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The Old South (Hills) 

South Hills Mall and Plaza in Cary.

Photo by Justin Cook

South Hills Mall and Plaza in Cary.

Nearly a year since my return to the Triangle, memories of my youth (or are they dream-memories?) continue to filter back at irregular and sometimes inopportune times, like a malfunctioning IV. The spaces of youth offer an indefinable sense of spirit and mystery, like architectural interiors in a Borges story. In one moment, I am hit by a feeling of the rough-hewn stones of the Church of the Good Shepherd in downtown Raleigh on a cloudy winter Sunday. In another, I'm holding my father's hand in an elevator in a claustrophobic art-deco-era office building.

The downtown Raleigh of the dream-past possesses a sense of the cosmopolitan—the Clyde Cooper's lunch counter, the narrow hallways of the old skyscrapers, the cobbled streets of City Market. Even then, the density of downtown was enchanting.

More perplexing, though, are the flashbacks to Cary's South Hills Mall. Cary's first shopping center always seemed to embody all the sodden sleepiness of North Carolina on a Sunday. When I was young, it was already known as the "old person's mall." The anchor store was and remains the Burlington Coat Factory. Even the model train store wasn't enough to entice us out to this mausoleum. Its brown, windowless hallways stunk of Mitchell's Hairstyling Academy chemicals and obsolescence.

I remember how excited my family was when the Crossroads strip mall arrived. And how glossy and modern Cary Towne Center seemed by comparison, with its vaulted ceilings, expansive food court and Electronics Boutique. South Hills was a remnant of the one-horse, country Cary of old; the new development reassured us that we were a part of the Research Triangle Park, that axis of money-power bringing us Southerners into the fold of East Coast civilization.

And yet, if the procession of malls across the Triangle were depicted as successive geological strata, culminating in Southpoint, South Hills reminds us that we come from the Bronze Age. It is our Olduvai Gorge. I have lost my teenage affection for Cary Towne Center—it's just a dying '90s mall struggling to rebrand itself, like so many across the country. But the sullen red brick and bubble windows of South Hills speak to me, seem to embody some essential truth of Raleigh and Cary, like Dorton Arena or N.C. State University—where our rural past meets our thrust for sophistication.

I still hate South Hills. As a kid, I was forced to go to the Burlington Coat Factory; As an adult I go there to wait in line at the DMV. But it has survived. Like many strip malls, it has become a locus for immigrant business. Late at night, travelers heading to New York and Atlanta clamor aboard the refurbished Chinese buses in the empty parking lot.

The model train store reached the end of the line this June, shuttering after 18 years. But many of the businesses that existed in the South Hills of my youth have somehow held on. How has that vacuum store stayed in business all this time? There's an aspect of the Potemkin village or a hologram to it—one day, I'll go to the DMV and the entire place will have disappeared. —Aaron Lake Smith

Aaron Lake Smith is the INDY's Raleigh Bureau Chief. Contact him at asmith@indyweek.com.

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