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The Once and Future Shopping Mall

Their inventor wanted them to be centers of social life. They never really achieved that goal, but the ones that remain are more than just places to spend money.

Southpark Center in 1956
Southdale Center in Edina, Minn., America’s first enclosed mall, in the 1950s. Shopping centers may have been pedestrian-friendly in their way, but they were nevertheless islands in a sea of parking. (Photo: Simon Property Group)
In the many decades since we started going to shopping malls, we have rarely stopped to ask what larger purpose, if any, they are supposed to serve. They are seen almost entirely as commercial enterprises designed to make a profit and respond to, and often create, consumer demand. Very little has been written about malls as a social institution.

But social values were very much on the mind of Victor Gruen, the Austrian-born designer who created the first enclosed mall in the United States, Southdale Center in suburban Minneapolis, in 1956. Gruen wanted to give patrons a version of the lively and intensely social shopping districts he remembered from the Vienna where he grew up. It wouldn’t just be a collection of stores — it would include schools, post offices, medical centers and museums. A modern mall, especially in a cold-climate place like Minnesota, would be a sort of urban market town, a Main Street under glass.

In the years before his death in 1980, Gruen realized and regretted the failure of his creations to meet his original vision. They may have been pedestrian-friendly in their way, but they were nevertheless islands in a sea of parking. And the idea of a shopping mall as a key element in modern social life was rarely mentioned.

But now two articulate students of 21st-century commerce have written books that take us back to the original Gruen idea, and why it never materialized. Alexandra Lange, in Meet Me by the Fountain, offers a detailed examination of American shopping malls — where they have been, where they stand now and where they might be going. Kate Black, in Big Mall, presents a personal view of her love-hate relationship with the shopping center, where it has served a social purpose and where it has failed to do that.

“Gruen’s social vision of the mall,” Black writes, “is largely regarded as a failure. His intention to bring people together only drives them apart more rapidly.”

But if modern shopping malls failed to achieve Gruen’s vision of rewarding community, it’s important to remember that they are profoundly social institutions. This has been true from the very beginning, in ways that Lange and Black document quite precisely. And the current plight of the mall points toward a more public future in which local governments will inevitably play a crucial role.

That conventional enclosed shopping malls are on a downward trajectory is impossible to doubt. The peak year for malls in this country was 1982. Through the 1990s, about 140 new ones came on line each year. But few if any conventional enclosed malls have been built in the United States since 2007. The survivors that are doing best are malls featuring high-end luxury stores, or else low-end centers with dollar store-type retail outlets and nail salons. The ones in the middle — the majority of those that used to exist — are in the most trouble. They have endured the most ruinous competition from big-box stores and Internet commerce.

OVER THE COURSE OF 70 YEARS, malls have evolved in several distinct stages. Gruen may have envisioned the re-creation of Viennese community, but the reality was that the original malls, including his, were designed almost exclusively for the patronage of middle-class white suburban women, who were looking for cleanliness and an environment free of cars and the jostling of downtown sidewalk crowds. And this was the way they functioned.
The interior of Southpark Center in the 1950s
The interior of Southdale Center in the 1950s. As the enclosed mall has atrophied, one of its most puzzling remnants has been nostalgia for the institution as it existed decades ago.
(Photo: Gruen Associates)

But many developers began to want a more diverse, quasi-urban clientele, and this led to the creation in the 1970s of urban festival malls, pioneered by the Baltimore developer James Rouse. Rouse created Quincy Market in Boston and Harborplace in Baltimore, and his work led to more than a dozen spin-offs in cities around the country. These were much closer to what Gruen had wanted, but they didn’t work very well outside a few tourist-friendly cities. A shopping and dining experience that attracted visitors to the heart of Boston didn’t transfer very well to Toledo, Ohio, and the Toledo incarnation of the festival mall was forlorn and largely empty after just a few years.

After the festival mall craze fizzled out in the 1980s, a handful of entrepreneurs began to experiment with malls as quasi-theme parks sprawling over dozens of acres and implanted with zoos, water playgrounds and myriad other entertainments geared toward both tourists and locals. Architect Jon Jerde did this successfully at Universal Center in Los Angeles, and the gigantic Mall of America was a major success in Minnesota. But each of these innovations took the whole idea of the mall further and further from what its inventor had hoped for.

The last major innovation, the lifestyle center, an open-air development often built around a horseshoe, flourished in the early 2000s as developers realized that an increasing number of customers wanted to do their shopping outside. Twenty years after its introduction, the outdoor lifestyle center remains the most viable competitor to big-box stores and Internet shopping. But it has not halted the decline of the traditional shopping mall as a pervasive societal institution, and all of this history points us to the nagging question of what the social consequences of American mall culture have been.

ONE NON-COMMERCIAL CONSEQUENCE was the redefinition of middle-class teenage life. Loitering in the corridors of enclosed malls became a ubiquitous feature of the teen experience in the 1980s, and came to structure teenage self-identity. Sometimes this meant a strengthening of social bonds. It meant the emergence of the human species we came to call the mall rat.

But more often, malls generated in young people a different form of self-invention, stimulated by anonymity and leading, more often than not, to loneliness. The American poet Tony Hoagland wrote a poem called “At the Galleria Shopping Mall” that concluded, “As the gods in olden stories turned mortals into laurel trees and crows to teach them some kind of lesson, so we were turned into Americans to learn something of loneliness.”

Black makes essentially the same point in her book: “A mall is one of the few places that makes self-invention literal, visible and moderately accessible. … The mall gives me the full sense of life without meaningful interaction with other people.”

I’m not disputing that this can be a liberating feeling for some who experience it. But one has to question whether it is beneficial to a broader society that in the past generation has lost many of its outlets for community and cultivated a pervasive individualism among Americans of all ages.

As the enclosed mall has atrophied in the past two decades, one of its most puzzling remnants has been nostalgia for the institution as it existed 40 years ago. A Reddit forum called r/deadmalls claims to have 180,000 members, most of whom spend their time at the site gazing at pictures of empty enclosed-mall spaces. Dan Bell, described in Big Mall as the king of dead shopping centers, produces a YouTube channel said to have more than 600,000 subscribers. A picture of a table in a long-empty food court poised for demolition, Black believes, can stir the memory of someone who skipped school to eat lunch at that specific table as a teenager.

IT ISN’T CLEAR WHY DEAD MALLS PRODUCE THIS SORT OF NOSTALGIA, other than the likelihood that if we wait long enough in this society, we will find people nostalgic about almost anything that has disappeared. But one thing is absolutely clear: Treating the malls of the 1980s the way archaeologists treat ancient ruins tells us nothing about what we might do with all of our millions of acres of empty mall space in the years to come. That requires a much different form of energy and imagination.

When you look at what has happened to many of the dead malls of the last century, you find a whole variety of retrofits. Some of them have simply been torn down, of course, but others have been repurposed to contain housing, hotels, museums, gyms, churches, senior centers, libraries and a whole variety of other features. Many of these are public enterprises, successors to the strictly private mall operations that have dominated shopping-center history.

In perhaps the most startling transformation, Gruen’s Southdale Center in Minnesota, the first of the fully enclosed malls of the 1950s, is being re-created as a multipurpose development that includes luxury hotel rooms and apartment complexes, a fitness center in place of a defunct J.C. Penney store, medical clinics and day care for children, and a variety of other public and private properties. All of this was made possible in part by an interest-free loan from the city of Edina, where the mall is located.

Ironic as it may seem, malls such as Southdale are moving closer to being the entity that Victor Gruen envisioned — places where different segments of the community can gather and find their basic needs as well as their consumer desires met, and also satisfy their desire for sociability. Gruen dreamed of re-creating the bustling public precincts of Vienna in the climate-controlled mall corridors of the American Midwest. We are nowhere near realizing that vision, but we are a couple of improbable steps closer than anyone could have imagined a generation ago.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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