A day in the life of Hilltop Mall
on October 31, 2014
There’s something eerily unnerving about walking through a deserted mall. Strolling through Hilltop Mall’s spacious walkways doesn’t feel like other places to shop. Instead you feel as if you are a part of a misplaced, artificial construction in some ready-made super-city, which everyone forgot to advertise and is left neglected.
Opened in 1976, at first Hilltop exacerbated the trend for businesses to move out of downtown Richmond. The bus journey from Richmond BART or MacDonald Avenue up to Hilltop leads through the Iron Triangle, North Richmond, San Pablo and past Contra Costa College. Then once over the windy hills of residential Rollingwood, the ring roads around Hilltop appear, with whizzing cars coming off the freeway.
You see many Richmonds on this journey. Inside there is evidence of many Richmonds, too – first and foremost, the Richmond that continues to fight and battle doggedly against bad economic conditions.
While Hilltop is not a mall with a diverse buffet of attractions, there is more to discover than the morose displaying of “JC PENNEY” as a sole advertisement emblazoned on the side of it would suggest.
It’s no secret that Hilltop Mall is struggling for business. Scattered throughout its two floors are shops closing down as well as covered up storefronts with ‘Retail Space Available’ signs. Hilltop reflects the economic difficulties of Richmond as a whole, with Saturdays and occasionally Sundays the only days that most stores have any sort of significant sales.
It wasn’t always like this of course. Business owners and shop workers who have worked long enough in Hilltop to remember the pre-recession era recall a time when the mall was like any other shopping center; a viable attraction for families and groups of teenagers throughout the week and on the weekend.
“It used to be really busy, really heaving with people,” said Mario, a middle-aged shop assistant at Shiekh Too, a footwear store. “When I was last working here up until five or six years ago, Hilltop was doing great.”
Just a few doors down is Deen, another middle-aged shop worker at electronics store Payless Wireless, who also recalls fonder times. “I’ve been here since 2007, when things were going great!” he said. “Since then it’s gone continually downhill.”
Since then, many parts of Richmond including Hilltop have gone through prolonged economic struggle. This has brought both disillusionment as well as an undercurrent of hopefulness that things will change back to the prosperity of yesteryear.
The disillusionment is borne out of the daily grind, which for many businesses, has produced precious little reward for years now. “It’s been a disaster around here,” says Gulam, the manager of Styles 4 All. “We’re really struggling. So many of the smaller stores are just waiting for Christmas to come”.
And yet in the face of a barely reviving economy, Hilltop’s independent retailers show the rugged, battling Richmond, fighting for its life. The seeds of a potentially diverse, multifaceted mall can be seen in a martial arts center, a few heritage clothes stores with Latino & Old Western garments, as well as a kids’ carousel and amusement rides.
Within a Bay Area that has its fair share of economic success stories, the diagnosis for why Hilltop continues to struggle varies with whom you ask. Qiu, the owner of an artistic, t-shirt-design store Customize It! believes Hilltop needs more attractive clothes stores to drag people up to Hilltop.
“Bigger, more well-known stores like Banana Republic and Urban Outfitters bring people in and attract customers because people want to shop there,” he said. “Hilltop mostly has ‘Mom & Pop’ stores which by themselves aren’t enough to get people to come here.”
With the sustained periods of low activity, the disparity between the few upmarket, recognizable stores that have stayed put in Hilltop and those smaller, independent retailers has increased. Foot Locker and AT&T happily hum along unaffected, while local stores face an increased likelihood of closing down.
However, there are only so many times struggling Richmond residents can buy a $60 pair of Nike shoes and an $80 AT&T cell contract, which is why Gulam disagrees with Qiu. “People can’t afford the high-end stuff, so why would that make a difference?” he said.
However, the pulling power of a variety of big name apparel stores doesn’t necessarily have to result in people spending their money there to be successful.
“Bigger name stores can attract people to the mall and then the smaller stores will benefit off them through more walk-ins,” said Qiu, who cites Southland Mall in Hayward as an example for which more household names such as Forever 21 and Radio Shack manage to attract more business, giving smaller stores the traffic to survive. “Smaller shops rely on the big-name stores for business.”
Ivan, a shop assistant at Foot Action agrees with Qiu. “If the Mall had more high-end stores, like an H&M, things would be different,” he said. “Sun Valley Mall in Concord has these stores and it’s doing pretty well, I think.”
Of course getting the big-name stores to Hilltop in the first place is a huge ask, given the record of low business levels, the very problem the big-name stores would come in to solve. Hilltop is left then in a Catch-22 situation in which business is low due to few shops wanting to locate there, while few shops want to locate their because business is low.
As a result the stores with the most local character, such as Kwaky’s, Treasure Island and Casa Blanca struggle against the tide of homogeneous, multi-goods stores such as JC Penney and Walmart, evidence of the economic downturn’s ‘survival of the biggest.’
Another factor inhibiting Hilltop could be Richmond’s reputation. “Richmond needs better PR,” says Qiu. “Its’ bad image affects things. People think of Richmond and they think of the news about people getting shot there.”
Qiu is aware of the injustice in this reputation being stuck to Richmond like an inescapable lapel pin. “But crime happens everywhere,” he said. “Places like San Francisco are no different, there’s crime there and people still visit it to shop. It just has a better reputation.”
“It comes down to an economic situation ultimately,” said David, a worker at the unmysteriously named Under $20 store. “People don’t have money to spend. If people like something but are in two minds about getting it due to money, these days they have to leave it.”
“The economy was great seven or eight years ago. That’s why people were spending money.” As David says this to me, a customer walks up to the till and buys a short dress. As she leaves, David remarks to me that it was their “first sale in four hours.”
Despite the gloom, while shop rents are relatively low and a consumer base remains untapped, a brighter future is always possible for Hilltop, like for the rest of Richmond’s businesses. Hilltop reflects many of Richmond’s problems: abandonment, stagnating business and political disarray. But it also remains, even amidst its troubles, fertile soil for hopeful business owners and a community that has never given up easily.
What does Hilltop Mall mean to you? What could be done to improve the attractions and prospects of Hilltop? Please get in touch in the comments below.
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