In the 1980s and ’90s, enclosed malls were the supermodels of American commerce: youthful, gorgeous, and incredibly seductive, the people’s choice for Best Place to Spend Disposable Income on Candlesticks. In 2011 they’re America’s retail cougars, doing everything they can to stay sexy while competing with younger, fresher shopping paradigms. In Cleveland the Galleria at Erieview now features a tomato garden in its food court—or as the mall describes it, with a touch of hopeful pathos, a “resource center for sustainability education.” Others resort to more radical facelifts and tummy tucks. Nearly 40 percent of the square footage in the Highland Mall in Austin, Texas, is now owned by Austin Community College. The Tri-County Mall in Oliver Springs, Tennessee, is now home to the Beech Park Baptist Church.
It has been five years since a new enclosed mall opened in the United States. Green Street Advisors, a real estate research firm, estimates that 10 percent of the nation’s 1,006 malls are on the verge of failure. The genre’s last great hope, the Meadowlands Xanadu Mall in New Jersey, sits unfinished after eight years of development, a poignant, 2.4-million-square-foot monument to cost overruns, a bad economy, and investors’ waning faith in the idea that the best way to beguile shoppers is to stuff movie theaters, bowling alleys, and as many Hot Topics and Capezios as you can fit into a massive, windowless container.
Today the enclosed mall’s DNA lives on in “lifestyle centers” and “vertical power centers.” The former typically combine upscale retail, office space, and residential units in village-like developments that feature curbside parking directly in front of single-level shops and fieldstone walking paths lined with palm trees and trophy lakes. The latter stack Targets and Best Buys and Home Depots on top of each other in an almost parodic fashion, the KFC Double Down of retail.
The enclosed mall itself, though, is as dead as your average big-city newspaper. Which is to say: not dead yet, exactly, but no one’s betting on its future. Except for a few real estate developers, no one seems all that sad to see the Galleria in such a beleaguered state. The old-fashioned enclosed mall exists most powerfully now as a symbol of tasteless consumerism, ugly architecture, and bland corporate hegemony, revealing our recent past as unsophisticated suburban rubes. Yes, we were once dazzled by indoor fountains and Sunglass Huts.
Even Victor Gruen, the architect who invented the enclosed mall, ended up hating his creation. In 1954 he designed the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota. Featuring not just department stores and smaller retailers but a public auditorium, a kiddie zoo, a post office, a garden court, an aviary, and the first works of art commissioned specifically for a shopping center, it was an ambitious, utopian attempt to bring urban density and the kind of pedestrian-friendly European café culture that Gruen was familiar with from his Viennese childhood to the sprawl and isolation of the suburbs. It would eliminate trips to traffic-clogged, crime-ridden downtowns. It would give harried suburban automatons a place to walk safely and bond with their neighbors. It would foster community.
In Gruen’s estimation, the malls that followed and the crowds that flocked to them were too focused on handicrafts and frocks and not attuned enough to creating rich civic spaces. In 1980, after he’d retired from his architectural practice and returned to Vienna, he dismissed malls as a “bastard development.
Not coincidentally, this was precisely the moment when malls were achieving their greatest cultural potency. While America’s cities were still bleak enough to inspire dystopian films like Escape From New York and Blade Runner, America’s suburbs, formerly modest developments consisting almost entirely of tiny utilitarian tract houses and lawns, were adding business-casual industrial parks, higher-ed-casual community colleges, and, most impressively, malls. In 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the school got top billing but the mall—as dazzling as Phoebe Cates emerging topless from a pool, but with pizza to boot—was the movie’s true star. An engine of both cultural and economic liberation, it was where Ridgemont’s teens went to seek adventure, autonomy, and the paychecks that fueled their fast times.
The mall made America’s previous standard of retail extravagance, the urban department store, look puny. It was a skyscraper of commerce tipped sideways, a symbol of America’s newly democratized affluence. No longer was the idle activity of spending all day shopping for nothing in particular confined to Manhattan swells in glitzy temples of commerce. The consumers who flocked to the nation’s suburban malls may not have been as rich as the patrons of Saks Fifth Avenue, but collectively they could sustain stores devoted entirely to shaving products, sandals, or hot pretzels. To win their favor, developers furnished the world’s most spectacular escalators, soaring glass-ceiling atriums fit for a palace or museum, and food courts that magically aggregated all the cuisines of the world into one convenient space. At the mall, the average American suburbanite shopped in more deluxe accommodations than their urban betters.
The enclosed mall did more than stoke our taste for cascading indoor waterfalls; it developed our preference for ubiquitous specialized choice. The department store had a teen clothing section. The mall had entire teen clothing stores aimed at discrete teenaged subgroups. It hastened the shift from the mass market (served by newspapers, broadcast TV, and Macy’s) to the era of specialized connoisseurship (served by lifestyle magazines, cable TV, and stores that sell nothing but fitted baseball caps). Yet it accomplished all this in a way that was promiscuously inclusive, uniting under one roof consumers who varied widely by age, class, and interests.
With their multiple levels and wide, open sightlines, shopping centers didn’t just merchandise material goods to customers; they merchandised customers to each other. From the viewpoint of a balcony food court, there were dozens of tiny dramas unfolding in the proscenium-like storefronts of Sharper Image and The Body Shop. Malls were stadiums for shopping. That’s one reason the concerts, pageants, and other public extravaganzas that Gruen dreamed of facilitating never became quite as widespread at the mall as he hoped. Shopping itself was the show, with customers playing both actor and audience. In this respect, the mall was hardly an agent of passive consumerism. It was a live-action venue for user-generated content, blazing the trail for video games, the Internet, and other modes of entertainment that require consumers to also function as producers.
Alas, it’s been a long time since the mall felt revolutionary. Today we’re too busy updating our Facebook statuses to shop for jeans in one store, then electronic gadgets in another. We want all that stuff at our fingertips instantly, or at least in a place that lets you park right in front. Meanwhile, as we have come to expect that our soft hot pretzels will come in at least 17 different varieties and be made by artisans who specialize only in their manufacture (using locally sourced ingredients), our tastes have grown increasingly rarefied. The shoddy mass-market polo shirts of The Gap cannot possibly please us. We want handmade polo shirts sewn by bearded hipsters in Vermont and curated at exclusive men’s wear shops in urban neighborhoods with strict anti-chain regulations.
Few people listen to the Sugarhill Gang these days. Fewer still use Motorola DynaTAC 8000s or other ’80s-era cell phones. It is the peculiar fate of the most revolutionary cultural trailblazers to make themselves not just obsolete but sort of comically rudimentary in comparison to all those who follow in their wake. The enclosed mall, however, belies this phenomenon. It may not be as sophisticated as the latest and greatest lifestyle center, but it remains remarkably functional. In coming years, in fact, a renaissance is bound to occur as cultural tastemakers seeking heritage shopping experiences rediscover the mall. They’ll crow about the spaciousness and no-frills utilitarianism of the vintage parking lots, the unmatched authenticity of hot dogs on a stick. Get the jump on them and go now.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from San Francisco.