Shopping Mall (Newton)

Bloomsbury has started an interesting series called Object Lessons. It is intended to be a “series about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” Some of the topics include dust, hair, bread and a sock. I chose this one because of my general feelings about malls, in particular, the Mall of America. When I told the bookseller that I looked forward to the criticism of the mall, she said she thought it was more of an homage. And she was right. There are some sweet vignettes about the author’s family waiting for the mother to emerge from the mall where she worked.

The argumentative side of the piece is, however, fundamentally wrong. Newton laments the loss of mall culture and says that times have changed since the days of Victor Gruen’s utopian vision for the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota. The mall was supposed to be the Main Street of the suburbs, and not only did that fail to work, it was never going to work.

The suburbs, created out of a love for the car, a desire for more space, and the need to get away from those who couldn’t get away from the city (the poor, the black, the brown) served to cement – and I use that word deliberately – the divisions among people. A mall could never have been a suburban version of a city center because anyone can access a city center or public square. Not everyone can get to a mall in the suburbs. And those who can’t get there probably can’t afford much even if they could find their way there.

And despite noble attempts to dress it up, a mall is, at its heart, a capitalist enterprise, one that cannot and will not co-exist from the democratic (or even worse!) principles of a public square.

Newton, who writes well and possesses a heavy dose of nostalgia says that “[n]o mall is forever; their lifespan, like our own, is finite” (126). Beautifully put, but in the end, wrong. As the son of an architect, it has been my experience that no one creates a building without expecting it to last. Yes, we’re finite; that’s part of the deal and we know it from the very beginning. Malls are monuments; they’re not supposed to have an expiration date.

I agree with the woman who is quoted as being sad that the Rolling Acres Mall was the “landscape of [her] childhood” (122). Children may spend time in malls, but it is no place to grow up. Newton shouldn’t be so surprised by her reaction.

Newton regrets the recent run of mall-based violence. He reports the unsubstantiated claims that the violence was planned over social media. He and others are probably right. It probably was organized. And those teens chose their target wisely and, I think, knowingly. You can protest downtown all you want, but disrupt our temples of capitalism with violence or even a non-violent protest? It is, for some, truly the end of days. Let’s hope it’s the end of malls.



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