Six Flags Over Texas, Hurricane Harbor, Rangers Ballpark, Cowboys Stadium, and DFW Airport. Why couldn’t it survive? The Parks mall opened in 1988 at Cooper Street and I-20, effectively killing both Forum 303 and Six Flags Mall, as Arlington redirected its shopping needs. Now everything along I-20 and I-30 is busy and exciting. The recently unleashed Arlington Highlands, so young and proud, is the more popular shopping destination and a weekend parking nightmare. But I wanted to visit its predecessor.
My wife and I turned into the Six Flags Mall parking lot. It was empty, save for two cars parked next to each other. A guy in one car exchanged cash with a guy in the other. We continued to drive around the mall, noting some graffiti and boarded-up windows.
“Are you sure this place is open?” my wife inquired, which really meant: “Why can’t we go to the AMC at The Parks mall?” Does she not know how much I hate teenagers at movie theaters?
On the other side of the mall, near the Tinseltown entrance, was a small cluster of cars. We arrived early so we could walk the mall. At the front doors, a torn sign read: “Please close door behind you so that the food court could stay cool. Thank you, Management.” Walking inside, as far as I could tell, there was no air conditioning in the mall proper. Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” played over the loudspeakers. The place was incredibly creepy. The plants were either dead or had grown out of control. One palm tree threatened to break through the skylight above. A lone security guard walked his beat. Madonna sang, “Open your heart; I’ll make you love me.”
Only six shops are still in operation. These establishments are like parasites that feed off a dying host. The Tinseltown movie theater offers new releases at discount prices. The decor is circa 1990s, the neon years, but there’s stadium seating, air conditioning, and few teenagers, which makes it a real treat. Outside the theater, in the nearly abandoned food court, is a pizza-by-the-slice vendor named Italia Express (“Any slice + any drink $2.99. Refills 50 cents.”). Farther down, there’s Lalani Fashion, an authorized dealer of Dickies. Next door is Little Angels Shoppe, which offers all dresses at half price. There is the Dillard’s Clearance Center. This is the anchor store, and here I found Six Flags Mall’s life support. Ten or so customers milled about the racks in search of deals. All the air conditioning had been redirected to this store. It was wonderfully chilled. The top floor was closed off, but the bottom level was packed with discount clothing and home accessories.
In the middle of the mall, surrounded by nothing, is Pretzels Etc. Pretzels Etc. fascinated and terrified me. It is a great economic riddle sure to stump any business student. How does this man survive by selling $2 pretzels in an almost vacant mall? Who buys his pretzels? How many pretzels must he sell to pay for rent, bills, and basic necessities?
My wife noticed the pained expression on my face. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Mental spreadsheet,” I responded. You crazy bastard, at least the pizza place is near the theater! I want to grab the old man behind the counter and scream: “How do you survive?”
More interesting are the stores that did not survive. Entire sections of the mall are quarantined. Store after store—not just closed but abandoned. In some stores, merchandise and shop materials lay unclaimed on stained carpet. The gates were closed and locked. A few gates were damaged and chained together. I was curious about the sleeping bag in the storefront window of the arcade—next to a telephone and a paperback novel. Many of the signs were missing letters. I was awed by the number of stores that replace the traditional “s” with a “z”: Trend Setterz, Streetz, Modern Stylz, and K.D. Masta Grillz. Why do they hate the 19th letter? I also loved the stores that proclaim themselves to be municipalities, such as Pet Town and Scrub City. I enjoyed the enthusiasm of entrepreneurs who could not resist the exclamation mark: Fashion Photo! I was amused by the straightforward approach of the arcade that is simply named Arcade. I wondered if All Shoes $9.99 was too restrictive a name and whether Twin Dragon Martial Art Studio might have survived had it featured just one more dragon. I was most saddened to see the failure of Eargazum: Your Music Source. Pity.
After a few minutes of walking the mall, my wife asked if we could turn around and wait at the theater. She’d had enough of my exploring.
I would like to believe that a dramatic resurrection is possible for Six Flags Mall, that it could shake off the dust by opening a Cheesecake Factory and an Anthropologie, that the empty fountain could flow once more, that I could make Eargazum my music source. But I can’t believe that. And, truthfully, I like that desolate place as it is, because, more than a cemetery could, Six Flags Mall reminded me of my own mortality. Shopping defines us as a species. We are the only creature that has a Black Friday. What could be more human than hunting and gathering? And what could be more depressing than a barren wasteland with nothing I can drag to my cave? I looked in the empty store that once contained K.D. Masta Grillz, and I realized that one day I will die. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Or as Madonna sang: “I think that you’re afraid to look in my eyes, oh baby.” Six Flags Mall filled my head with cathartic visions of what the world will look like in the very end, when everything we’ve built and labored for is gone—nothing left but cockroaches and a guy selling pretzels.