Love Letter: The Mall

Posted on October 3, 2011 by

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So, uh, I come to bury The Mall, not to praise him. At the end of the day, malls suck. They’re soulless, homogenized temples to the sweatshop and the corporation, and the merchandise their stores sell is low-quality and overpriced. But you know all that already, and probably don’t want to hear more about it. So this is going to be about how the mall becomes, whether we want it to or not, a defining space of our adolescence. My adolescence, and America’s adolescence.

I have never been anything but repulsed by the idea of the mall as a place to buy things. On the other hand, I have never been anything by fascinated by the idea of the mall as a public space.

The mall, though designed to be a stimulator for commerce, paradoxically becomes a safe house from consumption. As a teen, the mall is one of the few public spaces – and in the cold of winter, one of the very few indoor public spaces – where you can walk around and not buy anything and not be turned away. When I was in college, but under 21, my friends and I would go to a diner, or a parking lot, or the mall. And I would explain to my parents that if we were 21, we would just meet at bars, but that as under-agers, there just weren’t many places for us to be at night. Now that I do meet my friends at bars most of the time, I’m beginning to miss the mall; I always have to spend so much money to hang out at a bar, but hanging out at the mall was free. We never bought anything there, we just walked around and laughed and talked and made fun of stores’ merchandise. If anything, walking around the mall taught us a lot about how to see through and critique all of the consumer crap the mall had to offer.

Mall architecture is also a great strength. It’s the Roman Forum or the Athenian Agora, but it’s all under one roof, like the Crystal Palace in London. And unlike the Crystal Palace, the building is permanent. It’s sort of a forum for personal gatherings and a place for doing business and all that, but most of all it’s an opportunity for folks who are not city-dwellers to move about in a monumentally-sized building. As a kid, I remember being awed by the enormously high ceilings and giant marble columns of malls, a feeling that was stronger in only one other place, the museum. The architectural spaces of the mall – and the exhibitionism it permits – also provided the opportunity for many daydream fantasies of paintball or laser tag or other games. I wasn’t alone; a level from the classic Playstation game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (my favorite level) allowed the player to skate all over an abandoned shopping mall.

I’m going to close out this post with three quick case studies of malls that are important in my life:

Concord Mall: The First Mall

This Concord Mall, outside of Wilmington Delaware, was completed in 1965, within the first five years of suburban enclosed shopping mall. At the time my mother, who was about 8, was living in the area and remembers it as the only mall one could go to. It’s still going strong today, thanks in no small part to Delaware’s lack of sales tax (it’s right across the Delaware/Pennsylvania border, and the idea was that PA residents would come to take advantage of the lack in sales tax. They were very right). Interestingly, the mall adopted the image of a flock of Canada geese as a mascot of sorts, and in the tall skylights of the mall, flocks of model geese are suspended from fishing line. That sounds tacky but it’s actually quite striking. When I was a child, my mother took me to get a picture with Santa at the Concord Mall. It’s a mall geared more toward families with children and folks buying bigger-ticket items, the ones you set aside your Saturday afternoon to get, so it’s not a big teen hangout.

Exton Square Mall: The Archetypal Mall

The Exton Mall, was opened in 1973 but by the mid-1990s, it was looking pretty ratty. At this time, my mother, in fits of boredom during the week, would drive my brother and I to the mall. At the time, the dated 70s furnishings and architecture didn’t strike me as dated at all, so I was a little surprised when the entire mall was refurbished and expanded in the late 90s. The local economy was growing rapidly, and the mall owners realized that a larger, more up-to-date facility was needed (Cloverleaf mall, in other respects remarkably similar to the Exton Square mall, was not fortunate enough to get a makeover and, as described below, suffered an inglorious fate). The mall that took the old ‘70s one’s place was the archetypal mall from TV and movies. A food court and a hot topic were added to the mall, and it was a brightly lit, wide-open space. This is the mall I ended up spending most of my mall-hours in for several reasons: First, my high school academic team would often stop there after away meets for lunch at the food court. Why, I have no idea, but it gave us a good two hours to dick around in the mall on a weekday, when the only other shoppers were moms with strollers. Second, several of my friends lived near the mall, and in a town where driving was the only option to see people, the mall was a convenient space to meet. Third, a friend once had a birthday party in which all guests met at the mall and did a scavenger hunt. This mostly, as I recall, involved us taking pictures of objects and getting strangers to do silly things with us. We were at least eighteen years old when we did this. It was fun.

Cloverleaf Mall: The Dead Mall

I mentioned earlier how permanent malls seem, but this permanence has a big downside, because while the mall as a building is rather permanent, the mall as a viable business model is slowly dying. As such, dead malls are replacing shopping malls all over the place. One of the first was the Cloverleaf Mall in Richmond, Virginia.

The Cloverleaf mall was built in the golden age of suburban mall construction to serve as the main shopping mall for the city of Richmond. It was the inspiration for the Four-Leaf-Clover Mall in the 1990s TV show Doug (Jim Jenkins, the creator of Doug, was a Richmond native and based many locations in the show on Richmond landmarks). The Cloverleaf Mall opened in 1972, but its health declined rapidly in the 1990s. After a high-profile stabbing at the mall in 1996 and a general move in the suburban population away from the mall area, its anchor stores closed up, and the mall staggered on, moribund, until it was closed to the public in 2008. It’s a huge, untouched, empty space and there’s no easy answer about what to do with it. The county purchased the mall in 2004, but there was no real progress toward finding a suitable use for the property. Apparently, they’re demolishing the mall in fall 2011 (it hasn’t happened yet and they’ve kept pushing the date back) and building, among other things, a Kroger supermarket in its place. This would be the first phase of a plan to build a mixed-use commercial/office/residential complex in the space, which are popular alternatives to the traditional shopping mall. While I’m skeptical of this project’s ability to overcome the general suburban decay of the surrounding area, and also of the mixed-use model of mall building in general, at least the space is going to be used for something. I do think it’s a shame, however, that they’re demolishing the Cloverleaf Mall. Wouldn’t it be cool to turn it into a skate park or a rock climbing gym or something? Then, it could retain its position as an adolescent hangout.

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