Scenes from a ‘ghetto mall’

Girl on Top

If anyone in the whole world is pumped about appealing to a large audience – literally and figuratively – it is Marianne. Proudly advertising clothing in sizes that range from 4 to 24, Marianne boasts a boxy logo and wares that make the flimsy trendoid squares of fabric at Forever 21 look like delicately sewn couture. Indeed, Marianne is precisely the type of store that should flourish in what is commonly known as a “ghetto mall,” where cost is considered over quality; where glitter and elastic are deeply valued commodities. Austin’s Highland Mall is happy to have her.

And yet, Marianne is closing soon. Her big, yellow banners say so. She has gone the way of Ann Taylor. And Jessica McCormick. They’re quietly slipping out of Highland Mall like sorority girls at a dive bar. Through the cracks of its occasionally duct-taped brown tile floor, a powerful strain of retail Ebola seeps through. And judging by the slogging, swaying gait of the stroller-pushing patrons, the virus may be going cross-species. Witness the slow crumbling of yet another one of America’s altars to consumerism. O Gods of shopping, what sacrifice might we make to save it?

photo / 33mhz Creative Commons license graphic Poop-streaked sign outside of Austin’s Highland Mall 

Highland Mall is not long for this world. Empty storefronts are filled with mannequins desperately displaying clothes that must be purchased at other struggling shops, lest they join the rows of floor-to-ceiling windows covered in black tarp. Shoppers who haven’t been to the mall in months walk in a daze, idly wandering into my own place of employment, asking what happened to their favorite stores.

I wanted a summer gig with minimum responsibility and minimum customer interaction, so Highland Mall was the place for me. I managed to land a spot at the quietest cash register in the whole place (with the possible exception of the Dillard’s fine furniture department). I can’t tell you where I work – I could lose a reliable source of beer money, and functional alcoholism takes precedence over full disclosure. But I can say this: There are a number of things that make my store’s existence in Highland Mall an anomaly. We have a major foreign city associated with our name, we sell products that are more likely to make you smell like Angela Lansbury than Angelina Jolie, and there are things we could sell just one of to make our daily retail sales goal of $64. I get a lot of reading done.

Built on leased (rather than owned) land, Highland Mall is likely to be demolished in 2010 to make way for whatever mixed-used development is next in line to house Austin’s ever-growing population of $30,000 millionaires – that horde of well-gelled young gents with sport coats and leased Bimmers who live the sorta-high life courtesy of Visa and MasterCard. And lo, the declining retail stores of Highland Mall begat the declining credit scores of bottle-service hounds.

In the meantime, let us celebrate the Highland Mall we know and love. Mr. Grillz kiosk, we salute you and your bedazzled mouthwear. The anonymous photography outfit that applies a hefty Diffuse Glow filter to every shot. The Food Court’s Potato Club, of which all starch-lovers ought to become proud members. And at Fun Zone, where the kiddie-sized train doesn’t really look so fun at all, we can only applaud the dedication to hyperbole in nomenclature.

While the Fun Zone no-fun train a-chugs a-long, I find myself behind the counter of a store that has nearly no business being inside a mall where the patrons’ physical or mental age, on average, is around 16. The more doilies a home has, the more likely that homeowner is likely to purchase my establishment’s sweetly scented products. You don’t get a lot of doily owners at Highland Mall.


“They won’t buy anything.”


My manager and I are playing Spot the Customer. If we’re going to make that dolla, we’ve got to make sure every middle-aged white woman who accidentally walks into Highland in search of something other than a gold mouth grill makes it into our store.


She is 89, and she spends $83. Still spry with a credit card.

I stop by Nine West on my way home, spending minimum wage on maximum-height heels. The cashier asks for my zip code at the register. “78705.”

“Daaamn,” she says, clearly impressed. “You stay downtown.”

I suppose I do stay there.

“Who stay with you? You got people in your place?”

“Just me.”

“HEY!” the cashier yells toward the stockroom, “This girl stays downtown!”

A girl with a slick black ponytail appears. “She at Highland. She can’t be that downtown.”

The saddest part about Highland Mall is not that it is a mere skeleton of the shiny bastion of sellitude that once was. The saddest part is not the total absence of the usual optimism that comes along with every winding arcade of storefronts that is the American mall. Most heartbreaking of all are the indoor advertisements that dot the now-empty retail spaces. In happy bubbles, in peppy font, there is a question some poor advertising flak – who has clearly never been inside Highland Mall – has plastered on every banner, positing to no one in particular and possibly no one at all:

“What brings you?”

photo / 33mhz Creative Commons license graphic Highland Mall’s food court 


Anonymous's picture

I HATE Highland Mall. They should demolish the shit out of that place, no one would miss it. Though Forever Twentyone does have some cute tops.

Anonymous's picture

They literally had a race war break out there last year during the relays. That’s pretty damn bad.

marty's picture

while the mall is pretty sad, the movie theater is actually quite nice. they were literally years ahead in the whole DLP movement that other theaters are STILL trying to catch up to. not to mention if there’s ever a really popular movie you want to see on opening night, you’ll never have a problem getting in there since everyone is soooooo scared of highland mall.

well, i may be a bit defensive…i do live in 78752 afterall ;-)

Mountain Barbie's picture

“She at Highland. She can’t be that downtown.”

Freaking hilarious….

Anonymous's picture

I love Highland Mall - so much better than the other pretentious, out of the way malls in Austin! I hope it stays open for a long, long time. I think the main prejudice here is that most of the people that go here are minorities and probably not as high income as those that go the suburban, icky malls. The saying is true - two steps forward, one step back! I say check your prejudices the next time you make a comment about this mall - shame on you bigots!

Anonymous's picture

i totally agree with the person above me. I hate all these pretentious assholes that say “Oh I hate highland mall. It’s so ghetto”. Well, Fuck you then. If you don’t like it, then fucking go to barton creek. As a person that has worked for the mall for two years, I can proudly say that I love this place. Yeah, this mall is GHETTO. There is no contest of that. But whenever I want to buy a shirt for under five bucks or a pair of shoes for less than ten bucks, I know where to look. Highland mall always has sales, and sorry but I couldn’t give a fuck if we don’t have a Bebe or a Banana Republic at this mall. Everyone that says they hate highland mall is probably some pretentious piece of shit with their daddy’s credit card anyway.