Books June 2004


Like the Valley Girls who made it famous, the suburban mall is now on the wrong side of forty

"Increasingly, cities are becoming the province of the rich, the childless, or the poor. I love cities. But America hasn't lived there for a long time ... If you really want to observe entire middle-class multigenerational American families, you have to go to the mall."

But, we might ask the self-described Envirosell "research wonk" Paco Underhill, whose above contention appears in Call of the Mall, do we really want to? Underhill's most recent foray into the rich, potpourri-and-candle-scented field of retail anthropology (his first was Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, published in 1999) addresses such tough questions as Are we really interested in spending an entire book inside the mall? Why is mall architecture so ugly? and Exactly what is an Aqua Massage? Underhill's answers turn out to be fascinating (mostly), and when they aren't, they're boring in a sort of exquisitely bleak, existential way, just like the mall.

For those who argue that sometimes a Cinnabon is just a Cinnabon, Underhill opens his mall jaunt by invoking the spirit of the French historian Daniel Roche, author of A History of Everyday Things (2000). "It's not as though studying people as they congregate to buy and sell things is a totally frivolous or small-minded endeavor," he writes.

Consider the history of our species, a fair swath of which has been propelled by merchants or their emissaries traveling to the far reaches of the planet, sometimes at great risk, in order to bring back stuff to peddle to the rest of us. As any schoolchild can testify, the romance of the ancient world teems with spice routes and trade winds and trafficking in silks and precious metals, frankincense and myrrh, gunpowder and fur.

For Underhill, the history of retail is a grand adventure that entered a new phase in the glittering emporiums of America's burgeoning cities.

The merchant princes were nineteenth century men, driven by ambition and muscle and determination to succeed in the brick-and-mortar vocabulary of the era. Their stores were their alter egos, and these titans of retailing all had serious edifice complexes. The great department stores of the day bore their owners' names—Gimbel, Macy, Wanamaker, Neiman Marcus, Marshall Field.

At first blush it would appear that the suburban car culture's rise triggered just another exciting phase in the journey. After all, since its inception, in Edina, Minnesota, in 1956, the mall has in many ways proved a wonderfully successful retail invention. In the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s a new mall opened somewhere in the United States every three or four days. Studies suggest that 30 percent of adults living in a county with the kind of mall that Underhill describes in his book will have visited it at least once in a given three months. Malls currently account for 14 percent of all U.S. retailing (excluding cars and gasoline): about $308 billion in annual sales.

More telling than those mere facts and numbers is how the mall has gotten into the very gut, the very psyche, of the American family. What is a family, after all, but a collection of not quite independent, somewhat less than completely ambulatory people? And what safer harbor for families than a big, beige, temperature-controlled box? It's not just the mall-rat teens, marooned at the octoplex on Friday nights because they cannot drive. It's the packs of seniors who began exercise programs of "mall walking" on the advice of doctors who didn't want them to slip in snow and ice. It's the mothers looking to kill time with very small children (because mall customers literally shop slower than their urban counterparts, and are more patient in line, pushing a couple of tots in a stroller to get a new spatula at Lechter's can fill an entire cloud-free afternoon).

The problem, Underhill argues, is that there's rot in the mall's very DNA. Mall owners, far from being merchants who want to creatively engage our acquisitive urges, are simply real-estate developers trying to maximize every rental dollar, mostly by minimizing their overhead. Which is not a good thing. To begin with, the resulting architecture is a horror ("A big wall with a little mouse hole" is the way one top mall designer describes it). And now these blank, lifeless exteriors are gradually decaying, with an almost Michael Jackson-like weirdness. For instance,

Mall of America, the biggest in the United States and the most potent tourist attraction in all of Minnesota, may have looked good on the drawing board. But it has aged badly since it opened in August 1992. You can see stains on the outside of the building, and grass has begun to poke through the asphalt of the parking lots. It is huge and unsightly. You can't imagine Disney World or the Statue of Liberty being allowed to decay this way. Yet this mall has more visitors than Disney World, Graceland, and the Grand Canyon combined.

And further,

Next time you're at a mall, instead of going directly inside, stroll around the perimeter of the place. It will be one of the more joyless promenades you'll ever make. You'll be very alone out there, on a narrow strip of sidewalk, assuming it has a sidewalk—many malls don't—with maybe a security guard or two to keep you company ... There will almost certainly be shrubbery, neatly clipped, but it's greenery of the most generic kind. Nobody thought you'd ever look too closely at it. Its only job is to be green.

And that disorientation, that disconnect in form and space, reaches to the inside of the mall—which Underhill describes as being, like television, a "totally fake environment that attempts to pass itself off as a true reflection of who we are and what we want." There's a video arcade, a rock-climbing wall, a food court, and "a Cinnabon stand, four cookie stands, three pretzel stands, three ice-cream stands, and no place wheresoever to buy an apple." It's a pastel-hued town—or, at least, "town-like"—square that actually resists true civic discourse. (Many states have had to legislate out certain kinds of retail-unfriendly free-speech activity: irritants over the years have included political candidates, Klansmen, and anti-war activists distributing leaflets.) Underhill labors to suggest a connection between malls and racism, because so few of them are near public transportation.

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on Public Radio International's Marketplace. This month she also joins KPCC-FM, in Pasadena, California.

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