When Malls Saved the Suburbs From Despair

Like it or not, the middle class became global citizens through consumerism—and they did so at the mall.

The Garden Court at Southdale Shopping Center, Edina, Minnesota, circa 1965
The Garden Court at Southdale Shopping Center, Edina, Minnesota, circa 1965 (Minnesota Historical Society)

“Okay, we’ll see you in two-and-a-half hours,” the clerk tells me, taking the iPhone from my hand. I’m at the Apple Store, availing myself of a cheap smartphone battery replacement, an offer the company made after taking heat for deliberately slowing down devices. A test run by a young woman typing at a feverish, unnatural pace on an iPad confirms that mine desperately needed the swap. As she typed, I panicked. What will I do in the mall for so long, and without a phone? How far the mall has fallen that I rack my brain for something to do here.

The Apple Store captures everything I don’t like about today’s mall. A trip here is never easy—the place is packed and chaotic, even on weekdays. It runs by its own private logic, cashier and help desks replaced by roving youths in seasonally changing, colored T-shirts holding iPads, directing traffic.

Apple operates some stand-alone retail locations, including a glass cube entrance in midtown Manhattan and a laptop-shaped location on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. But a lot of the stores are located in shopping malls. The Apple Store is one of the only reasons I go to the mall anymore. Usually I get in and out as fast as I can. But today I’m stuck.

When all is said and done, it turns out to be a strange relief. Contrary to popular opinion, malls are great, and they always were.

The tragic story of the American shopping mall is well-known by now. Victor Gruen, an Austrian-born architect, emigrated to the United States after Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. In 1954 he designed the first outdoor suburban shopping plaza, near Detroit. Two years later, in 1956, the Gruen-designed Southdale Center opened in Edina, Minnesota. It was the first enclosed shopping mall in America. In the six decades since, up to 1,500 malls were erected across the country. Then people stopped building them.

Precious few have been erected in the last decade, but plenty have been shuttered, and as many as half of the remaining could close within the next 10 years.* The reasons are many, including economic downturn, the rise of internet commerce, the decline of the suburbs—even just the opening of newer malls, which cannibalize older ones.

Americans loved malls, then they loved to hate them. Good riddance to these cathedrals to capitalism, many think, as they pore over apocalyptic photos of abandoned malls in ruins. This trope runs so deep that it’s begun feeding on itself. The latest example: Bloomberg recently published a bizarre video game, styled like bad 1980s computer entertainment, about the glorious desperation of managing a dying American mall.

Gruen had meant well. He wanted to import the pedestrian experience of modernist, European cities like Vienna and Paris into America, where the automobile was king. By creating places for community in the deserts of suburbia, he hoped to lure people from their cars and into contact with one another. The malls would be for shopping, yes, but also offer food, relaxation, and green space. In his original conception, malls would also connect to residential and commercial space, medical care, libraries, and other public spaces. Even though unrealized, this idea was not that different from today’s New Urbanists, who advocate denser, more walkable mixed-use development in cities broken up by the dominance of the automobile.

Gruen would eventually disavow his creation, expressing disgust for how malls had exacerbated rather than ameliorated urban sprawl—not to mention exporting it globally, infecting the Old World with this land-use virus of the New.

But Gruen never renounced commerce itself. He was a master of commercial design. Before malls, Gruen designed retail shops and storefronts in New York—gorgeous, lithe, glass-fronted facades that renounced the ornate and busy complexity that had preceded them. These shops, designed during the Great Depression when retail sales were hardly easy, were meant to draw customers in, tempt them to stay, and then to make purchases. The Gruen effect, it came to be called. The mall might have turned out to be bad urban planning, but it was never bad mercantilism.

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.

These features of mall-going persist today, even as Walmart and Amazon capture the lion’s share of consumer purchasing. Without my iPhone to distract me, I inspect the La Cornue ovens in the Williams-Sonoma and the haute horology in the display outside the Tourneau. I’m not going to buy them, nor any of the goods at the Fendi or Prada boutiques, either. But here they are anyway, occupying physical space alongside my actual body, not just symbolic space online or on television. Others are having similar experiences with goods that are familiar to me to the point of banality, but wholly novel to them. In a clearing outside the Microsoft Store, people try out virtual-reality goggles; nearby, in a strange little Amazon shanty, they try to summon Alexa from inside the Echo devices on display.

The mall makes things real, even if their realness is inevitably yoked to capitalism. That bond is both tragic and liberating, as is all of free enterprise. Goods shackle people in some ways even as they free them in others. As I inspect the Vacheron Constantin timepieces, which can cost $100,000 or more, I wonder how the masses who have abandoned wristwatches will know when their two-and-a-half-hour wait for an iPhone battery replacement has elapsed.

Strange as it may sound, the mall also allowed people to leave commercialism behind, for a time at least, after they were through with it. Consumerism might have run rampant, but it had a safe haven in which to do so. The grotesque design of the mall—low, solid facades surrounded by the dead of asphalt for parking lots—always suggested hazard. It lurked low and threatening. Malls are prisons for commerce, but at least the commerce stays inside them. You can leave again. Like a casino is designed to contain and focus risk, so a mall is designed to do so for expenditure.

Eventually, your own humanity forces you to leave, in fact. Forty-five minutes into my iPhone wait, the familiar dizziness of mall-going sets in. “Mall head,” I’ve always called it. The wooziness of disorientation and recycled air is a design feature of malls and casinos alike; it keeps people around, but it also presses them out. It’s different from the machine zone, the anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll’s name for the hypnotic, compulsive loop of casino slot machines—or of social-media apps. Unlike the smartphone, eventually, despite it all, the mall spits you out again.

The mall also discretizes commerce, breaking it up into segments. Whether purchases are necessary or not isn’t the point. Rather, the mall classifies human commerce and, thanks to capitalism, thereby human life. Look around in a mall. It’s a taxonomic chart of market segmentation. Pandora for bracelet charms. Payless for discount shoes, but Vans for skate shoes. Sephora for cosmetics. Victoria’s Secret for underthings, and American Eagle for what goes atop. These are the diverse apartment blocks of commerce. Dense but separated, they contrast with the slurry of online shopping at Amazon.com or Walmart.com. Online, you don’t ever really know what something is, or what size might be in stock, or whether the item displayed even matches the one you will receive.

Alas, it’s become harder to use the mall this way. Back at Lenox Sqaure, commerce leaks from its boundaries. Almost every shop boasts a sale: 20, or 40, or even 60 percent off. It’s not clear if this is a function of the changing fashion season or of the tenuous mall economy. No matter the case, the message is the same: Nothing here is worth the price on the tag. Comparison shopping with smartphones has become so easy, and pricing and availability seem so arbitrary, it’s easy to feel like you’re getting screwed all the time. Not to mention the incessant badgering of online shopping, with emails from every vendor with whom you’ve ever transacted arriving daily.

Worse, capitalism has shifted commercial activity from the material to the symbolic. People still buy plenty of goods, of course, from books to clothing to makeup. But thanks to the internet, they also trade in ideas, signs, and symbols with increasing frequency and importance. They hope to buy and sell attention. The notion becomes a tweet. The scene becomes an Instagram post. The shopping trip itself becomes a YouTube haul video. The only reason I am not producing similar intangible goods right now is because Apple is in possession of my iPhone.

The mall itself is grappling with the matter. Madewell, a women’s clothing shop, has posted a café-style folding sign in its entrance. “Hot new fits = hot new fitting-room selfies,” it reads. When I open my laptop at the Starbucks, it joins the nearby Abercrombie and Fitch free Wi-Fi, and a terms-of-use screen appears: in big, bold letters, “because we understand the need to ’gram in the fitting room.” Buying is now optional—it’s sufficient to simulate a purchase in order to create an image of its concept, for exchange in the marketplace of ideas.

It’s an understandable quandary. The mall cannot fight material goods’ slow creep into the universe of information. Doing so spells only doom. Across town, the decidedly downmarket North DeKalb Mall has been failing slowly for years. It’s one of the half that are sure to be shuttered; local rumors suggest a Costco might replace it. Among North DeKalb’s many flaws, the entire place has been a cellular-coverage dead zone. Even before its anchor stores and interior shops started closing, the lack of connectivity put the writing on the wall.

At last, the two-and-a-half-hour separation from my rectangle is ending. I amble past the Henri Bendel and the J.Crew and the Adidas store to fetch the phone—recharged and ready to fuel my own obsession with symbol-making. Even Apple itself has started to realize that its knowledge-economy machines are incompatible with the manufacturing-economy host of its stores. The new Chicago store is among the first of a new design Apple has dubbed “Town Squares,” where people are meant to gather for meetings in “boardrooms” and peruse goods along “avenues.” It’s an offensive idea, of course; the public sphere is so much more than just a shop in which to buy one company’s wares.

And yet, the concept is not all that different from Victor Gruen’s original vision for the shopping mall. A place to gather, a place to shop, a place to relax, a place to live. The mall was and remains horrible in some ways, but useful and even magical in others. It yoked people to commerce, but it also gave them tools with which to manage that harness, to loosen it enough to live somewhat peacefully, even while collared to capitalism.

I can’t help but think that Americans’ days of hating the mall are numbered. When it gets replaced by Apple Town Squares, Walmart Supercenters, and the online-offline slurry of an ever-rising Amazon, we will miss these zoos of capitalism, these prisons of commerce, where consumerism roared and swelled but, inevitably, remained contained.

* This article previously misstated the number of malls erected in the past decade. We regret the error.