Malls don’t really die – The Atlantic

The American Mall has been supposed to be dying for years. The Guardian announced his death in 2014, in an article featuring Seph Lawless’s photographs of abandoned malls, their once bustling atriums having collapsed. In 2015, The New York Times published his own photograph of eerily empty buildings in Ohio and Maryland. Then came a series of stories in 2017 and 2018, when Time, The Wall Street Journaland CNN again declared the end of the mall, all citing a Credit Suisse report predicting about one in four will close by 2022.

The cause of death has been variously attributed to the growth of e-commerce, the disappearance of department stores and the fact that our country has been overcrowded since the 1990s, when developers saturated the suburbs, building new shopping meccas in a few kilometers from the old one. those. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, the forecasts have only gotten worse: in June 2020, a former department store executive predicted that a third of shopping malls would close by next year.

As design critic Alexandra Lange writes in her comprehensive study Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside Mall Story, “Shopping centers have been dying for forty years. Each decade rewrites the obituary in its own terms. Lange considers how, from the 1978 film dawn of the dead, we have used “the apocalyptic scale, language and imagery of civilizational collapse” to describe the state of this most American form of architecture. “And yet, she writes, the majority of shopping centers survive. And yet, people continue to shop. (A 2021 study found that in June last year, the number of visitors to malls across the country was actually 5% higher than before the pandemic.)

Meet me by the fountain challenges the dominant narrative. Lange wants us to reflect on the fact that by prematurely labeling the mall as dead, or considering it “a bit inconvenient as the object of serious study”, we are overlooking the important role these buildings played in our lives. At best, malls have always been more than just sites of ostentatious consumption and leisure, but places where communities gather, see and are seen, fulfilling a “basic human need”. Lange’s book reminds us that the mall has helped shape American society and evolved with our country since the 1950s. And she posits that there is still a place for malls in our society, as long as they adapt to better serve their communities.


Malls grew alongside—and because of—federally subsidized suburban expansion after the war. “A late-twentieth-century United States is meaningless without the mall,” Lange writes. If the American dream was to own a single-family home for your nuclear family, the mall was where you bought the goods to fill your home and clothe your children. Malls have become the suburban equivalent of downtown shopping districts. But while malls, like their urban counterparts, serve as public spaces, they are privately owned and guarded, and any sense of community one gains by spending time there is always secondary to the pursuit. mainstay of consumption.

Lange intelligently examines these tensions. It begins with architect Victor Gruen, who in 1956 created the enclosed, air-conditioned space we know today when the Southdale Center opened in a suburb of Minneapolis. Gruen wanted middle-class white housewives – the mall’s target demographic for decades to come – to be able to park once and shop all day, and experience what would come to be known as the name of “Gruen transfer”: the moment when shopping tips from drudgery “into a pleasure in itself”. As Lange writes, Gruen and subsequent developers dictated “art curation, landscaping, store selection, security, and transportation,” which gave them more control over the shopping experience, down to the types of people who were welcome to take advantage of it. .

This privately funded surveillance of public service spaces will remain a constant for decades to come. In the 1960s, architects and designers perfected the garden mall, which had plant-filled, sun-drenched atriums that invited shoppers to linger. In the 1970s, developer James Rouse pioneered the “festival market” in two urban malls in Boston’s Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, betting that European-style galleries would attract middle-class shoppers. in downtown America. Over the next two decades, the desire to wrest the mall away from the teenage mall rats—who were seen as loiterers rather than retards—and the related “arcade panic” over teenagers congregating in large groups to playing video games in mall arcades spurred the expansion of ranks of private security guards, which Lange says grew 300% from 1969 to 1988. This dawn of the mall cop did not than reinforcing the control and exclusion that was built into the architecture from the start.

And yet, despite these issues, Lange reminds us of what the mall has given us in the past, and explains why she sees in its form hope for a future of adaptive reuse, in which these spaces will “embrace their public role.” rather than trying to control who can use them and how. Lange argues that malls should be reallocated to walkable mixed-use developments that combine residential, commercial and public. The giant shells of anchor stores – the department stores that used to be at the end of the corridors – could enclose food halls, entertainment-focused businesses like trampoline parks or public libraries; the parking lots could be converted into residences for the elderly. These places would still be malls, but more experience-focused and less shopping-focused.


Perhaps we continue to declare the death of the mall because it allows us to have two attitudes at once: disdain and nostalgia. As Lange writes, shopping malls have always been looked down upon in his field – “‘looks like a mall’ is seen as an architectural insult.” But on the other hand, malls tend to be viewed with nostalgia – I bet you’re thinking about your mall memories while reading this. It’s possible to both fondly reminisce about teenage afternoons spent wandering with PacSun friends at the food court and disavow the idea that shopping is a valid relationship shaper. After all, I was first drawn to Meet me by the fountain because of these conflicting feelings for my mall: Roosevelt Field in Garden City, New York.

I waited for Lange to mention Roosevelt Field – her story embodies much of what she traces in the book, from how shopping malls shaped post-war suburbs to the fact that many of the centers that survive and thrive today are those who “sell an aura of exclusivity” with luxury stores. Like Southland, Roosevelt Field opened in 1956, although it was originally built as a modernist pavilion open-air park designed by IM Pei which would be closed and eclipsed by expansions a decade later.It thrived on freeway development – Robert Moses built a new branch of the Meadowbrook Parkway in the mid-1950s which directly fed the complex.

A Macy’s opening at Roosevelt Field, Garden City, New York, 1956 (Ike Eichorn/Newsday RM/Getty)

I’m obsessed with Roosevelt Field because its history parallels that of my mother on Long Island. His family left Brooklyn in 1956, on a GI Bill-sponsored flight to Nassau County, where they purchased a Levittown-style Cape Cod. I grew up in this same house and spent many Saturdays with my mother at Roosevelt Field. It was the mall she had known all her conscious life, which in the 1990s was a colossus she could navigate without consulting a map. Our shopping sprees were opportunities to connect. Now I wish I could talk to her about how shopping made her feel, if trying on outfits was like choosing versions of herself.

My nostalgia for Roosevelt Field is tinged with ambivalence, born of the understanding that the suburban dream it was built to promote was always illusory. It’s also marked by grief: my mother died 20 years ago, when I was 12, but Roosevelt Field still lives. His death shattered the suburban dream for me, but the mall where we shopped still sells it.

This kind of ambivalence is everywhere Meet me by the fountain. Lange’s ultimate vision for reusing mall space might be one that largely repudiates a singular focus on commercialism, but it doesn’t neglect shopping and what it can do for us. She argues that we “find freedom in shopping” for our “true selves” and that malls have given us more than just self-expression. They are what Ray Bradbury, in a 1970 essay in West: Los Angeles Times magazinecalled “Somewhere To Go”: a place that brings people together, that creates a de facto community.

This concept of “Somewhere To Go” reminded me of what the mall did for me after my mother died. Going to Roosevelt Field was a way out of the house where she was both everywhere and nowhere. My aunts often took me there for shopping. Sometimes we talked about what was going on at home – it was easier to be honest about how I felt browsing shelves of Billabong T-shirts than in our living room. It was a flawed way to connect, but all these years later I look back and am grateful the mall gave us this space.

I probably buy more now than I did then, but shopping online doesn’t give me what Roosevelt Field did: a way to be with other people, an escape from the harshness of life, a reminder that I was still alive and still evolving. . Maybe that’s why I’m nostalgic for the imperfect ways malls have brought me back to myself. Maybe that’s why my mom loved them too.

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