Magazine January 27, 2020, Issue

On the Mall

Shoppers walk through the King of Prussia Mall in King of Prussia, Pa., December 8, 2018. (Mark Makela/Reuters)

The mall is a troublesome thing for leftists. Some have memories of going to the mall as teens and enjoying themselves without irony or a sense of critical distance. As the man said, the life unexamined is not worth blathering about constantly on Salon or TeenVogue.com. Malls are bad, and since people drive to the mall, malls contribute to the forthcoming climate apocalypse that will set the entire continent of Australia on fire in 2022 and boil the oceans. 

So, I can take a bus to the mall?

“No,” says the scold, “you cannot, because consumerism is literally destroying the planet. The thin plastic lanyard that attaches the price tag to the neck tag will end up in the South Pacific choking a turtle. The planet is dying because container-cargo ships still use fossil fuels, and we need a global Green New Deal to string electrical cables across the ocean so they can run like streetcars.

“Whatever you are going to the mall to get, you don’t need it. Another throw pillow for a room in your McMansion? Another sweater made by Vietnamese slave labor? Not that there’s anything wrong with Vietnam, they were awesome in the ’60s and did their part to stop American imperialism and friends who have gone there say the food scene is amazing, but they need some worker-protection laws — what do you mean, I’m imposing Western ideas on another culture? 

“So no, you can’t go to the mall. But you shouldn’t shop online, either, because the spiritual, physical, emotional, and environmental cost of Amazon delivery is too great. In an ideal world we would be living in communal dwellings where you could get a sweater from the awesome old lady who lives on the first floor, and you would trade your labor for hers. Say, she knits you a sweater, and you give her an essay about something, or perhaps a poem. Communism is fully human. Capitalism is an archaic system of oppression that makes you think you need those strappy little sandals you see in the ad that appears on the website I write for. Although they are cute.”

Anyway. The New York Times recently sent a writer to explore the philosophical ramifications of “American Dream,” the new mall in New Jersey. It’s the biggest in the country, and hence horrible, right? It’s hard to find the proper quote to sum up the author’s dismay, because your heart grows heavy when you grapple with things like this:

“Nickelodeon Universe raised for me the specter of death.” Either she found the rotting corpse of SpongeBob or she might be overthinking it a bit. Death of what? The soul? The individual? The idea of the mall itself? That last one might be good, but it means a change in our relationship between ourselves, since the mall turns shoppers into zombie-objects, or something: 

American Dream may be selling experiences, but the mall always was an experience. The shopping was mere pretense; the being-there part was free. Just as Baudelaire’s flâneur roamed the arcades of Paris with his leashed turtle, converting the halls of commerce into a kind of poetry, the American’s eye for sociological observation was forged in the glow of the Orange Julius. The commercial backdrop of the mall provided the uncanny feeling of becoming commodities ourselves, a prospect we could embrace or resist.

I remember going to the mall in high school with my pals. “Who’s up for being a commodity? Anyone?”

“Well, I’m kinda up for the prospect of becoming a commodity but I dunno if I actually want to go all the way. I need some new jeans, though.”

“Sorry, Kent my old friend, but the shopping is just pretense.”

When I was a kid I saw how a mall can kill a downtown. I grew up with happy memories of shopping in pre-mall Fargo. We ate at a pancake house on Broadway after church, saw movies in the numerous theaters. The big department stores — big in an eight-year-old’s mind — were fascinating places with their own set of sounds, from the whoooosh-thump! of the pneumatic tubes to the mysterious bong . . . bong . . . bong chimes that summoned a floorwalker. The smell of hamburger and onions and coffee wafted up from the lunch counters; the signs on the stores spoke of names unique to our town. After shopping I’d get my hair cut at a barbershop in a hotel, which bustled with salesmen and travelers. Men in hats, becalmed in great chairs in the lobby, smoking and reading the papers.

No downtown was the same. Every mall is a differently configured version of the Mall.

So why did we abandon downtown for the mall? Because it was new, and we could shop without the elements lashing our faces, and parking was free. It had none of the architectural variety and history of downtown, but who cared? There were girls there. You went downtown, you never saw girls. At the mall, flocks of them. Not wearing parkas, either! Bare limbs visible in January, in North Dakota? This had never happened before. Downtown could have been entirely consumed by fire and we wouldn’t have cared, because, well, girls. They liked candle stores! Who knew?

In the end, downtown Fargo came back, in marvelous fashion, and now it abounds with cafés and shops, and people go there because it’s more interesting than the mall. They still go to the mall, of course, because they are free people who make their own decisions based on their private evaluation of their needs and wants.

You can see the problem with that.

In This Issue

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In A. A. Milne's classic Winne-the-Pooh children’s tales, Eeyore, the old gray donkey, is perennially pessimistic and gloomy. He always expects the worst to happen. Milne understood that Eeyore’s outbursts of depression could at first be salutatory but then become monotonous. The outlook of the pessimist ... Read More
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