Richmond’s Hilltop Mall Offered More Than Retail Therapy—It’s Where We Grew Up

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Hilltop mall exterior
The exterior of the now-closed Hilltop Mall, photographed in 2017. (Jon Konrath)

After 45 years of service, Richmond’s Hilltop Mall has shuttered for good. No one is surprised. Though many of the original architectural features from its glory days remain–the carpeted spiral ramp in the center rotunda; the abstract, decidedly-’70s, gold sculpture Solar Cantata (so enormous it will take some David Copperfield-level maneuvering to remove); the gurgling fountain full of pennies whose signature dank aquarium smell haunts our nostrils to this day—everything else has changed.

Once a gleaming testament to everything shiny and cool, most of the name-brand stores quietly pulled up stakes and moved away years ago. In their place were generic discount stores with names akin to “Stuff & Things” and “Stuff & Things II.” It felt like there were at least 30 different Sheikh shoe shops. Most everything else was gone. According to the Richmond Standard, as of last summer, only about 16% of the mall’s tenants were retail shops.

Hilltop’s demise is not unique. Experts predict that 25% of America’s roughly 1,000 remaining malls will close in the next three to five years. The coronavirus has only hastened a process that was already well underway. What will come of this swath of empty malls dotting the country isn’t easy to determine. Some are turned into distribution hubs or shifted towards other industrial purposes. In a few best-case scenarios the space has been transformed into housing, medical centers, schools or churches. Many stand empty for years, slowly eroding into disrepair or falling victim to vandalism.

Fittingly, a shop called Teen Paradise sits empty in the Hilltop Mall in 2017. (Jon Konrath)

Apart from a half-dozen military recruiting centers, a couple neighborhood businesses moved into Hilltop in recent years, including a barber shop and a martial arts studio, but it wasn’t enough to revive the community atmosphere that once thrived here. Walking through Hilltop any time over the past 10 years, I swear, you could hear wolves howling in the distance. It was desolate, cloaked in an aura of despair. D-E-A-D.

A homegrown meme circulated a few Christmases ago featuring a white Santa Claus at Hilltop Mall. He was wearing a red snapback baseball cap, an untucked white T-shirt, red pants and sneakers. He sat with a young boy at his knee in one of the small circular cement seating corrals, and though a few tufts of cotton balls at his feet did their best to impersonate a winter wonderland, not even the most stubbornly imaginative kid could suspend his disbelief. This Santa didn’t bother with a fur-trimmed red suit or candy canes. He wasn’t flanked by elven helpers. He was a Santa who had given up. The new mall mascot.

A Hilltop Mall Santa meme that circulated in 2018.

For a West Contra Costa County kid growing up in the late ’70s to early ’90s, Hilltop Mall was the spot. There were two movie theaters. There was an ice cream parlor called Scoopy’s with porthole windows that fogged up from the cold air blowing in from the ice skating rink next door. You could get your ears pierced by a disgruntled gay high school boy at Bedazzled and then go upstairs to Shirtique to pick up an iron-on shirt made right in front of you on a press resembling an oversized George Foreman grill. You could check out a row of puppies at the pet store (we didn’t know better), choke on some candle scents at Hallmark, or grab a brick of pizza at Lord Byron’s.

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Hilltop Mall was a place of discovery and first times. Kids crawled around on the polished tile floors when their parents were too tired to stop them. Others ran in circles in the carpeted seating area in a Cinnabon-fueled frenzy. There were fashion shows, Sesame Street Live! performances, and celebrity meet-and-greets featuring people like Robert “Epstein” Hegyes (from ’70s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter) and The Raiderettes.

I saw my very first movie at the Hilltop mall when I was so small my mom had to keep her purse on the seat just to keep it from closing up on me. When I was older, it was the first place I was allowed to take the bus by myself, igniting a lifelong desire for autonomy and escape. My friends and I would look for dudes, test out new looks, try to sneak into the back hallways and cause problems.

It was a place to shop, of course, but more importantly, a community hub of limitless spontaneous potential. Like a game of Richmond roulette, you might get a phone number from a hottie who didn’t go to your school or you might get jumped at the bus stop outside McDonald’s. You might find a pair of stirrup pants that made your ass look like God or you might get spit on by some devious kid from the upper floor who disappeared before you could make it up the escalator.

Spiral ramp in an empty shopping mall
Hilltop Mall's center rotunda (and sculpture), photographed in 2017. (Jon Konrath)

Of course online shopping killed the malls. We all know that. But it was also capitalism’s lack of imagination or inclination to do better. People still have the same human desires that sent us to the mall in the first place. A giant pretzel washed down with Orange Julius is awesome, but it was just a byproduct of the real reason you went to the mall: to hang out with your bestie. To be around people and immerse yourself in the circus of life. Not many large real estate corporations are motivated to reimagine the mall as the village that serves today’s community needs. So this is what we’re left with.

After the pandemic derailed plans for a mixed-use development and then a science and technology center, San Francisco-based industrial property owner Prologis bought Hilltop Mall for $117 million this past week. The company released a press statement that says it intends to “pursue a mixed-use development that includes residential, retail, and modern logistics facilities, which will spur further reinvestment, job growth, and economic opportunity.” But honestly, can you imagine anything human-centric coming from a company with a name like Prologis?

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Popular opinion predicts it will likely be a distribution center for a behemoth online retailer. No one will be watching the new Star Wars movie or sampling candy or learning to walk or picking out their most perfect prom dress in that building. I hope its future tenants are forever haunted by the referee-shirted ghost of Foot Locker and the faint, lingering smell of musty fountain water.