A couple weeks ago, I was going to post the Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island–the biggest mall in the metropolitan NYC area, and an IM Pei-designed landmark–because it had a brief run in the news after a bunch of teenage girls waiting to see teen pop sensation Justin Bieber caused a riot. Pretty crazy stuff for someone no one had ever really even heard of, but nothing new I guess.
This reminded me, though, of another time I got caught in the middle of something similar, back in the summer of 2007. And I never posted THAT event, and I was there! So here we go.
On one of my (many) trips to go out and collect photos and do research for Labelscar, my sidekick and I wound up on a Friday night in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a faded old mill town in the northeastern part of the state that nowadays is mostly known as the setting for “The Office.” Normally one of the benefits of taking vacations in places like Scranton is that absolutely no one else is interested in doing the same thing, so hotel rooms can be had cheaply and with little notice. Not so this time: I used four or five online aggregators, tried going direct to hotel sites, and nothing–EVERYTHING was upwards of $100. Eventually, after an hour or so of digging, I managed to find a lone Days Inn that let me stay for a mere $88. And believe me, I’ve stayed in some terrible Days Inns, but this one might’ve been the worst.
The next morning, sidekick and I headed out to start our trek, and our second stop was The Mall at Steamtown, which is right in the center of downtown Scranton. Despite that we arrived before the place opened, it was weirdly, bizarrely packed. The parking garage was nearly full, there were people everywhere… I couldn’t make sense of it. We went in and it became immediately apparent.
Hannah Montana is here.
This of course explained not only the crowds but also the hotel pricing–because families were descending on Scranton from all over Appalachia for a peak at Ms. Montana. In retrospect it’s already a bit funny to talk about the Miley Cyrus (aka Ms. Montana) frenzy in the present tense–not because she’s DONE, or anything, but just because this Bieber dude and those celibate werewolves in that Twilight movie seem to have stolen her thunder. But anyway, the place was packed to the gills with dedicated and screamy teen girls who just needed to see their idol. And of course, there was me, a then-27 year old walking around with a camera surreptitiously taking pictures of the “architecture.” I did not look creepy. Not at all.
OK, here’s where we get a bit more serious: Scranton, Pennsylvania is an old industrial city of 76,000 located in the Lackawanna River Valley portion of Northeastern Pennsylvania, and is the lynchpin city of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metropolitan region, which has around 560,000 people in total. Scranton was an industrial town that came of age in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century as a coal, iron, and steel town, and via the prosperity of these commodities grew to a population of 143,000 by the 1930s. Like many other industrial cities of this era, however, Scranton’s prosperity ended with World War 2, and went into steep decline for a long period through the 80s, when the region began to stabilize. Population losses have since slowed, although the region has struggled to replace the industries that were once its driving force.
The Mall at Steamtown opened in 1993 as a keystone of Scranton’s downtown revitalization. Featuring nearly 100 stores and 564,000 square feet of retail space spread across two levels, the mall was wedged in the center of Scranton’s downtown area and was meant to bring shoppers and activity back to the region’s core city from suburban malls and shopping centers. The mall was built with two original anchors–Montgomery Ward and Boscov’s–but it also contained a skywalk portion to connect to the historic downtown location of The Globe, a homegrown Scranton retailer, making for a third. This also made the mall’s total square footage a bit larger than what was really contained within the “mall” itself–closer to 700,000 square feet. The Steamtown Mall also featured one very unique feature–a pedestrian bridge from the mall’s food court that connected to the Steamtown National Historic Site, which contains exhibits honoring Scranton’s past as a railroad town.
Unfortunately, The Globe would last less than a year after the mall opened before shuttering. The space later became a Steve & Barry’s location, but since Steve & Barry’s went out of business the section of the mall has closed completely to the public. In addition, Montgomery Ward obviously shut their store at the mall at some point in the 1990s, and the space was quickly filled by The Bon-Ton.
By and large, the Mall at Steamtown does fairly well today as one of the main mid-tier malls in the region, even if there hasn’t been a dramatic impact on the surrounding downtown business district. In recent years, it (like Scranton in general) has been thrown back into the spotlight due to “The Office,” which takes great care to incorporate local landmarks as much as possible and has repeatedly referenced the center by name. There is at least one episode of the show that was set and at least partially filmed at the Steamtown Mall and in the mall’s parking garage, and the center has been referenced on the show many times (such as the site of the coffeehouse “Jitters”). As of summer 2007, when these photos were taken, there was also at least one vacant storefront that was dedicated to Office schwag as a nod to show.