June 29, 2010

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."


  1. One thing to note is that many of the dead malls died because of competition from newer and larger malls in the area. Not quite the same thing as saying that the mall concept is dead.

    The now-dead mall show in the Tiffany video, the Ogden Town Center, was a downtown mall rather than the standard suburban type. Downtown malls are more likely to struggle than their suburban counterparts, often because they were designed as "solutions" to declining downtowns rather than being carefully thought out to fill untapped demands.


  2. "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."

    You are definitely onto something here. I was a teenager in the nineties and hanging out at the mall with my friends. Even back then I wasn't too crazy about the place, because of what they sell, but my friends loved all those stores; for me, it was just a chance to be with them.
    They (I followed) began leaving the mall for the same reason proffered by everyone I've ever encountered on the subject: they weren't "safe" anymore. In other words, the ghetto began to encroach. I remember one of the last times we were out as kids, probably in 1995-6, a huge gang of black teenagers was running around, laughing, and plowed accidentally into one of my friends. This person quickly apologized, but the mayhem was hardly interrupted. We read the writing on the wall and got out before we could become statistics.

    These lifestyle centers will go the way of the mall, I believe. I like them neither more nor less. The one thing they have over the mall isn't their open space, but lack of menacing NAMs. That is already changing as they want some place to hang out, too.

    I wonder what the fate of the high-end malls will be. There is one in Tampa with a Neiman Marcus, but I've noticed over the years a few of the high end stores go out of business and be replaced by tacky shops; it's saving grace is that all the restaurants are located together with a clear demarcation between the "food court" (inside) and the upscale restaurants (outside) with their valet parking. This makes life so much better for the businessmen with money.

    Personally, I like the downtown centers and/or historic districts of towns and cities with their mom and pop stores, but they're completely different things.

  3. Despite the overwhelming presence of poor people and nams at places like Wal-Mart or Target, these places haven't run out working and middle class people, including kids. The loitering spots of cafes and fast-food outposts haven't brought harm, either. The difference is the presence of all the older generations. Even rowdy nam kids mostly behave when they are outnumbered by *their* elders. These places are more personal than either the mall or the lifestyle center.
    Just don't go to them at night or on Black Friday.

  4. "many of the dead malls died because of competition from newer and larger malls in the area."

    That just means that the niche will fill up to a certain point, not that it will go through a downfall. So there's more than competition keeping the level steady; there's a dying off.

    "Downtown malls are more likely to struggle than their suburban counterparts"

    I've never been there, but I'm guessing Ogden, UT is not what most people would call "downtown." And anyway, downtown malls did fine for decades, as did suburban malls. The death of malls is across the board.

    "they weren't "safe" anymore."

    That was definitely the conclusion, but it's odd that people felt less safe in public during the '90s and 2000s when crime was plummeting, compared to the peak era of crime that was the 1980s.

    I think again your basic level of trust is what matters, since that's what colors your perception of how safe a place is. As your trust level falls, you perceive even safer places as less safe. It also keeps you less out in the open to be preyed on by criminals, so that dries up their niche and sends crime plummeting.

  5. Diversity is a mall-killer. People dont feel comfortable around large numbers of "the other". There are three malls in our Metropolitian Statistical Area that are out in the undiverse burbs. They are doing fine financially, with tons of foot traffic.

    Ive seen what was once the biggest mall in the state literally lose 80% of its white customer base when it became "diverse". You'd have large numbers of young diverse males walking shoulder-to-shoulder 6-and-7-across down the mall aisles, intimidating other shoppers of families to move to store doorfronts to avoid them for kicks. Shoplifting went up, car-break-ins (once something that "just didn't happen") skyrocketed, and the mall had to hire security (the little white trucks with green-police-car-lights on the roofs). People still didn't come back though.

    The killer for me personally was the black teenaged scam artists who would set up shop at the mall entrances and openly (and very aggressively) solicited donations for obviously bullshit causes. This went on in roughly 1996 for about a year or so before the mall went through the apparent legal rigamorale to stop it. It was infuriating to tell some loudmouthed teenaged girl that you didn't have money to give to her "fund for ________", and have to listen to her harangue you when she loudly (with several people around her allied with her) noted that "you goin' shoppin', so you have some money". That scam, and the Farrakhan bums who were setting up shop at the interstate ramp, aggressively panhandling the whites a few weekends during one summer while they were stuck in traffic, is why I decided "fuck this place", and started driving across town to shop at the ritzy-new mall across town located out in whitetopia.

  6. Diversity in shopping areas was shooting up from the '60s through the '80s, yet that didn't kill malls -- in fact, they were flourishing.

    If you ever wanted to fear black crime, it was from about 1975 to 1991. Watch Taxi Driver or any movie shot in New York in the mid-late 1970s to see what people were making themselves vulnerable to when they went out -- and yet they still went out!

    Plus malls are dead across the country, including lily-white suburbs, not just areas with a decent NAM population. Again just consider the Ogden City Mall from the Tiffany video -- Ogden was not taken over by NAMs.

  7. Malls are still necessary in some places. Try walking through an open-air shopping center in the middle of a Texas or Florida summer. There's a relatively new open-air mall in Las Vegas, not far from the municipal building that houses the county recorder's office. It's dead as a doornail in summer, because shopper's don't cotton to wandering from store to store in 110-degree heat. The point of a mall is cross-marketing, which is defeated when customers don't want to check out the other stores.

  8. clearancepost7/12/17, 7:35 AM

    Dead Malls on youtube https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLNz4Un92pGNxQ9vNgmnCx7dwchPJGJ3IQ

  9. Awhile ago, I remember reading an article about how some mall businesses lobbied to have a law passed that placed a curfew on teenagers at the mall. This happened in the early 2000s, when the crime rate temporarily rose.

    It made me realize that local businesses are often the ones responsible for policing public spaces. Not just by lobbying for certain laws, but by calling the police, also. Some bystander who constantly calls the cops may not be taken seriously, but a business who does so is, and some businesses form ties with local police.

    Businesses, of course, side with whoever spends money for their services.

  10. The mall anchor store where I work, Homesense(TJ Maxx company) recently experienced a steep drop-off in selling discount cards. What do you think this means? Would appreciate your analysis about the future of malls...


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