Something Real

On the surprisingly enduring resonance of the shopping center

Lately, I’ve been going to the mall. Specifically, I’ve been going to one of two sprawling shopping centers in Burbank, whose vacant downtown seems to be entirely taken up by them, and only for the movies. These have been uneasy experiences: I spent the second half of a recent film gripped with the absolute certainty that someone was going to barge in with a gun and light the place up. A few weeks later, I got lost on the way back to my car, wandering from parking lot to identical parking lot and cursing the decision to set foot in one of these complexes in the first place.

The thing is, though, I barely registered that I had been at the mall at all until I began to read Meet Me by the Fountain, the design critic Alexandra Lange’s 2022 treatise on the mall’s past, present, and future. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that I was participating in a time-honored American tradition—mall-going—or that these places I associated mainly with dissociation could be endowed with a rich and complicated history, that they could mean something different to other people.

Meet Me by the Fountain straightened me out. For Lange, North Carolina’s Northgate mall—her mall, as she calls it—held the initial glimmers of adulthood. In high school, she often took a babysitting charge there, eventually realizing that people assumed she was a teen mom. She bought her first miniskirt there, maybe with the money gleaned from that babysitting gig.

This wealth of Proustian association with the mall doesn’t cloud Lange’s appraisal, but it does anchor it in something concrete, the way a Saks or a Macy’s might anchor a mall of yore: you can always return there when you tire of your peregrinations, and even if you never go back, you always know where to find it. Lange’s generous, nostalgic perspective seemed like a more fruitful place from which to consider malls than my own relatively jaundiced view, which stems at least in part from a lack of positive foundational memories of them.

That is to say, I didn’t have a “normal” American childhood. Before the internet popularized online shopping and left many malls to die, most people, like Lange, experienced the mall as an intrinsic portion of their adolescence. But malls happened to both contain and represent many of the things my parents consciously rejected: rank consumerism; fast food; fast fashion; plastic shit that would, I was told, only end up in a landfill.

Even living in Vermont, we couldn’t avoid the mall entirely: it’s nearly impossible to do so. It’s not just that malls are ubiquitous; their ubiquity has come at the expense of small businesses everywhere, leaving us reliant on them for everything from school supplies to new shoes. But for the most part, my brother and I wore hand-me-downs, ate food from the local co-op or my mother’s garden, and went to the library for entertainment. My parents strove to live a life into which the mall did not factor.

MY MOM’S DISDAIN FOR MALLS was a reaction against her own Southern California suburban-sprawl childhood—the very thing that was being sold back to me in the malls of semirural Vermont, here in the form of the sickly musk wafting from Hollister, a “SoCal inspired lifestyle brand,” and the stylized surf scenes adorning its walls. She was born in the late ’50s and grew up thereafter in San Diego, a time and place nearly synonymous with the rise of the mall. The first mass shopping centers were built during the postwar boom, coterminous with the rise of the automobile and the suburb as the dominant axes of American life.

I’ve always turned up my nose at the architectural stylings of malls, but, much like air travel, they once promised glamour and, let’s not forget, impeccable design. Several giants of twentieth-century architecture, including Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson, and I. M. Pei, cut their teeth on mall projects. Sea Ranch planner Lawrence Halprin worked on Dallas’s NorthPark; Ben Thompson, the founder of Design Research, created the Faneuil Hall marketplace in Boston, which, Lange writes, probably occasioned the first use of the term “gentrification” in The New Yorker, via Calvin Trillin’s 1977 spoof of upscale mass culture.

The shopping center’s true progenitor was Victor Gruen, a Viennese Jewish architect with grand ambitions for his new creation. But somewhere along the way, despite Gruen’s best-laid plans, malls got worse. Southdale, one of his most iconic designs, “was going to be the antidote to suburban sprawl,” writes Steven Johnson. “Instead it became an amplifier.” Surveying the wreckage of the contemporary shopping mall sometime in the late ’70s, Gruen reportedly said, “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.” Much to his dismay, malls now exist all over the world: I still remember hitchhiking between Barcelona and Madrid with a friend in 2016 and reluctantly following our latest driver into a massive shopping center in pursuit of a wireless phone charger, a product we weren’t entirely sure was real. We both felt cheated, somehow, to realize that such centers existed in Europe, a place we venerated, as naive as that sounds, for its authentic street life.

I have to wonder, though: What did Gruen expect? Surely he would have disdained a behemoth such as New Jersey’s American Dream, which opened in late 2019 with a Nickelodeon-themed amusement park. But malls were, from the beginning, intentionally constructed as a climate-controlled, Muzak-filled simulacrum of the public square, with the undesirable elements (read: vice, dirt, homelessness) removed. As Lange notes: “The privatization of what were once communal places and activities is at the heart of the original postwar American dream. American Dream just makes it bigger.”

THIS PRIVATIZATION ITSELF is an act of estrangement from the actual, akin to the Ohio-based Hollister’s transfiguration of California surf culture into overpriced hoodies. Life keeps getting edited, further and further away from the real thing. It’s no coincidence that every personal experience of malls I described carries some form of alienation, whether it’s from society (the suspicion that the people around you are violent or lying to you) or from physical reality (the car that doesn’t stay in the same place you left it, the product that may or may not exist). I don’t think I’m the only person to experience this: Lange says that people often tell her they get lost in malls. Not for nothing does my generation’s Taxi Driver take place inside one: in Seth Rogen’s pitch-black Observe and Report, Travis Bickle is a disturbed mall cop hell-bent on defending his puny dominion. More recently, the Vessel, the sinister beehive structure at Manhattan’s glossy Hudson Yards development, has emerged as a site of self-annihilation—likely primarily because of its design, but I can’t help but make the connection: the Vessel, sits, after all, in the middle of a shopping complex.

I have to wonder, though: What did Gruen expect? Surely he would have disdained a behemoth such as New Jersey’s American Dream, which opened in late 2019 with a Nickelodeon-themed amusement park. But malls were, from the beginning, intentionally constructed as a climate-controlled, Muzak-filled simulacrum of the public square, with the undesirable elements (read: vice, dirt, homelessness) removed.

As a design critic, Lange is understandably more interested in examining the mall as a built environment than as a vehicle to acquire things, and she neatly captures the ambivalences inherent in the former. Sure, malls cordon off public space and surveil and police their inhabitants. (I’ve always felt there’s something vaguely fascistic about the Grove, Rick Caruso’s mid-city LA “lifestyle center.” Writing in New York magazine, Alissa Walker perfectly connects the dots between the halcyon fantasy it contains and the would-be mayor’s desire to literally cleanse the city of its homeless, crime, and grime—a proposition not so far from Travis Bickle’s, albeit expressed in more sanitized language.) But malls can also act as training wheels for adult life, as they did for Lange, or as a gentler, more forgiving version of public space for elderly or disabled people. That they end up playing this role may have more to do with the failings of actual public space than some special quality of the mall. We shouldn’t have to yearn for basic amenities: a place to sit down while you’re waiting for your train, a bit of shelter from the elements at a bus stop. I find myself doing it so often, though, that it’s hard to scoff at public restrooms, wherever you may find them. But a lot of the primal ambivalence of the mall, that fundamental sense of desire and alienation they evoke, is connected to what’s inside them. Things are the raison d’être of malls. Without them, the whole premise collapses.

WE ALL EVENTUALLY REBEL against our parents, so, obviously, I grew to crave the mall, or at least what it represented: new clothes, makeup, pierced ears, the same things that everybody else had. I wanted to be normal, and these products, I thought, would make me normal.

My parents’ rejection of the mall may have sharpened this longing, but wanting to be normal is the defining quality of adolescence. (Wanting to be “different” is the exception that proves the rule, and the mall can cater to that, too; look no further than Hot Topic.) That longing persists, in somewhat transfigured form, into adulthood: we may not want to be normal, exactly, but we want to be happy, or fulfilled, or successful, and we believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that these things can be attained through our purchases. Meanwhile, the same anxieties about status and size persist: everything is too expensive; nothing fits. Even my parents, who wanted so badly to opt out, couldn’t immunize themselves against those feelings of lack. You can’t, any more than you could inoculate yourself from wanting to be loved.

Then, of course, there is the bigger, bleaker reality of where the products came from and where they are going once you’re done with them. Malls are at the middle point of a global conveyor belt that starts in a maquiladora and ends in a gigantic garbage heap—or maybe the Pacific Trash Vortex, which sounds as if it should be in White Noise, Don DeLillo’s satire of ’80s consumerism, but exists, alas, in the world we’ve made for ourselves. This wasn’t true when Gruen first conceived of the mall, but it was by the time he would despair of what his creation had become. Maybe his horror at the form’s aesthetic degradation contained within it a germ of understanding of what he’d done and just how far its implications reached.

I LIVE IN LA NOW, where malls are a way of life. But these days, going out in public means you could get Covid or get shot. Meanwhile, reality itself has become more like the mall—everything is a chain now. Paradoxically, though, as public life—in whatever form that still exists, whether it be on publicly owned land or not—retreats, becomes more meager and flat and fearful, I’m inclined to view malls with slightly more indulgence. In the end, I’m coming around to Lange’s point of view. Malls, she argues, might still possess the last vestiges of something that has otherwise slipped from our grasp.

In a recent article for the Los Angeles Times magazine Image, writer Jean Chen Ho goes searching for the food courts of her adolescence and finds them transformed: they’re still there, but the teenagers are gone. “I know a woman with a fourteen-year-old son, and I recently asked if he ever hangs out at the mall, if he goes to the food court to meet up with his friends,” Ho writes. “She laughed and said no: ‘He stays home and plays video games with them online.’”

Practically every aspect of a mall can be technically replicated on the internet: instead of AMC, we have streaming; instead of the department store, online shopping; instead of the food court, Postmates; instead of the arcade, video games. Missing, of course, is only the intangible frisson of human contact. The mall may be a sterile facsimile of street life, but something real and unexpected could still happen to you there. You could still get lost.

Piper French has never tried an Orange Julius.