On the Mall

by James Lileks
Nobody likes them except the customers.

Sbarro’s Pizza filed for extra-bad super bankruptcy, citing a precipitous downturn in mall traffic. Could be. Or it could be that people, over the course of the years, came to reject something that tasted like red paint smeared over wet newspapers and topped with orange glue. If they’d made the most spectacular pizza in the world, I’d drive to the mall just for a slice — just like I drive to the mall to get a burger at a place I like. But I’ve just confessed to two sins, haven’t I? Driving. Going to the mall. I should be taking a streetcar downtown to eat pizza. Driving to the mall for a burger is exactly what’s killing the planet in general and our downtowns in particular.

On the second point, I have some sympathy. I grew up in Fargo, N.D. Downtown was a thriving place with department stores and lunch counters and dozens of small shops; it was where you went with Mom on the dreaded trip to get fitted out for the new school year. You walked downtown with your pals to read comic books at the drugstore and swim at the WPA-era pool. The bars for the professional drinkers had enormous two-story signs; the bank’s roof sported a red numeral 1 whose neon lines went up or down depending on the temperature. In the department stores pneumatic tubes snaked down to the register, depositing important messages: fffffthmp. I got my hair cut in a hotel barbershop; three chairs, two old barbers reading Esquire while the owner gave me the high-and-tight. The most ordinary place in the world, to us; the most extraordinary, in recollection. The mall killed it all.

When they opened the mall in the fields on the edge of town, all the kids switched their allegiance in a second and never thought twice. The food court, the movie theater, the fountain (abstract birds perpetually gargling), the heretofore unmatched possibilities for girl-watching. Downtown, in an instant, was old. Everyone abandoned it. The department stores closed; the small shops withered; the bakery turned off the oven; the movie theaters went dark. No one cared. We had a mall.

Are Malls Over?” asks The New Yorker. Obviously not. No one’s walking up and down the food court ringing a bell, shouting Hear ye, hear ye, this mode of economic activity has come to an end, please leave by the nearest marked exit. Sure, some dumpy old concrete malls in dodgy neighborhoods with decor from the CB-radio era are being torn down because customers went elsewhere, but it doesn’t meant shopping malls are done. It means they’ll change into something more suited to modern needs, or be replaced by open-air Lifestyle Centers that are, more or less, malls without a roof.

There are those who want malls to be over, though. After all, they’re one of the horrid forces that remade America. Suburbs, cars, and the mall: the unholy trinity of American life that ruined the natural order of things. People are supposed to live packed in boxes, ride public transportation so you can marinate in the radiating funk of Mr. Natural next to you, shop in small stores, and schlep it all back to your flat after waiting 20 minutes in the rain for the bus.

Suburbs, on the other hand, are nothing but endless expanses of ticky-tacky boxes planted on a former potato field, a place of suffocating conformity. Cars make polar bears drown and encourage individuality. (Somehow the horrible individuality the cars produce does not offset the conformity imposed by the suburbs.) Malls are the worst, because they are temples to consumerism and make everyone go into debt against their will. Oh, you may go to the mall for a pair of jeans, but everyone else is going there to fulfill the programming beamed into their brains by mass culture.

So it’s great when suburbs die! Except they’re not dying. A recent story in my local paper noted how the first-ring suburbs are great bargains for young people, which makes them cool again. So: Twenty-somethings in 1962 with two kids and a house full of Danish Modern furniture with push-button appliances and a Siamese ceramic cat on the mantle: the oppressive falsehood of the postwar American dream. Twenty-somethings with the same house in 2014, the same decor (they’re into mid-century design), and two pugs: the salvation of urban America, because the style section can do a piece that includes the phrases “lovingly restored” and “Josh works as a web designer for a nonprofit.”

Josh may go to the mall, but rest assured he’ll have the proper attitude: Here I am, ironically inhabiting the lifestyle of suburbanites, when I’m really the sort of guy who’s planning a Kickstarter campaign for my artisanal-shaving-cream company. We’re going to use fair-trade sustainable eucalyptus.

But he’ll go to the mall when the pugs are replaced by kids and they need something to do on a dreary February Tuesday, and everyone needs diversion. He’ll find himself in the food court, the tots fighting over a pretzel, the anodyne music leaking from speakers overhead, an Apple Store bag at his feet. Then one of the kids spies the ride that takes a quarter and lets you pretend you’re driving a car.

I have become my father, he thinks, and realizes that’s actually a good thing.

The New Yorker article touches on the first mall and the visionary who designed it.

[Victor] Gruen envisioned Southdale at the center of a four-hundred-and-sixty-three-acre development that would include apartment buildings, schools, and a medical center. “Southdale was not a suburban alternative to downtown Minneapolis,” [Malcolm] Gladwell wrote. “It was the Minneapolis downtown you would get if you started over and corthe rest of the development never materialized. Years later, Gruen said that he was in “severe emotional shock” to see malls stranded in their acres of parking lots.

The Vision of the New Urban Future, becalmed in a tarry sea bobbing with cars!

Well. A few points.

1. There weren’t any mistakes made “the first time around.” The mistakes came when the bright lads in charge of cleaning up the sooty Bumtown opted for the nuke-and-pave option. Blocks of bars, cut-rate clothing, flophouses for the transients and indigents — it was all demolished, and since they’d paid for the wrecking ball and were on a roll, down went some magnificent old buildings that didn’t fit the sleek new steel-and-glass future. If they’d built a Gruenesque city where everything’s planned, as opposed to the mistake-ridden ones where the city arises from the decisions of individuals, it would have had all the soul and individuality of a housing project.

2. Gruen was also responsible for a downtown department store in nearby St. Paul, a monolithic brick block that could have been a store, from the outside; could have been a prison; could have been a facility for mincing antisocial citizens into a nutritious paste to be fed to pigs. Hard to say. The old block had been filled with unique buildings assembled by the will of individuals over the decades, an eclectic mix of styles — but the new theories of urban renewal hated that stuff, so down came the big blunt box like the foot at the end of the Monty Python credits.

The store closed a few years ago, and sits forlorn in search of a new use.

3. As for the planned apartment buildings and hospital: Granted, Southdale is still surrounded by parking lots, which is why its retail has survived, and the downtowns where you have to pay to park have struggled. But the apartment buildings came eventually, and they’re still building new ones. My daughter was born in a hospital two blocks from Southdale. The development didn’t happen all at once, according to a great Plan; all these things arose because people went to the area, and they went there because there was a mall.

They liked the mall. They liked their car. They liked the suburb they lived in.

Well, we can’t have that.

Southdale limped into the second decade of the 21st century, dated and worn, puce and turquoise. Vacancies, ill-conceived additions, a loss of business to other malls. A recent renovation remade it with the styles and hues of 1958, right down to the mid-century modern furniture where you can wait for your wife to finish shopping. It looks fresh and crisp, but the mother of all malls still faces competition. It has the misfortune of being in the neighborhood of the Mall of America, the largest mall in the country. You can answer the question “Are Malls Over?” by looking at what the MOA has planned. They’re building a new wing. It will double the size of the mall. Imagine the feds building another Pentagon next to the old one, and you get the idea.

The Fargo mall? It produced an explosion of commercial activity that stretches for miles, and Gruen might have been pleased: acres and acres of apartments. But the prosperity of North Dakota sloshed over into downtown as well, and the moribund blocks now hum with restaurants and coffee shops. The flophouse hotels are condos. In the end, both won. No grand strategy, no master plan.

People did what they wanted and it all worked out in the end. Great sorrow for the master planners, but the rest of us — the people who actually inhabit these places — are doing fine. Long live the mall, and whatever people want after that.

— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.

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