The scent of Cinnabon hangs heavy in the air at Lloyd Center Mall. Giant holiday decorations twinkle as "snow" floats down three stories to the nation's first ice skating rink inside a mall. George Michael's "Last Christmas" plays in an endless loop.
All the festivities can't hide an existential struggle. Even in the belly of the holiday shopping season, the mood at Lloyd Center feels closer to a going-out-of-business sale.
Covering nearly 23 acres, the region's largest and oldest shopping center floats like a supertanker stranded in the middle of a suddenly happening Lloyd District. The neighborhood is now home to more than 1,000 new apartments, and a long-awaited 600-room Hyatt adjacent to the Oregon Convention Center. Even so, there are many fewer shoppers than the mall's owners, Dallas-based Cypress Equities, would like.
In 2019, a vanishing mall is hardly news. Competition from Amazon—and other online purveyors that allow customers to shop from home—is relentless. Changing shopping trends nationally have claimed thousands of brick-and-mortar retailers and contributed to the rise of hundreds of "zombie malls." A 2017 report by Credit Suisse predicts 1 in 4 American malls will shutter by 2022.
But Lloyd Center isn't just another shopping plaza.
When it opened in 1960, it was billed as the largest mall in the country and was revolutionary for being located not in a suburb, but a central, urban neighborhood.
"What was so unusual is that it was built in the middle of the city," Portland State University professor emeritus Ethan Seltzer says. "That wasn't happening elsewhere, and it took other cities 20 years to catch up."
Over the decades, Lloyd Center established itself as more than just a place to buy things.
"For kids particularly, there are not a lot of places you can hang out when it's raining," Seltzer says. "It became the most intergenerational and interracial spot in the city. But now, it's a little like a ghost town."
Empty storefronts dot the mall's long corridors, and cavernous anchor stores are dark. On Black Friday, one of the few remaining big stores, the discount fashion retailer H&M, had a sign near its front door: "We are still open."
In 2015, Nordstrom abandoned Lloyd Center. Sears exited the following year and Marshall's pulled out in 2018, after complaining to the Portland Police Bureau, documents show, about the persistent shoplifting that has plagued the mall.
Concerns about Lloyd Center go back decades. A 2001 city development plan for the district noted that the moat of parking lots and garages that surround the mall "create barriers and broad, inactive spaces."
Although the mall is still a colossus—it pays more than $3 million a year in property taxes—there's been talk of scrapping it for a Major League Baseball stadium or converting it to another use.
Lloyd Center general manager Allie Stewart says the mall has an opportunity to evolve. "Our location is an advantage," she says, "as we evolve our uses to fit the diverse interests and values of urban Portland."
The mall is now a 2.4 million-square-foot question mark of concrete and steel, marooned in the center of Portland. So, on the busiest shopping week of the year, we went inside for a reality check.
We didn't find much optimism. "This mall is not gonna last long," said Yasmine Nasheet, a 20-year-old cashier at Gifts From Afar. "In two or three years, it probably won't be here."
Most of the regulars at Lloyd Center we spoke with expressed similar worry that the place was doomed, and we saw the symptoms of this city's most protracted social ills playing out in what's supposed to be a retail wonderland.
But we also saw the ways in which a space this vast and resilient can provide security and connection for many. If Lloyd Center disappears, a lot of people will miss it.
Here's what a week looks like in a mall on the edge.
"The thieves are getting shameless" | Stitchworks kiosk: 12:30 pm Monday, Nov. 25
A woman with a black backpack slips into the Victoria's Secret next to Atilla Dalkiran's kiosk. The 29-year-old Turkish immigrant gestures inside the lingerie store: "The thieves are getting shameless in there."
Dalkiran sells a rainbow of embroidered baseball caps in a high-foot-traffic spot near the skating rink. His location—sandwiched between a row of busty Victoria's Secret mannequins and an Express clothing shop—provides him a front-row view of the mall's busiest shoplifters.
"I see security all the time chasing after people; there are a lot of tiffs," he says. "Thieves go in with two or three empty bags, run out with hundreds of dollars' worth of stuff and sell it on Facebook Marketplace."
Portland's evident failure to deal with poverty and alcohol and drug addiction often manifests in the form of petty theft.
Even as stores fade away, Lloyd Center stands as a beacon to the light-fingered.
Victoria's Secret is a popular target because the skivvies it sells are small, expensive and easy to pocket. On weekends, the store's alarm goes off "every five minutes," Dalkiran says, and he suspects it's the mall's most targeted retailer.
Dalkiran adds, "There's a game between us kiosk workers: Someone walks in and we bet on whether it will beep when they come out."
At Express, the thieves are more obvious. "You see them wearing four or five pairs of [stolen] pants, layered on top of each other with the tags hanging out," Dalkiran says.
"This much stealing would never happen in my country, because people will beat you if they catch you," he says. "Here, people get caught and set free on the same day."
"A chill space" | Gifts From Afar: 2:40 pm Monday, Nov. 25
Omar Auld hands a clerk $20 for a 4-inch pocketknife.
The 14-year-old Benson High School student came to the mall with no plan—"just to chill." The idea to buy something struck him later.
"It's actually fun just walking around and not even doing anything," he says. "I'm just at home, school and the mall—that's what I do."
When you're a teenager (like the shoppers pictured above), there aren't many places you can loiter successfully. But nobody hassles him here.
"Usually, malls are hectic, but this is a chill space. I like the vibe," says Auld, a California transplant who lives in the Collins View neighborhood near Lewis & Clark College and arrived by MAX. "You can walk around and talk to people instead of sitting at home, staring at a screen."
Lloyd Center isn't far from the Albina neighborhood, once the heart of black Portland—before white gentrifiers drove many African Americans out. Despite that displacement, Lloyd Center remained a promenade where young people of color could meet. It's no accident the Portland branch of the NAACP relocated its headquarters to a second-floor storefront next to now-shuttered Marshall's.
Auld is tall and black with chin-length dreadlocks. He visits Lloyd Center at least once a week. He would miss it: "It makes everything so much easier."
At the mall, Auld can counsel friends, cruise for girls and eat. This afternoon, he opts to see Joker at the Regal Cinemas across the street, but he has time to kill first. He slides on headphones and strolls up to the ET-Star Virtual Reality booth.
As for the knife, Auld says he'll add it to his collection. He doesn't need it for protection: "I have never encountered any drama at all here."
"A place to duck and dive" | Lloyd Center Parking Garage: 5:10 pm Wednesday, Nov. 27
"We have a gray 2000 Ford stolen out of the Lloyd Center garage," says Officer Corey Cronkhite. "Let's go check it out."
Cronkhite, a fit, 32-year-old brunet who patrols the mall for the Portland Police Bureau, is in an unmarked SUV.
Shoppers park in Lloyd Center's dimly lit, often half-empty garages, shop and frequently return to find their wheels gone.
"A lot of people we catch, it's not their first rodeo," Cronkhite says. "When we run their plates, our system goes crazy," adds his partner, Officer Dustin Lauritzon.
The Lloyd Center lots are also dumping grounds for cars stolen elsewhere, and the mazelike quality of the garages is part of the problem. "Camera visibility isn't great," says Lauritzon. "It's a place to duck and dive."
The cops' turf is a 10-by-16-block rectangle around the mall—one of the city's most crime-ridden areas to patrol, they say. The Lloyd neighborhood had more reported crimes in the past year than any neighborhood east of the Willamette River and west of 82nd Avenue. One day last week, there were 19 calls in three hours, and things get more wild during the busy holiday shopping season. "It can be mass chaos," Lauritzon says.
Police records support his description. An audit of police overtime this year included the detail that Marshalls' decision to close its Lloyd Center anchor was related to a refusal by the Police Bureau to deploy an officer in the store for crime prevention. "Marshall's threatened to leave the Lloyd Center over it," according to auditors' summary of an interview with police. "[And] they did in fact leave."
Lauritzon, a bearded 27-year-old, is at the wheel. He hits the gas and they're off to meet Sasha, now carless and waiting in the cold outside Macy's.
The duo zooms by a shuttered, mall-side Stanford's steakhouse and then Holladay Park, which has seen a recent spate of robberies. Then they pull into the dreary, monochromatic parking lot on the hunt for Sasha. "She looks upset—that could be her," Lauritzon says, gesturing to a woman outside Macy's.
But Sasha is nowhere to be found. It's too cold to wait outside and her phone is dead. So Cronkhite leaves a message, and after doing a few more laps, they're off to another call.
"Work your way to the top like Drake" | Shoe Shine Boyz kiosk: 9:05 pm Thursday, Nov. 28
Greg Frye calls everybody "boss." That is, unless she's an older woman. Then she's "Moms." Can I shine your shoes tonight, boss? Where you going, boss? What you looking for, Moms?
Frye is 18, up from Los Angeles to sell Shoe MGK cleaner kits. He has dreadlocks, a gold grill on his teeth, and a constant patter. His fingers are stained creamy white, from the sneaker cleaner.
On Thanksgiving night, he's sold just five kits. The crowds aren't what he hoped for when he traveled to Oregon to assist at the family-run kiosk.
A teenager wearing Air Jordan 9s wanders by and props his right shoe on a wooden foot stand. Frye grabs a polish brush and starts scrubbing, explaining each step. "First, you go back and forth, like you're having an argument with it," he says. "You just work your way to the top like Drake."
As Lloyd Center's flagship stores vanish, mall management has tried replacing them with local pop-ups. It's mostly kitsch: pillows with images of Bill Murray, a store called Five 0 Tree that sells vaguely weed-themed hoodies but no weed. Massage shops and nail parlors have proliferated. The effect is similar to replacing a mall Santa Claus with other, lesser Christmas celebrities like the Grinch and Jack Skellington. (Lloyd Center is also trying that.) Everything feels frantic and impermanent: Whatever the future of Lloyd Center, most of these temporary merchants probably won't be back.
The kits at Frye's kiosk sell for $45 or more. Amazon sells the same brand of shoe cleaner for half that price. That may explain why Frye's job is to keep talking. A Latinx man in a gray tracksuit promises to return on Black Friday to buy an MGK kit.
"Why not do it tonight?" Frye asks.
No credit card.
"We take cash, too."
He doesn't have $45 in cash.
The man shrugs, ducks away. Frye turns his attention to the next passerby: "Hey, boss."
"Grabbing without thinking" | Macy's housewares: 9:30 pm Thursday, Nov. 28
The Martha Stewart Collection is in shambles. Terry-cloth towels are strewn, wadded and draped across the display shelves on Macy's first floor. Four hours after the store's holiday opening, shoppers had fondled and discarded the aquamarine fabrics, leaving them looking like the dumped contents of a teenager's laundry hamper.
The clutter distresses Bicky Huynh. The 45-year-old mother of two came to Macy's for the discounts—especially on shirts for her growing sons. She is already regretting it.
"Look at the behavior," she says, gesturing toward the towels. "Grabbing without thinking. How much do you really save, for the chaos you have to witness? It does not give me any pleasure."
Lloyd Center opened at 5 pm on Thanksgiving, letting bargain hunters hit Macy's, Old Navy and the Gap—and a few kiosks that opened in the evening half-light. Yet the aisles of the mall's sole remaining anchor store weren't crowded. Macy's appeared to staff each of its four levels with perhaps six employees—two of them security guards watching the entrances.
Who goes shopping on Thanksgiving night? Immigrants. That was the anecdotal evidence from Macy's, where a variety of languages mixed with the yuletide Muzak.
For Huynh, who arrived from Vietnam at age 7, this isn't a special night—just a chance to get her kids clothed. "Different days mean different things to different people," she says.
Huynh came with a personal assistant: a family friend down on his luck whom Huynh had invited to dinner—duck, not turkey—and who now pushes a rolling utility cart piled with Calvin Klein shirts and sweatpants.
But Huynh hates Black Friday shopping. "Even Fred Meyer gave me anxiety," she says.
Macy's didn't make her anxious: too empty, of shoppers and staff.
"It almost feels," Huynh says, "like Macy's has given up."
"I'm ready, partner" | Portland Bridge Club: 6:45 pm Friday, Nov. 29
The third floor of the western wing of Lloyd Center is dark—except for one glowing storefront. Inside that room, at wooden tables on beige carpet, five quartets of senior citizens play bridge. The only sounds are shuffling cards and quiet murmuring.
This is the Portland Bridge Club, a seven-day-a-week running game of cards with a 10-buck buy-in and a Friday night buffet.
It's the only business in Lloyd Center with more patrons than room. On Tuesdays, the busiest game of the week fills 29 tables. The club is thinking about borrowing space from the chess club moving in next door.
Three of Lloyd Center's six wings are now used primarily for purposes other than shopping. There's an English language school, medical offices, a stylist school and for-profit Carrington College.
The Portland Bridge Club moved in 2016 from a building on Northeast Sandy Boulevard—and saw its player base nearly double. There's ample parking and easy elevator access for people with disabilities. That's what bridge players need.
Dave Brower is happy to be here. Granted, Brower always seems happy: The Santa-sized Canadian computer programmer with blond curls purchased half the club in 2015 and now he evangelizes for bridge. "It's teach, teach, teach," says Brower, 46, "and I love teaching."
Across America, malls are being repurposed into new uses: libraries, community centers, hockey rinks. Part of what malls are supposed to do is bring people together. The draw doesn't have to be shopping.
Brower can tell you about every member of the club. Bridge and gossip pair well. But one story stands out: When a longtime player contracted colon cancer, the others contributed to his hospice care. And a woman travels to Lloyd Center each week to make sure he has a bridge partner.
Brower smiles. "What we want is, when we're like that, somebody will do something like that for us," he says. "Around bridge, no matter what's going on, you have to have someone who wants to spend time with you."
"The last store standing" | Joe Brown's Carmel Corn: 4:40 pm Saturday, Nov. 30
A group of elderly women grin like schoolgirls next to a vat of fresh kettle corn. The familiar, buttery-sweet aroma is like mainlining nostalgia.
"Hello, ladies, how can I help you?" No Lovanh asks. One of the women, 75-year-old Kathleen Brown, orders a bag, and Lovanh plunges a scooper into the tub. After he hands it over, she tells a story about how her dad used to love the stuff. He'd take her to the store—which has stood in the mall for nearly 60 years—as a treat when she was a teenager.
Joe Brown's is the only store that has remained standing since Lloyd Center opened in 1960. "There was an old couple that met here back in the '60s, and their granddaughter came in," Lovanh says. "She told me they were both on their death beds, in the hospital. And she was bringing them caramel corn to cheer them up."
It helps that the recipe—a combination of brown sugar and butter, cooked in a copper kettle—hasn't changed significantly since day one, Lovanh says. The company also distributes the goodies to Salem's fairy tale-themed amusement park, Enchanted Forest, and Portland International Airport.
On busy days, Lovanh sees 200 to 300 customers, often buying bags on their way to see a movie or a Blazers game. "Many stores have come and gone, but Joe Brown's is going to last," Lovanh says. "It will be the last store standing."
The Next Lloyd
Lloyd Center's death is not inevitable. Jennifer Nolfi, who heads the Center for Retail Leadership at Portland State, says that given the population density around Lloyd Center and its access to transportation, the mall can survive—if it's nimble.
"The retail landscape is constantly changing," Nolfi says. "It's not going away, it's just changing."
Lloyd Center has tried hard to reinvent itself, including a recent $50 million rehab. And it's announced a series of new initiatives:
In 2016, a Los Angeles developer announced plans to build nearly 1,000 units of new housing on the big parking lot adjacent to Lloyd Cinemas on Northeast Multnomah Street. It hasn't happened.
In 2017, Live Nation said it would open a new concert venue in the old Nordstrom space. A notice of application for a liquor license is still stapled to the wall there, untouched for more than two years. Lloyd Center general manager Allie Stewart says the music venue is going to happen: "Larger projects like these take time, but we expect to break ground on the entertainment portion in 2020."
In 2018, officials said part of the Sears space would be repurposed into high-end cinemas. They declined to comment why that hasn't happened. Nor has the upscale bowling alley Bowlero appeared that mall officials announced earlier this year.
Nolfi says while the big anchor store concept may be finished, Lloyd Center is making an effort to evolve. Across the country, malls have survived by shifting the range of services they provide.
Lloyd Center has featured seasonal pop-ups from local providers, such as Seven Virtues Coffee Roasters and the hip Japanese store Muji. Migration Brewing has a big space in the food court.
"Lloyd Center is pivoting to create a more relevant shopping experience where people can eat, drink and find locally made products with a focus on sustainability," Nolfi says. "Young adults 18 to 24 still want to go out and shop and have experiences."