Saying Farewell to the Galleria at White Plains

Edgarc19, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons by Edgarc19 (photo modified)

One writer reflects on the legacy and the final moments of the Galleria at White Plains before its closure in Westchester.

I witnessed the last gasp of the Galleria in White Plains.

The few “patrons” were almost uniformly dressed in wool hats and hoodies, hunched over tables in the food court, morose and alone. Pumped-in mall perfume did little to mask a smell of despair, and hardly a sound could be heard over the mechanical death rattle of the empty escalators.

A white-haired guy wearing super-thick-soled sneakers brushed past me, in a sort of lurch. He stared at me with a frozen smile, then veered toward the men’s room and disappeared. Had I just seen the ghost of Galleria Past, a lost and confused member of a forgotten mall-walkers club?

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I was instantly reminded of the classic 1978 horror movie Dawn of the Dead, in which survivors of a zombie apocalypse are forced to take refuge inside a mall surrounded by hordes of mindless flesh-eaters. Gazing at the zombies from the safety of the mall rooftop, one character asks, “What are they doing? Why do they come here?” Another replies, “Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

Edgarc19, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons by Edgarc19 (photo modified)

The Galleria was once an important place too.

When it opened in the summer of 1980, it was hailed by the local press as “a landmark project,” a retail colossus spread over one million square feet of indoor space that included 150 stores, 27 restaurants, two movie theaters, and two big-name anchors, JCPenney and Abraham & Straus. It was four stories high and had palm trees, a 12-foot waterfall, and a glass-encased capsule elevator.

“At the height of its popularity, the Galleria was a golden goose that hatched millions of dollars in sales and property taxes.”

Like a gambling casino, the Galleria was purposely designed to shut out natural light and any sense of the passage of time; it had an opaque skylight but no windows or clocks. People were invited into a hermetically sealed bazaar untethered from the outside world, where the object was to get lost from morning until night in a time-warped frenzy of consumerism. On that score, the Galleria’s alienating exterior was rendered irrelevant.

Somebody aptly described the building’s exterior as having as much relation to the land as an aircraft carrier: It was that profoundly ugly and, like the brutalist architecture of the nearby Verizon building, could have been created by Darth Vader himself.

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At the height of its popularity, the Galleria was a golden goose that hatched millions of dollars in sales and property taxes. Though it was a key piece of a successful strategy to transform White Plains into a retail destination, it did have its detractors — among them the people who were displaced by it. Hardly mentioned in the Galleria eulogies is that it came into being because of an urban-renewal plan implemented in the 1960s that seized 130 acres of downtown property, resulting in the leveling of 1,170 homes, half of which were owned by Black families.

Phil Reisman
Photo by Stefan Radtke

Now it is the Galleria’s turn to meet the wrecking ball, having fallen victim to a change in consumer habits, the rise of online shopping, and of course COVID. What will replace it is vague, summed up in the lingo of urban planners: “mixed-use commercial and residential.”

I went to the Galleria on Presidents’ Day, traditionally a big day for sales. Of the handful of stores that were still open, most were selling their remaining stock at cut-rate prices.

One of the diehard merchants was Ria Singh, who owned the A 2 Z store, selling an assortment of luggage, toys, kitchenware, and knickknacks. In prosperous times, she and her husband owned five stores in the mall; at this point, they were down to two (the other being Luggage n’ More, where everything was 50% off).

Standing behind a cluttered counter, in a sweater bearing the words “Girl Power,” Singh kept things in perspective.

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“It’s not sad,” she insisted. “I don’t get down. I don’t get depressed. You move on. I’ll tell you what’s sad: It’s what’s going on in Ukraine and Russia and all over the world.

“That’s sad. This is nothing.”

A man interrupted us. He wanted to buy a cheap pair of sunglasses. “That’ll be $5.99,” Ria said. “Cinco, noventa y nueve.”

Leaving the store, I walked by the mall’s capsule elevator. The door was shuttered, and a sign read, “Sorry for the inconvenience.”

I asked a security guard about it. He laughed.

“That’s been down for 10 years,” he said. “They ain’t gonna fix that at all!”

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