“The late-twentieth-century United States doesn’t make sense without the mall”

A new book looks more positively on the future of the American shopping mall:

Meet Me by the Fountain challenges the dominant narrative. Lange wants us to consider how in prematurely writing off the mall as dead, or in thinking of it as “a little bit embarrassing as the object of serious study, ” we neglect the important role these buildings have played in our lives. At their best, malls have always been more than just sites of conspicuous consumption and leisure, but places for communities to gather, to see and be seen, fulfilling a “basic human need.” Lange’s book reminds us that the mall has helped shape American society, and has evolved with our country since the 1950s. And she posits that there’s still a place for malls in our society, as long as they adapt to better serve their communities.

Malls grew alongside—and because of—the federally subsidized postwar expansion of the suburbs. “The late-twentieth-century United States doesn’t make sense without the mall,” Lange writes. If the American dream was owning a detached house for your nuclear family, the mall was where you bought the goods to fill your home and clothe your kids. Malls became the suburban equivalent of downtown shopping districts. But while malls, like their city counterparts, serve as public spaces, they are privately owned and policed, and any sense of community that one gets from spending time at them is always secondary to the primary pursuit of consumption…

And yet, despite these problems, Lange reminds us what the mall gave us in the past and explains why she sees in its form hope for a future of adaptive reuse, in which these spaces will “embrace their public role” rather than try to privately control who can use them and how. Lange argues that malls should be repurposed for walkable mixed-use developments that combine the residential, commercial, and public. The behemoth shells of anchor stores—the department stores that sat at the ends of corridors—could enclose food halls, entertainment-centered businesses like trampoline parks, or public libraries; parking lots could be repurposed for senior-housing units. These places would still be malls, but ones that are more experience-driven and less shopping-centric…

This kind of ambivalence is all over Meet Me by the Fountain. Lange’s ultimate vision for reusing the space of malls might be one that largely repudiates a singular focus on commercialism, but she doesn’t discount shopping and what it can do for us. She argues that we “find freedom in shopping” for our “true selves,” and that malls have given us more than just self-expression. They are what Ray Bradbury, in a 1970 essay in West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, called “Somewhere To Go”: a place that draws people together, that creates a de facto community.

Two features of this summary stand out:

  1. The shopping mall as it is known in the United States is part of suburbia. Even though malls can be found in major cities, they started in suburbs and are primarily found there.
  2. Related to #1, shopping malls emerged as places for community within a suburbia that prioritizes private single-family homes and has relatively few public spaces.

If this was a “chicken and the egg” question, the answer seems clear: suburbs came first and then shopping malls developed in that context. The shopping mall even co-opted the department store, the urban shopping emporium that emerged decades earlier in rapidly growing cities.

The enduring tension, described in this review, seems to be this: can malls ever truly become places for the whole community or are they primarily profit-centers where some enjoy shopping together and gathering around other shoppers? Or, to put it in other terms, can shopping malls ultimately serve people and not just markets?

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