Eastland Mall was the core of my adolescent social life. The enormous regional, retail complex was, at the time, the largest mall of its type in the state of North Carolina. Its parking lot was so vast that shuttles were needed to transport Christmas shoppers from their cars to the mall entrance and back. For me, Eastland Mall provided the setting for my high school existence. It was where I took my first date (think dinner and movie at T.G.I. Friday’s and the Regal Cinemas). It was where I worked a part-time job (hello Belk Department Store). And it was where “meet you at the mall” signaled the start of a Friday evening. Looking back, I see that I was too young to understand the underlying social and racial bias behind the suburban mall movement, white flight, or the result of such forms of commercial segregation. To me, Eastland Mall was just the center of my universe.
A few years ago, it was demolished. Pictures of the mall prior to its removal have a ghostly presence. Its death was prolonged and difficult to watch. The large illuminated “Eastland Mall” sign, like an artifact of looted colonialism, was removed from its original setting and is now accessioned as a collection item in a historical society. Interestingly, the same social reasons for the mall movement became the very reason for its demise. Demographic change.
Something about this demolition makes me pause. Being an old, queer public historian, I have lived in the margins. I know that what seems central, solid, and standard can easily fall away. But this removal seems different – more intimate. Perhaps I am now old enough to personally experience, within my own lifetime, the effects of such social progress and change. I am no longer solely pursuing change; change is also being forced upon me.
People around me used to call me “Blue Sky” because I always saw the good and positive in a situation. I was also the one who would step forward and try to solve a problem. I had to encase my deeply insecure self with a dense layer of positivity as protection. Now that I am out, deeply flawed, and post-50 years old, it seems that rather than solutions, all I think about are the questions. I find myself pulling back, remaining quiet, and listening. That layer of bravado protection now seems like a suffocating obstacle, not a protective weapon. I am not so sure every problem has a solution. For the Eastland Mall problem, the solution was to remove it from existence.
When I was younger, I thought the past was a distant, observable, and clearly defined object. Frankly, not of much use. Like a thing you can possess or an artifact you can buy at a flea market, the past had no nuance – it simply was with what you visually connected. Now, in contrast, when I look to the past, all I see is an orgy of swirling, foggy, dimly lit shadows. My new truth is this: the only way to figure out what is in the shadows is to walk into the obscure.
The difficult thing is that for those who do chose to enter into the mess that is “history,” you put yourself directly in the violently damaging range of “nostalgia.” If there is one thing I have learned after 30 years in public history is that you don’t fuck with “nostalgia.” Nostalgia is the fog that diminishes our ability to accurately see the world around us. It will so reduce your vision that you can crash.
Nostalgia is fueled by words like “tradition,” and “precedent,” when what we really are describing is “memory.” Truth is, memory is rarely authentic, accurate, or in reality what occurred. In contrast, nostalgia makes money, pays salaries, and is fairly simple to market. In our Orwellian world of spin, nostalgia enrobes history like the fleshy substance of an apple. Is the apple the soft part or the seed itself? Again, I don’t have any answers; all I have now are questions. I feel as though I am about to enter a phase of my life that is masked by fog and difficult to maneuver.
Like the empty site of Eastland Mall, restricted by a chain link fence, what remains when something is removed? What part does nostalgia play in my memory?
I don’t really know.
All that I know is that it’s too foggy to continue. I have to pull aside, wait till this confusion passes. Maybe it will give me time to think. Maybe this is like a “time out” for me. I am placing myself in the corner.