Forest Fair Village (MONTAGE): a 98% defunct mall, frozen in 1991, that remains a feast for the eyes. (If they keep the lights on.)

My dead mall postings have routinely become some of my most popular articles, and I still have quite a few great spectacles that I could share someday, stored away in my photo archives.  (In some cases, the aging photos chronicle a mall in its sunset years that has since closed completely.)  I often avoid dead mall articles, quite frankly because there are more than a few vloggers out there who have completely upstaged me.  A video walkthrough is nearly always more captivating than my still photographs, all the better when it gets juxtaposed with found-footage distorted mall adverts from the 80s and 90s, courtesy of Dan Bell (whose postmodern manipulations of cheap local advertising reinforce the heavy Tim and Eric vibe) or the more apocalyptic, methodically researched technique of Salvatore Amadeo (who is equally fond of accompanying his footage with the vaporwave music genre—the dead mall soundtrack—and Romantic-era opera).

And these are just two guys; there are many more doing great work.  Not only is their coverage more captivating (and thus more popular) than mine, but they’ve chronicled considerably more malls than I have.  And they don’t neglect the obscure ones in smaller metro or even micropolitan areas.  So I have to distinguish myself by any means necessary—and if the presentation is lagging, at least I hope to make up for it with the richness of my analysis.  Nonetheless, I’m going to call this one a montage, because the photographs will dominate throughout this article, and I haven’t created a montage post in ages.

In addition, I will couch my exploration of Forest Fair Village (formerly Cincinnati Mall, as well as a couple other names) in terms of a broader understanding of the socioeconomic forces at work, particularly in light of developers’ increasingly desperate attempts to transform centers of commerce into major events—animated landmarks of regional significance.  With Forest Fair Village, an almost completely dead mall straddling two mature northern suburbs of Cincinnati (Forest Park  and Fairfield, hence the name), we have a mega-facility that, from all I’ve read, after a slow rollout in 1988, never achieved roaring success and therefore underwent numerous rebranding efforts over the years in an attempt to resuscitate it, concomitant with all the name changes.

The problems with Forest Fair Village Mall greet the visitor from the outset, as manifest by the sign visible from Interstate 275, presiding over a massive, mostly empty parking lot.

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If the deteriorated condition isn’t obvious enough, the naming should be.  It still says “Cincinnati Mall”, the facility’s official name from 2009 until around 2013.  In other words, the current owners haven’t even bothered to update the name on the sign, so for all intents and purposes, its name might as well not have changed.  Take a look at that expansive, demoralizing exterior.IMG_2205IMG_2207

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IMG_2201Don’t be fooled by the cars in the parking lot: most of my photos captured the busier niches within Forest Fair Village.  This mega-mall (1.5 million square feet) has two viable anchors of national repute: Kohl’s and Bass Pro Shops, while a local gym seems to have leased one of the former secondary anchors.IMG_2263Beyond that, a small portion of the parking lot seems to serve as staging and storage for Amazon Prime.IMG_2206IMG_2204And it’s probable that all those cargo vans belong to a separate logistical operation.  After all, Amazon Prime shows no evidence of leasing space in the mall itself.  And we can disregard those other two brands: Babies ‘R’ Us closed along with parent company Toys ‘R’ Us’s bankruptcy in 2017-18.  Meanwhile, Steve and Barry’s, the college-themed sports gear store, hasn’t been in business since 2009, serving as a clear indicator of how long much of Forest Fair Village has sat vacant.

Make no mistake: these photos capture the most economically healthy portion of the mall.IMG_2200

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The remaining 65% of its perimeter is completely moribund, and the entrances show how little in the way of aesthetic improvements the mall has received.

IMG_2265IMG_2266And the parking lot, vast as it is, once had a clear internal structure, with specialized parking for moms-to-be, and differently labeled sectors so patrons didn’t lose track of their vehicles.IMG_2264I’ll conclude this exploration of the exterior by featuring entrance from which I approached the mall, adjacent to the apparently well-regarded Bee Fit Health Club, which has almost entirely sequestered itself from the mall.

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This is the ugly, uninviting entrance, which the signs recognize as being dowdy (an awning is on the way), but it’s still better business for the gym than providing an entrance through the mall’s corridor itself…

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IMG_2212 …which did not appear to be serviced with HVAC.  It was a comparatively mild December day by Midwestern standards (probably upper 40s Fahrenheit), so the interior was tolerable, but colder than any operative mall would keep it.

But, for all intents and purposes, Forest Fair Village is not an operative mall.  How could it be, without heat?  Lighting is patchy too—not completely dark (skylights help), but certainly less artificial light than one would expect from a commercial facility open to the public.

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Which Forest Fair Village still is: 98% of it was accessible to visitors.IMG_2216And what a sight—not pretty, per se, and probably not most people’s definition of classy, but absolutely distinctive.  Outside of United Arab Emirates, this is one of the most visually compelling malls I’ve ever seen.IMG_2229Forest Fair Village, dead mall in Cincinnati.

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I’ll be completely corny and say I feel like my life is richer for having seen Forest Fair Village, all the more so because I suspect its days are numbered.  As someone else reported (probably one of the commenters on Dan Bell’s or Sal Amadeo’s vlogs), it looks like an old Nickelodeon game show set.  Clearly it evokes Nickelodeon’s prime in the 80s and 90s (from what I gather, Nickelodeon no longer carries the perception of being a very good television network), but it reminds me of my own coming of age—an era where pastels and Kandinsky abstractions and throwing as many hues together as possible constituted a design strategy.  Parts of it remind me of the garish Barry Levinson/Robin Williams movie Toys, from approximately the same time period.  Obviously it’s a horribly dated interior, but we are almost reaching the cyclical nature in taste culture where the stuff from 1992 was corny in 2008 and, thirty years after construction, it’s ironically cool again.

But, as whimsical and welcoming as the interior appears, it’s surprising how the emptiness and dim lighting casts a pall. IMG_2218IMG_2230

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IMG_2241IMG_2252Equally alarming: even in this state of desuetude, the mall was not close to empty.  Yes, there are still a few tenants left, with clear customers.  But even beyond that, during my 45-minute visit, I encountered approximately 25 people, often in some of the most desolate and vacant corners of the mall.  Most were probably mall walkers.  The one consistency was the dourness.  Sure, mallwalkers are often focused.  But Cincinnati is a typically friendly Midwestern environment; in low density settings, two people passing would likely greet one another.  But at Forest Fair Village, we avoided eye contact.  It’s almost as though the vacancy and the absence of some basic building services lead people to keep their guard on.  Perhaps there’s a reputation for crime even amidst the low patronage; I did witness one ostensible security guard on a Segway.

Regardless of the reason people continued to patronize this mostly dead mall, I would never expected to see children at play.

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But yes, that’s a toddler on the playground equipment.  The simplicity of the colorful treehouse probably helped ensure that it remained in good condition despite the general neglect, but it’s not typical to see graffiti on such installations in a well-maintained, properly managed mall.

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And who knows what function these ancient computers once served; obviously the valuable bits got ripped out long ago.IMG_2260

The playground serves as a mini node that breaks up the long corridor into separate themes, or “neighborhoods”, as Forest Fair Village refers to them.  The attention to interior design detail in this mall is already remarkable from more generalized photos I have provided up to this point; even more noteworthy is the fact that each “neighborhood” applies an unquestionably distinctive scheme, but they all still reveal enough similar artistic gestures to instill unity throughout.  The easternmost corridor adopts a sort of rural Americana theme.

IMG_2213IMG_2214I’m going out on a limb here, but the stars on the American flag and the red/blue motif vaguely echo the aging “Cincinnati Mall” sign out along the highway, leading me to wonder if this wing of the mall received a bit of a face lift during the short-lived Cincinnati Mall period, perhaps part of an aborted rebranding that otherwise would have carried throughout the mall.  Outside of the eastern wing, the flag does not seem to appear anywhere else.  Additionally, this is among the few portions of the mall that does not appear to be two stories.

Elsewhere in the mall, at the convergence of several of the neighborhood themed corridors, is the old movie theater (at the upper level) and the food court (lower), with an unusual underwater motif that may have helped divert attention from the comparatively low levels of natural light, compared to other parts of the mall.IMG_2219IMG_2242It’s rare to see a food court with such low ceilings.IMG_2243The atrium above features aquatic creatures suspended by wires.IMG_2220Apparently the giant fish are inflatable?IMG_2221This area also features one of Forest Fair Village’s two surviving inline tenants: Arcade Legacy, seen in the space below.IMG_2222It boggles the mind how this business can continue operating—one of three locations in metro Cincinnati, and it apparently keeps chugging along until midnight on the weekends, long after Forest Fair Village would have remained open when functional (movie theater notwithstanding).  The business isn’t on the edge of the mall; one has to walk through these creepily vacant corridors to get here.  But the proprietors probably pay next to nothing for the space.

Continuing into one of the other neighborhoods provides a different approach to Forest Fair Village’s signature pastels and gargantuan suspended objects.

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This wing also featured the entrance to one of the two surviving anchors.IMG_2233Much to my surprise, these doors appeared to be unlocked, meaning people could access the department store from within the mall—an atypical feature for malls this dead.  Usually the surviving anchor tenants partition themselves from a dead mall.  Even more surprising: the Kohl’s looked like a mess.  This generally well-run company, weathering the paradigm shift in retail better than most, usually seems impeccably maintained, but a quick glance into this location revealed heaps of disheveled clothes strewn about.  Obviously not a priority location for the corporate headquarters.

Not far from the Kohl’s is the only other viable inline tenant: B Adventurous, a play area for very small children filed with inflatables, and featuring what look like simple concession-style foods.  Interestingly, this business has one of the most elaborate ornamentations I’ve ever seen to a mall store entrance, let alone a mom-and-pop, whose entrances tend to be visibly economical.IMG_2234IMG_2237IMG_2232While it wasn’t crowded, it wasn’t empty either, though perhaps one might have expected a gloomy winter afternoon during the holidays to be peak business.  B Adventurous may never need huge attendance to generate revenue; the owners are undoubtedly getting their lease for a song.  Here’s a feature that particularly took me aback:

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The easel made overt reference to the notion of “keeping the heat in”—the business’s way of acknowledging that the interior hallways of Forest Fair Village offer little protection from the December chill.  Again, I found it unusual that B Adventurous would even offer access via the mall’s lonely, unheated interior, since punching a hole in the exterior wall would make more sense from a visibility and safety standpoint.  Perhaps B Adventurous offers access from Forest Fair Village’s massive covered garage nearby…if the garage is safe to use (from both a structural and security standpoint); neglected parking garages are usually a bad sign.  Most bizarre of all: why is the website B Adventurous a .org and not a .com?  Is it a non-profit?

In that previous paragraph I demurred before using the word “austere”—an unlikely adjective for such a meretricious and kitschy place.  But, although structurally sound, it’s hard to deny the evidence of neglect that inevitably accompanies a space with such poor capitalization.IMG_2238IMG_2224Here’s one of the few places actually blocked off…IMG_2246…using stanchions and barriers from Steve and Barry’s, a company that has been out of business for over a decade.  And the entrance to Bass Pro Shops isn’t as welcoming as Kohl’s.

IMG_2247IMG_2249Meanwhile, all the entrances from the exterior appear unrestricted.IMG_2248

But inside, with all this space, it’s inevitable that a few darkened corners would just get treated as disposable.IMG_2250 And the directory hasn’t been updated for at least a few years; it still shows such long-departed tenants as Burlington Coat Factory and the cinemas.

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And the last major tenant to depart, Babies ‘R’ Us, still looks like it could open again tomorrow, at least judging from the signage.IMG_2254IMG_2255And there was the occasional telltale sign of peeling paint or seepage (as in the ceiling in the photo above).  But all things considered, it’s amazing how unlittered, vacuumed, and generally clean the mall appeared…IMG_2253Forest Fair Village…with very little graffiti (outside of that playground) or vandalism…IMG_2251…except for one feature.IMG_2215Yikes.  This restroom did not have functioning urinals.  Though the toilets flushed and the faucets flowed, the restrooms had no toilet paper (or dispensers), no stall doors, nor seats.  And obviously no paper towels or soap.  Clearly not up to code.  And these were just about the only restrooms that were accessible; most others were roped off, which is a clear sign that the management is strategizing on what the absolute minimum is necessary to keep the space operable.  Since the two inline tenants clearly have heat, I guess they have functional restrooms as well?  As recently as the previous year, Forest Fair Village had HVAC according to some online references; and here’s a photo that suggests that in December of 2018, they offered some half-hearted Christmas decorations (none that I saw in 2019).  I cannot even find a website to the mall; just a Facebook page.

But let’s conclude this montage on a positive note.  The most central node, where all three wings of this triangular structure converge, is truly the stuff of children’s books.IMG_2245Not only is it inordinately large—this was the second biggest mall in Ohio after all (and the biggest mall is even more defunct)–but the developer clearly devoted more time and energy to interior design than I’ve ever seen, at least outside of Dubai.

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IMG_2226One can only imagine the sort of hullabaloo within the Cincinnati metro when this mail first had its soft opening: who isn’t going to be willing to load the kids up in the minivan and drive them out to see a gazebo of flying pigs?IMG_2227And yet this also becomes the imagery of a bitter irony: Forest Fair Village would only succeed when pigs fly.  Sure, I’d imagine virtually everyone in greater Cincy had heard of it, and probably half of all households had someone who had visited it.  But within three years after opening, the mall was considered a failure for never achieving what one would consider full occupancy (over 90% tenanted), and this was in the early 1990s—a time when the notion of a struggling mall was comparatively rare.

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IMG_2203So Forest Fair Village was the direct manifestation of a massive error in judgment—perhaps two or three.  A white elephant that stands, thirty years later, as a testament to both ego and a creative vision unrestrained by financial vagaries during conception, then clobbered by them after the execution.  While I’d like to assert that it’s reasonable to assume that Forest Fair Village won’t be around much longer, it has suffered for at least a decade, possibly fifteen years, where virtually all retail and commercial real estate analysts determined it was beyond resuscitation.  So what were those errors?  How does Forest Fair Village fit within the broader commercial context of the Cincinnati suburbs, and is there a counter-example?  This blog article clearly has gotten too long; stay tuned for part two to learn more.     

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19 thoughts on “Forest Fair Village (MONTAGE): a 98% defunct mall, frozen in 1991, that remains a feast for the eyes. (If they keep the lights on.)

    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Oh, it’s still going. Not going strong exactly, but it’s completely open to the public. You could hang out with the mallwalkers–though something tells me your ambitions are a big higher than that… Nice to hear from you!

      Reply
  1. AvatarJeffrey Jakucyk

    This is one of the classic dead malls, a virtual requirement in the repertoire of enthusiasts. There’s a couple of things I find fascinating about it. First, the fact that it’s still here. With all the trouble that it’s gone though, it’s mind boggling that it hasn’t been demolished or at least decanted into a power center or lifestyle something or other. Its demise is usually attributed to its close proximity to both Tri-County and Northgate malls, as well as being kind of out-of-the-way in a non-favored quarter of the region with weak demographics. It just wasn’t the place for any mall, let alone a super-regional one. However, Northgate and Tri-County are also in their death throws, and the fact that they’re all trying so desperately to hang on means that they may all end up falling to the wrecking ball, instead of one coming out the victor at the end to suck up what little market is left.

    The second thing I find fascinating is how it had two promising starts, with 90+% occupancy, but in both cases the tenancy quickly crashed. It’s like a car that you’re cranking on a cold morning, and it started up twice, but immediately stalled afterwards. After bankruptcy of the originating company and some of the associated anchor tenants, occupancy had dropped to barely half just three years after opening. With the mall changing hands numerous times throughout the 1990s and a couple of design refreshes and expansions, the Mills Corporation finally got their hands on it and spent tens of millions of dollars renovating it in 2003, at which point is was renamed Cincinnati Mills. This is the origin of the very 1990s themed design, which was dated even then, but was the signature branding of the Mills Corporation (think Gurnee Mills in Chicagoland). It was perhaps a bit less kitschy than Gurnee Mills, being a bit more clean and uncluttered compared to earlier implementations, but it still had very little staying power.

    Anyway, the newly renovated mall had occupancy back above 90%, but by 2007 it had fallen to barely half, and the Mills Corporation was itself mired in legal trouble from accounting fraud. Simon Properties bought out the Mills Corporation and shortly sold the mall to a local holding company who rebranded it with the uninspired Cincinnati Mall moniker. The 2008 recession took a toll on what little was left, and it’s just limped along every since.

    One last interesting thing is that it’s only very recently that the inline parts of the mall have been allowed to deteriorate in any appreciable way. You could say its final claim to fame is how long it lasted as a completely intact, well-maintained, conditioned, and clean mall, just with virtually no tenants. That gave it a more bizarre feel, like you were walking around a mall that wasn’t dead, just closed, during the daytime, with muzak playing. I guess it’s no surprise that they can’t even keep that up anymore.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Glad to get your firsthand perspective on this, Jeffrey, with the rigor I would have expected. Your account largely aligns with what I’ve researched as well–at least the part that I knew. It’s funny how, each time there’s a major investment in Forest Fair/Cincinnati Mills/etc, occupancy would shoot up briefly, only to fall again, like the High Striker at the state fair. Proof positive that a poor location cannot sustain retail for long, no matter how attractive the facilities might be. It sounds like the original developer, LJ Hooker, had little to no understanding of the Cincinnati market (being Australian couldn’t have helped; he may not have understand American suburbanization patterns in general). But its proximity to two other malls should have been a dead giveaway.

      What you revealed that I didn’t know before was the interior’s age. You’re right: it absolutely screams 1990s…early 1990s, even. I could hardly believe when you said it was completed in 2003, but yes, it would have been dated then as well. But at least it explains the freshness of the interior–how unworn the carpet looks (most commercial facilities from 1990 would need a replacement). I guess it’s also a testament to how little foot traffic it received after that mega-investment from the Mills Corporation and how ineffectual it was at ensuring a sustainable IRR. I didn’t have to dig too far to find images of Forest Fair Mall from before the massive renovation; go to the mostly inactive site, Dead Malls (http://deadmalls.com/malls/forest_fair_mall.html), and scroll to the oldest entries at the bottom (yes, it was being written about as a dying mall even in 2003). It’s easy to see that it wasn’t a particularly spectacular looking interior back then…unless it was using late 80s decor that looked even more anachronistic than the current interior design. This begs the question: did the developers think retail was the tail that wags the dog? Did they think that packing a new mall with high-end retailers would convince Cincy’s affluent to drive from Indian Hill to a lower-middle class area on a regular basis to do their shopping? Were they even thinking?

      What a persistent white elephant.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      thanks! The article was just getting too crazy long. Not as many lurid photos in part 2, but more of an analysis of what went wrong…and another attraction nearby where they clearly got things right.

      Reply
  2. AvatarDena Eben Kernish

    I spent a lot of time there, circa 2005. Bass Pro, Sax Off-5th, and a toy store, among other places. There were empty stores even then, but at least it was crowded for its vast size. Here is the only photo I found, in Bass Pro watching the huge aquarium tank. The pig gazebo and large Q/cards were kitschy ways to represent Cincinnati (Porkopolis and the Queen City).

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Yeah it sounds like you caught it during its short-lived “second wind“. It was only through the comments that I learned that the flying pigs were a 2003 addition during the multi-million renovation. Still looked dated even back then!

      Reply
  3. AvatarMax Luchsohr

    Hello, why did the mall fail in your opinion? Why are some malls still attracting customers and others not? Location, tenants, architecture, too many competitors maybe?

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      My lengthy article touches on this, but I think the biggest factors are the following: a) too close to other malls that were already successful (now they’re dying too); b) it targeted an upscale client base in a very middle class part of the Cincy suburbs; c) the Australian-based developer had little real experience in malls or even American real estate, which probably further explains a) and b).

      As for other malls in the US, it’s hard to make any judgment as to what will happen in the era of COVID-19. But I suspect the ones that will were doing okay before will rebound fairly confidently at least for a few more years. But I’d imagine the less favored ones (between 50% and 75% of malls in a certain trade market) will continue to decline to “dead” status. And they are probably less favored because either the location is sub-par, the management isn’t as astute (less good at updating amenities or securing good leases for tenants), or there are simply far more malls than there is demand, and many people are willing to travel 5 miles further to the better mall, rather than settle for the mediocre one closer to home. Just my guesses. Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  4. Avatardavid decker

    This kind of thing interests me. I would think this would be a perfect place for a winter group run on a cold January day.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Just be warned: it would be only about 10 degrees warmer than the outside air. And the restrooms are marginally more sophisticated than the great out doors. But then there’s flying pigs!

      In other words, it’s trail running but the wilderness is Willy Wonka.

      Reply
  5. AvatarCharlie H

    I used to go to this mall a lot when I was a kid in the early 2000s. That B Adventurous place was originally called WonderPark, and it was an arcade owned by Namco. I remember riding the little roller coaster they had there. Oddly enough, this was the only WonderPark ever and it closed without warning around 2007 or so. I’d assume it was made to compete with Sega’s GameWorks or Dave & Buster’s, but again this was the only location ever. I think it closed because the manager was paying teens from the nearby Fairfield high school to make sex tapes, but I’m not positive. It was so sudden, and really sad when it closed. Also, that playground used to be PBS Kids-themed, and the long stretch of drywall across from it was a Biggs supermarket. There were talks of putting an ice rink/sports complex in there around 2012 but nothing came of it. There was a Guitar Center in that wing of the mall, but it moved near Tri-County Mall a couple years ago. I’ve read there was a CompUSA in the mall that also moved near Tri-County, but I can’t find much about it. The last time I went to the mall when it still had stores was in 2009 to see “Up” in the Danbarry Doller Savers cinemas by the food court (crazy to think the mall used to have 2 full theaters). After Danbarry left a new theater came in called The Screens, which my friends say was just a bunch of TVs. Bass Pro was going to move to West Chester a couple years ago, which would’ve killed the mall, but Bass Pro bought Cabela’s, and the land where the new Bass Pro was going to go was right across from a Cabela’s, so I think that was scrapped. I’ve heard rumors that the food court used to be upstairs, and that it burned down, but I can’t find any concrete evidence of this online. It’s really heartbreaking to see it die like this, but at least it’s still open (in a way). I hope someone does something with it eventually. I can try and remember more stuff about it if you’re interested.

    Reply
    1. AvatarAmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts Charlie. Unless the mall has changed significantly in the last year–and the economic conditions of 2020 would make it hard for real estate has depressed as Forest Fair Village to either improve or to decline even further–I’d imagine it looks about the same. The food court appeared intact to me, so if it caught fire, it either wasn’t major or happened a long time ago and was completely refurbished.

      I agree with you it’s pretty rare for a single mall to host two movie theaters, but it can work both if the mall is big enough (and Forest Fair Village definitely was) and if the theaters offer two non-competing typologies: e.g., one is mainstream films and the other is either art/indie films or second-run budget screenings.

      I’m not too optimistic that the other nearby malls in suburban Cincinnati (Tri-County, Northgate) are going to look much better within a few years. And they won’t have the bragging rights of a 90s funhouse interior.

      Reply

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