Such is the magic of the mall. Gruen got it right in the 1930s in New York, and in 1956 in Edina, Minnesota, and in the decades after, too, in Dayton, Ohio, and San Bernardino, California, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and everywhere else malls appeared. The mall is for shopping. It sounds idiotic to say, or tautological at least. Of course the mall is for shopping. But more specifically, it gives shopping a specific place. The mall separated commerce into its own, private lair, and it did so just as commercialism was running rampant and out of control in the progress-fueled mid-century.
Since I’ve given up my iPhone to Apple, my attention is freed to notice the mall. This one, Lenox Square in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, counts itself among the survivors. Anchored by Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Neiman Marcus, the mall features upscale shops like Fendi, Prada, and Cartier, along with more accessible ones like American Eagle Outfitters and Foot Locker.
I was a youth in the 1980s and early ’90s, the heyday of the mall as a cultural symbol and a commercial powerhouse. In those days, mall-going really did offer some of the social benefits Gruen had imagined. The American suburbs lack the density of daily encounters that characterizes the modernist cities of Europe, and the mall provided a space where people could amble in thick proximity.
For one part, malls put products in places where they otherwise might not have been accessible. The model for density and walkability is hardly free of commerce, after all, even in the arcades of Paris or the side streets of Vienna. There, flâneurs would be just as likely to acquire a handkerchief or take an apfelstrudel as they would be to bask in the anonymous energy of the crowd.
But America’s vastness made distribution and access to goods more difficult, and just as mass production and consumer discretionary spending were increasing in tandem. Downtown department stores and local general and specialty shops offered primary access to goods and services. Discount stores wouldn’t arrive until later—Walmart’s first shop opened in Arkansas in 1962, and Target’s in Minnesota the same year, but neither spanned the nation until the 1990s. Target grew out of department stores (its parent company owned Dayton’s), and Walmart from a local general store. In that context, shopping malls were way ahead of their time. They offered local access to national or international products and trends that might otherwise have been unavailable.
It may seem odious to call consumerism a kind of cosmopolitanism, but like it or not, after the middle class rose from the soot of industrialism, the spread of ideas became attached to goods. Some of these were questionable, of course. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, retailers like Chess King and Merry-Go-Round capitalized on short-lived trends for profit, not for culture. But others demand more circumspection. As a teenager during that same period, a philosopher friend of mine bought his first copy of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time in an Iowa mall’s Waldenbooks, with money earned from a summer of corn detasseling. Like it or not, the mall offered access to a broader world than flyover country could easily access. And unlike the Sears catalog, it did so directly and immediately, live and in person.