Walking through the sparse corridors of Hickory Hollow Mall, on the last Sunday afternoon for several of the mall's shuttering stores, it's hard not to think of zombies.
In George A. Romero's 1978 horror classic Dawn of the Dead, a hapless band of survivors takes refuge from a zombie apocalypse in an eerily vacant suburban shopping mall. At the time Romero made the film, such a mall was the current zenith of consumer culture — a vast outlying shed housing chain stores, food courts and mall-cinema multiplexes. Malls like it across the country, including then-new Hickory Hollow in Antioch, drained the lifeblood from the inner-city shopping districts (such as Nashville's Church Street) that once dominated local retail.
Today, however, it's long-struggling Hickory Hollow that is a shadow of its former self. A walk through the desolate mall echoes the isolation and dread of Romero's setting — minus, of course, the hungry undead. Although a few patrons shamble about, alternating expressions of confusion and boredom, the Armageddon affecting one of Nashville's oldest shopping malls is of a different, slower-burning variety.
Here the signs of the end times are empty storefronts, "going out of business sale" signs and metal screens quarantining the businesses from the outside world. Vendors wheel racks of unsold clothing out of a cannibalized Italian Collection onto the loading docks, the carts' squeaking wheels punctuating the Top 40 music that echoes throughout the cavernous space. It falls on few ears.
A mother and her young daughter loop the mall once, then twice. "There's not much here, is there?" the woman says, shrugging.
That would not have been the case during the mall's 1980s heyday. Back then Hickory Hollow was a hub of suburban Middle Tennessee adolescence, a sea on weekends of teased hair and parachute pants, ringed by carloads of cruising teens. Here a teeming throng giggled over the naughty novelties at Spencer's, ran up high scores on Satan's Hollow and Q-bert, and discovered the wonders of Chick-fil-A, gyros and Dippin' Dots.
But the economic rigor mortis of Hickory Hollow Mall has been setting in for decades. Fueled by shifting demographics, the rise of online shopping, concerns about crime, competition with other, newer malls for fewer and fewer customers, and a recession-era market that has decimated the bottom lines of most major retail anchors, the position the property now finds itself in is far from unique.
In February, The New York Times reported on the closings of hundreds of chain stores across the country and their impact on single-roof suburban malls, now outmoded by designs that embrace the New Urbanist "village" principle. From Buffalo, N.Y., to Detroit to Columbus, Ohio, the Times wrote, communities are attempting to adapt these relics of conspicuous consumerism into something useful.
Along those lines, the owner of Hickory Hollow Mall, Chattanooga-based CBL & Associates Properties Inc., announced on June 1 a multimillion-dollar effort to reanimate the flat-lining retail property. In conjunction with Metro Nashville agencies as varied as Parks and Recreation, the Metro Arts Commission, the Nashville Public Library and others, the company laid out a plan years in the making that envisioned a mixed-use future for the mall. A new community center, a public library and a satellite campus of Nashville State Community College would replace the gaping hole left by the departure earlier this year of two major anchor stores, Sears and Macy's.
"Mayor Dean and the Metropolitan Government have been instrumental in securing new uses including a community center, soccer fields and green space, all of which will provide valuable services to our community," CBL spokeswoman Katie A. Reinsmidt said in a statement. "In order to better facilitate this evolution and allow for the development of a plan for the remainder of the center, a portion of the retail will be temporarily closed. There are about a dozen retailers that will continue to operate."
CBL would not produce a list of the surviving tenants, nor would they disclose which ones are getting the boot. But one of the unlucky ones is Game Galaxy Arcade, a video arcade that, until recently, carried an unbroken 30-plus-year tradition of offering digital mayhem to the denizens of Hickory Hollow.
Today — the Sunday we visited Hickory Hollow — will bring that tradition to an end. It is the last day for Game Galaxy in the mall. Unlike some of the mall's fading retail establishments, though, the arcade is going out not with a whimper but a bang ... and a beep, a chirp and blasts of electronic noise.
Nearly 100 contenders — many more than the number of people wandering throughout the mall — are duking it out this afternoon in Soul Caliber V for the glory of becoming reigning champion in the 2012 Midwest Championships. Game Galaxy's owner, Jason Wilson, is busy managing the chaos. On the last day of business, Wilson tells the Scene he feels slighted by CBL's treatment of tenants with temporary leases during this transitional phase.
"They kept telling us, 'Believe in Antioch, believe in Antioch,' and that things would turn around once the school opened up," Wilson, 36, says. "They promised us for years there's a school coming, but when it finally happens we find out they want us gone. They're not upfront."
CBL declined to comment on Wilson's allegations, which include shielding itself from criticism over its handling of the transition by hiding behind the community center and less-than-forthright communications regarding the eviction process.
District 32 Councilwoman Jacobia Dowell laments the tenancy situation, but is optimistic about the effect the redeveloped Hickory Hollow Mall will have on her district and the city at large.
"From a community's perspective, when the people moved out to the Southeast Nashville area [in the mid 20th century], they saw this big mall going up," Dowell says. "It was exciting and new, and it was kind of at the forefront of their thinking. Now that portion of life, malls, are becoming extinct, and we're going to have to look at it another way.
"I don't know what was communicated with the tenants," the councilwoman continues, "but they knew [their lease] could be canceled with a short notice because they were on a short-term lease. When [Sears and Macy's] left, I knew it would be very costly for those tenants to stay in the interior of the mall, and although I know we're getting those [new] anchors, I do know that a business is not going to operate at a loss."
Dowell adds that she's worked to connect tenants with area strip-mall mangers to shepherd them through the storm.
Coincidentally, Wilson has found a place for 60 arcade cabinets at a nearby Antioch property on Hickory Hollow Parkway, and is shipping 120 machines to Madison Square Mall in Huntsville, Ala. Currently, a concrete floor is being set in the new Antioch location. Wilson says interested gamers should check Game Galaxy's website for a definitive opening date.
"I really do believe in Antioch, that's why we're staying in Antioch," Wilson says, "but [CBL] couldn't have made it any harder on us to do that."
A hopeful sign for Hickory Hollow's future, however, is the transformation that has undergone Nashville's first outlying mall, 100 Oaks Mall in Berry Hill. Cyril Stewart, director of facility planning at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, presided over the redevelopment of 100 Oaks in 2008 via a similar mixed-use concept. It features a university-run health care facility in addition to traditional commercial retail.
Transitions like the one now faced by Hickory Hollow aren't always easy, Stewart believes, and tenant-developer relationships need to be "carefully managed." But as painful as the process can be, he says, the modification of suburban shopping malls is part of an evolutionary cycle that retail companies have faced before.
"What you're seeing is, sure there's a re-urbanization, but you're also seeing tremendous growth [in Antioch]," Stewart says. "When I was very young, all shopping was downtown. Then you wind up with 100 Oaks in 1967, and that was the new hot thing. Then Hickory Hollow came, then Rivergate Mall, and the emphasis shifted to them. The thing that's happened over time is retail shifts and continues to shift. What ... we're seeing all over the country now is the revitalization of the concept of the mall, and that it's where the community comes together."
Councilwoman Dowell says the project's engineer, Gobbell Hays Partners Inc., will reveal more finalized concepts later this summer, followed by public meetings to tweak and modify them to better suit the community's needs. After that, she says, the new, improved and reanimated Hickory Hollow Mall will likely open in the fall of 2013.
"I want people to go there and have a space and say, 'Wow, this is amazing,' " Dowell says. "To say, 'This is a reason for me to leave West Nashville and come to Southeast Nashville.' I want to create a space like that. I think it's bigger than just a library in a suburban community. It's a space for the whole city to come."
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