On the Mall
Nobody likes them except the customers.


James Lileks

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.