While others shop, James Warren can only dream of shopping
While others shop, James Warren can only dream of shopping
Victor Cruz

The Fall of the Mall

Welcome to mid-afternoon at Miami's only inner-city mall, Omni International, during the height of the holiday season. While other shopping centers like Dadeland and Aventura offer a cornucopia of the latest goods and teem with buyers, the Omni has cornered the market on holiday irony, subtropical style.

Meet 68-year-old James Warren, one of the place's most loyal visitors. He has been coming to the Omni on and off, through good times and bad, since it opened 23 years ago. You can find him before an empty display window at the building's northwestern corner, where J.C. Penney was once located. Warren offers an alternative to the hip-and-happening styles worn by mannequins in other storefronts. Sporting a dark checkered shirt and mismatched trousers, this unemployed laborer is laid out flat on his back. His eyes closed, he slumbers. The traffic zooming along Biscayne Boulevard beyond the handicap-access ramp and the sidewalk provides a lulling, almost oceanic rhythm. Royal palms cast a long shadow on the three-story, windowless, and dour Orwellian concrete façade. Suddenly the street denizen awakens and lifts his bald pate from a white grocery bag, which serves as both pillow and suitcase. Propped up on one elbow, he speaks, exposing a mouth almost bereft of teeth: "Just about every damn thing [in the mall] is closed! Don't make a shit bit of difference since I'm homeless."

Both Warren and this former mecca of consumer frenzy have seen better times. The Omni, located at 1601 Biscayne Boulevard in one of Miami's hottest areas, will almost certainly close this week after a long decline. (Managers at Continental Real Estate Cos. won't comment, but shop owners say they have received notices to depart by December 31.) When the mall opened in 1977 Warren was making money working in area warehouses. Latin American tourists and transplants flocked to the neighborhood. Sometimes he visited the food court. "The whole place was blooming. In the last four or five years it died by the minute," Warren comments. Now he takes his meals at Camillus House and the Miami Rescue Mission. After eating he scouts the neighborhood for sleeping spots. "After you're 40 they forget about you," Warren remarks.

Leaving Warren behind, you pass the gutted, glass-enclosed, green, blue and yellow display spaces and head toward the mall's official entrance. The scent of urine wafts by and pigeons roost along concrete beams; their droppings speckle the vacant structure's outdoor walkway. Near the garage exit, seven Portuguese tourists armed with cameras warily observe the pedestrian and automobile traffic along Biscayne. A homeless woman, who appears to be in her twenties, crosses the street. She gives her name as Christine Berry and requests spare change. None of the Portuguese speaks English. The four men, two women, and a teenage girl brace themselves and clutch their camera equipment. Berry's brown-tipped, unruly dreadlocks bounce on her head like rusty springs. With her left hand she bunches together the four corners of a gray blanket in which she stores her belongings slung over her shoulder. Looking a bit like a Santa Claus parody, she extends a cigarette and a lighter to the group. "I am the archangel Gabriel," she suddenly says, then begins to leave. "I am challenged to do the spiritual work of spreading the news of AIDS and its impact upon...." she adds before her voice trails off and is overcome by the sound of automobiles.

Next an immaculate silver Ford F-150 pickup turns into the Omni garage. A tinted window unrolls and 25-year-old Carlos Perez of Miami Beach calls out: "Is this mall open or what?" There are three passengers in the front seat.

A cab driver standing next to his yellow Impala responds: "Only few stores open now."

"Forget it then," Perez says. Up goes the window and the truck rapidly moves a few yards in reverse, then heads for Aventura.

You enter the mall, step onto the escalator, and what do you encounter? Five kids descending fast, squealing. At the first landing a lone security guard, walkie-talkie in hand, looks down after the kids. There's a worried look on his face. Asked if the boys were up to trouble, he says yes and refuses to answer any more questions.

Behind him, the Omni carousel, a two-tiered, baroquely ornate affair, sits motionless in the dim light cast by the Lerner women's clothing store. No children have ridden on the single or paired wagon-pulling merry-go-round horses for two years. Desiccated brown foam protrudes from the frayed edge of the purple seat cover on a circular coach. A stairway leads up to the carousel's second tier, unlit bulbs running beneath each step. The contraption's lavenders, violets, blues, greens, and golds anticipate the sunset that is just an hour or so away. Atop the cupola, whose ceiling is painted with pictures of tropical fauna and clouds, and whose rim is decorated with scenes from Miami's history, the mall's signature horse rises on a pole.

Asked about the Omni's closing, a clerk at Lerner responds with a Spanish accent, "They don't let us to give any information." Next door at the Lane Bryant women's clothing store, Artie Johnson and Louise Cash, two Overtown matrons, shop amidst signs advertising a 30-percent-off, "Everything Must Go" sale. A piped-in Frank Sinatra croons "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." "It's like Overtown is forgotten," laments Johnson, who wears a black baseball cap emblazoned with the word beauty. "I'm shopping for myself and my family," she adds with matter-of-fact assurance. Johnson explains that the mall, and especially its movie theaters, were one of the few outlets of entertainment for young folk in the area. "You feel lost when you come in this place now," she says.

Perhaps no one is feeling more lost at the Omni these days than Victoria Tang, the 54-year-old owner of Oriental Gifts, a shop near the carousel which specializes in Chinese and Japanese imports. When you enter her store a motion detector triggers a recorded message that welcomes you. Recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Tang says she probably has only six months to live. This may be her last Christmas. What will she be doing? Packing. She is hustling to move merchandise to her husband's shop, Oriental Imports, west of Miami International Airport. "I feel pain inside," says Tang, who can communicate in seven languages. She notes business began really slowing down only in the past three or four years. "Before people from South America spent up to $1000 here," Tang explains. "Now they have problems themselves. They don't come so much."

A few doors down at The Stockroom, a women's clothing store, employee Eneida Muñoz is awaiting customers. "I don't know where I will go when this closes," says the Hialeah resident, who has worked in the shop for the last two years. "I don't speak English." A rare customer walks in and the interview is cut short.

Although most shops are gone, some of the signs remain: Electronic Boutique and Amigo Toys, for example. But beyond the locked gates there is the look of an abrupt exit. In one store a red ladder rises into the ceiling behind a cash-register counter. Wires, bolts, and brackets protrude from spaces where other placards once hung. Radio Shack, located on the first level near the north stairwell, is brightly lit. The store's red-neon R buzzes constantly and loudly. Lights, computers, and television screens are on. Boxes of remote control Intruder trucks are piled on the dark, debris-strewn carpet. But there are no clerks and the storefront gate is down.

Up the stairs to the right is Great Expectations hair salon. A stylist who identifies himself as Kenny, casually dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, snips away at the hair of Robert Trinka, an insurance broker. Trinka is six feet, five inches tall. Since J.C. Penney moved out, he has gone elsewhere to find the tall-man's sizes he needs. For the resident of North Bay Village, who is employed downtown, there was no more convenient stop than the Omni. Now Trinka must fight traffic to get to Dadeland or trek north to Aventura. Trinka has a five-year-old daughter, whom he used to bring to the mall on weekends. He would get a haircut, buy her an outfit, and take her on the merry-go-round. His little girl was a big fan of the horses and the pictures of sky and fauna. "I might be the last customer," quips Trinka as Kenny grooms his sideburns with electronic clippers. "Maybe I'm supposed to get something; maybe I get to turn out the lights." Adds Kenny: "I hate, really hate [Continental Real Estate Cos.] for what they did to the mall. The people try to make a living and they don't care. They just close 'cause that's better for them."

Mall manager Peter Marrero says Continental executives have instructed him not to discuss the shopping center. Warren Weiser, Continental's chairman, declined to discuss the mall until the spring of 2000. What will become of it? A new mall would not be the best use of the property, comments Norah Schaefer, a prominent realtor. "Where are the shoppers? That's the problem with it. A demographic study should have been done in that area before it went up." She believes owners should rent or sell it for alternative uses. "A television production company might be good," Schaefer says. "Or maybe some of the space could be used for a nightclub."

Now it's closing time. From the height of the balcony a lone clerk at Lerner is visible below. She bends down, inserts a key into a spot on the lower wall, and the shop's gate rolls down. The view of sky through a large, slanted wall of glass includes exactly the same colors as the Omni carousel. Violet-blue open sky bathed in pinks, lavenders and blues, and trimmings of gold.


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