One recent midweek afternoon I got the crazy idea to visit a place I once loved: the Boulevard Mall. It had easily been a decade since I’d last walked down those polished gray lanes, so redolent with childhood memories of family shopping trips. I remember drifting down the decorated holiday walkway, the joyful bustle of people carrying bags bearing presents, exhausted husbands resting on benches and puffing on cigarettes, as I searched for the perfect gifts for my family—with perhaps enough cash left over to buy myself some candy. In recent years, I kept hearing from people—people, it must be said, who also hadn’t visited in years—that the place had irrevocably lost its old charm. I decided to see for myself if this was just the usual grumbling of people in a city where “new” is sometimes taken to mean “better.”
The first signs were promising: As I walked through the main entrance, I was greeted with warm reminders of long-ago Decembers: the towering Christmas tree reaching up toward the mall’s domed skylight; parents in line with their children waiting their turn for Santa; the familiar façade of J.C. Penney framing the whole scene. Thirty years ago, my entire sixth-grade class took a Christmas-shopping field trip, the culmination of a weeks-long lesson on saving money. It was the mall in Las Vegas; even our celebrities shopped there. And now, contrary to what I’d been hearing, maybe there was still a bit of the old magic left.
But my hopes gave way to an upsetting reality as I turned down the main corridor. It wasn’t the mall’s condition that saddened me; it was its prevailing lifelessness. The Toys R Us Express was eerily vacant other than a bored employee wandering back and forth; the woman at the Luxury Perfumes counter unsuccessfully fought back a yawn as I walked by; the guy behind the counter in the collectibles store occupied his time on his smartphone; three different Foot Locker stores didn’t even have three total customers; and Victoria’s Secret seemed to be just that, with a lone customer inside.
There was activity at one far end of the mall, where about 15 girls were participating in a dance class inside the Mexico Vivo Cultural Arts Center—one of the tenants catering primarily to Hispanics, who now make up nearly half of the Boulevard’s customer base. The demographic shift hints at the possibility of a new, diverse vibrancy for the Boulevard. But even a store selling quinceañera dresses and the Hispanic Museum of Nevada remained deserted.
I wondered if the desolation was simply a sign of the changing way in which we conduct our holiday commerce, venturing out only for the price-slashing frenzy of Black Friday before completing the rest of our shopping online. This has led to the disappearance of media stores such as B. Dalton Bookseller and the Wherehouse, places where I spent hours during my childhood and which made visits to the Boulevard especially worthwhile.
As I made my way toward the mall exit, disheartened at the present state of my Christmas Past, I passed the only other reminder of the Boulevard of my youth: a row of four pay phones sitting unused next to The Body Shop. Nearby, a group of teens sat intently focused on their smartphones, seemingly unaware of their holiday-themed surroundings. Perhaps they were too busy doing their Christmas shopping to notice.