Dead malls and the bygone carnivalesque in American culture, part 1
Malls are dead. If you have memories of the 1980s and earlier, you've surely noticed the direction that shopping areas have steadily headed within the past 15 to 20 years. At one end of the spectrum, there are smaller-scale, unenclosed spaces whose stores offer almost only fleeting indulgences, such as spas, hair salons, and food service chains or (typically upscale) grocery stores. They occasionally have a fashion store or a bookstore. At the other end of the spectrum are yawning gulf spaces with several big box stores, also unenclosed.
Lifestyle centers and power centers -- as these "retail concepts" are called -- have all but thoroughly replaced the shopping mall. The trend is widely remarked on in urban planning books, especially those with a New Urbanist viewpoint, who gloat over the mall's death. The transition began -- when else? -- during the 1990s, as the culture went from dangerous and exciting to safe and boring. Here is an NYT article showing that it was already clear by 2000.
The easiest way to date the downfall of the mall is to look to the iconic Sherman Oaks Galleria in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. It played the other-worldly hang-out in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and wannabe Valley Girls in every Nowheresville, USA dreamed of cruising out west to behold the deluge of bodies pouring down its stairs and escalators, as an earlier generation of rootless explorers would have marveled at Victoria Falls. (Now it would be more like a stop along a Grand Tour of the ruins of ancient civilizations.) Although the Galleria was struck by a major earthquake in 1994, all reports mention that it had already been suffering for several years, that is since the culture began shifting in a safer and duller direction.
(Malls starred not only in movies but in music videos, too. Relatively unknown singers like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson gave grassroots performances while touring through malls across the country, much as others would go on the road playing in coffeehouses. Sure enough, the mall featured in the video for "I Think We're Alone Now" is dead.)
The death of the mall is one of those Obviously Good Things. The placid, open-air lifestyle centers signal a regaining of our sanity after having lost our minds wandering around the confines of malls. And for those who despise grandeur, the power centers offer the convenience of large general stores combined with a semblance of boutique shopping -- very huge boutiques, but all of which stand alone, not enclosed, and perhaps placed asymmetrically on the plot, unlike the gauntlet of storefronts that recedes down the corridors of a mall. Plus look at how much classier the stores are in a lifestyle center: they cater not to the blind consumerist who chases after trendy things, but to every person's inner sophisticate who delights in authentic experiences.
This not so much at the power centers, but everybody gets in and out of those places as fast as possible, and anyway it's not hard to rationalize the visit by telling yourself that you're just going to Best Buy to see if a giant-screen TV would give your weekly film club the best experience as you go through the Criterion Collection.
Back on planet Earth, the rise of the lifestyle center shows just how self-absorbed the culture has become since the 1990s, as most of the stores sell a pampering service of one kind or another that the customer receives mostly in isolation from all other people. It also shows how much people now enjoy patting themselves on the back for their good taste in all things, hence the ubiquitous tour guidebook-like promotions for "the olive oils of Spain" and "lesser known Croatian cheeses." Mostly what such stores sell is a soundbite -- often written out in prose on the packaging, to ease rehearsing -- that the buyer can parrot to those whom they are desperate to impress. "Why, I never knew you were such a connoisseur!" Humbler people would say "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," but no thought could be further from the mind of today's self-satisfied overnight know-it-alls.
Also, when the goal of shopping is not primarily about the quality of the goods sold but signaling how au courant your tastes are, the wheel of fashion spins faster not slower. One season Greek food is in, the next season it's Thai, after that Spanish, then perhaps Antarctic. Lifestyle centers have made our relationship with food more shallow, not less -- at least before, we enjoyed it as food!
Finally, the idea that lifestyle centers are more hip and progressive than those tacky and inertial malls is risible. As part of the larger demand for New Urbanist ideals within popular culture, our new retail centers seek a return to the quaint Main Street shops of middle America in the 1950s. Pause and think about that for a moment -- the cool people now want to resurrect the atmosphere of Leave it to Beaver. In 1984, who would've predicted that? Lifestyle centers cater too much to older people (like, over 25) to be very hip. Few young people care about Whole Foods or can afford an afternoon at the day spa. About the only hang-out for teenagers in such places is Jamba Juice, where the stuff being sold and the sheer tiny size of the space doesn't foster getting into or even plotting mischief. And again, they're besieged on all sides by old people.
Nor have these peaceful, human-scale spaces made us more sociable or trusting. Trust levels and "social capital" in general has been plummeting during the rise of lifestyle centers. Indeed, it's precisely because people began not to trust each other very much that they abandoned the more unpredictable malls in favor of the sleepy yet safer lifestyle center. Being social is ultimately about leaving behind your self-consciousness and joining in with some larger group activity, which you're unlikely to see in lifestyle centers -- lacking an enclosed space, the patrons don't feel the natural bond that people feel inside a large common space such as a school building, and even inside any particular store, most people are tucked away in their own cozy cocoons.
I don't think the built environment influences trust levels or sociability in either direction, positively or negatively. Rather, these traits change according to their own dynamic laws, and the built environment is adapted to the current state of human nature afterwards. Still, if we just look at the correlation, it is obvious that malls go together with high trust and sociability. That is apparent throughout human evolution -- the more trusting people became of strangers, the larger and the more easy-going the crowds that they could support.
After this initial revision of what shopping has been like since the 1990s, part 2 will re-discover the Dionysian, anti-consumerist, and humbling features of the classical shopping mall.
P.S. I'll kill the first person who says "the internet did it."