On the shelf
“Meet Me at the Well”
By Alexandra Long
Bloomsbury: 320 pages, $28
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In Los Angeles we find ourselves in a mayoral election involving shopping malls. That’s thanks to candidate Rick Caruso, developer of glossy “lifestyle centers” like the Grove and Americana at Brand, which have become talking points and backdrops for press conferences in the screeching race against Rep. Karen Bass for LA’s top office.
Of course, there have been many questions as to whether someone like Caruso, who is known for building semi-fictional consumer utopias/dystopias, remembers those $1,000 dinners on a moving shopping cart? – can govern something that is more than a simulacrum of public space. Shopping centers are central to public life, even if they keep public life at a distance.
Some may resemble town squares, but everything about this square is private and therefore controlled – or, as promotional literature likes to say, “curated”. That control extends to aesthetics, music, and of course the choice of retail outlets and restaurants, which in turn determine the class of consumers a mall attracts. Private maintenance and security are helping to relegate to the periphery the riots of city life — waste, homelessness, people who disobey codes of conduct and dress.
The mayoral race, coupled with a pandemic that is hopefully coming to an end, makes it a good time to reflect on malls and the purposes they serve. Enter New York architecture critic Alexandra Lange’s latest book, Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall.
Lange provides an intelligent and accessible cultural history—outlining the social, economic, and architectural forces that led to the emergence of US shopping malls as we know them. But she is also happy. The US is currently overmalled – with exponentially more retail space per capita than countries like China or the UK. Dead malls have proliferated in recent decades, serving as backdrops for zombie movies and inspiring chroniclers of urban decay. (The hashtag #deadmall contains tens of thousands of images on Instagram.)
However, Lange is not ready to declare the mall dead.
“In rushing to dance on the mall’s grave, we risk treating the mall as a disposable consumer item and neglecting the basic human need it fulfills,” she writes. “We also risk throwing away the increasingly precious resources of space, material and familiarity that are built into the mall’s DNA.”
For example, shopping malls have been successfully converted into community college campuses.
Others have come back as malls in a different guise. Lange cites the case of the Plaza Fiesta in suburban Atlanta, which began as a strip mall in the 1960s, grew into an outlet mall and now caters to Latino immigrants. The mall has a single anchor store (Ross Dress For Less), while the rest is devoted to Latin American market stalls, stocking everything from Quinceañera dresses to Ford F-150 parts.
On a recent trip to Atlanta I visited the Plaza Fiesta. It was packed up.
Meet Me by the Fountain begins with a history lesson featuring some of the characters who shaped the malls of the 20th century. These include Austrian-born, LA-based workaholic architect Victor Gruen, whose firm helped design the first suburban shopping center (the now closed Northland Center outside of Detroit) as well as the first closed shopping center (Southdale Center near Minneapolis ) to build.
Another star is developer James Rouse, who along with designers Ben and Jane Thompson helped transform Boston’s run-down Faneuil Hall into a tourist-friendly marketplace (as well as an early symbol of downtown gentrification) in the 1970s.
And of course there’s Jon Jerde, the LA-based architect whose “experience” malls — including LA’s Universal CityWalk and Horton Plaza in San Diego (now being redeveloped into office space) — gleefully tidied up the architectures of eras and continents to create “the most exciting visual narrative in the smallest space”.
Jerde’s early concepts were reportedly inspired by an essay on meaningful public space published by science fiction author Ray Bradbury in The Times in 1970.
But “Meet Me by the Fountain” isn’t just a timeline of guys with mall visions dancing in their heads.
Lange has a keen eye for how spaces are designed – and for whom. Her previous book The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids (2018) explored how children and their needs have influenced design. Last year, she wrote a memorable message for Bloomberg CityLab about how public space fails teenage girls.
In the new book, Lange examines what malls have meant for women as places of career advancement, and how mall design — with its wide doorways, gentle ramps, ample seating, and generous air conditioning — can make them hospitable places for seniors to socialize to tie.
She outlines the malls’ conflicting relationships with teenagers, some of their most loyal customers. Over the years, malls have enticed them with arcades and hot themes; They also chased them away with “No Loitering” signs.
“Commercial imperatives have inadvertently created an architecture that accommodates those who often hold the least power in society: the young, the old, the disabled, and the poor,” writes Lange. As malls evolve, she wonders if they can serve these cultural roles “with less ambivalence and more democracy.”
A particularly intriguing thread in Meet Me By the Fountain explores the complicity of malls in segregation – de facto, if not de jure. In the early years, many shiny new suburban malls were accessible only by car from city centers, often making them off-limits to working-class Black and Hispanic communities.
“By proposing a downtown area outside of downtown, sheltered from the elements, surrounded by parking lots, designed for a single use and rigorously planned,” writes Lange, “Victor Gruen has also created a mechanism to protect white, aspiring homeowners from those who are different. “
In fact, the white middle-class shopper is still the idealized shopping customer today. (Caruso’s malls are mostly in upper-class white enclaves.)
This is true even for mall owners who now serve non-white communities.
“The Black Mall didn’t go black on purpose, it went black by default,” writes Lange. “Investment capital fled to hunt down white shoppers, and malls built for their use eventually served black consumers… Little attention is usually paid to what has become of the mall; Private equity wants to make it back to a white mall.”
In Los Angeles, this scenario plays out at Baldwin Hill’s Crenshaw Plaza, a mall that has served a black customer base for decades (and has been financially hit by the pandemic). A black community group, Downtown Crenshaw Rising, made a bid for the mall, but the owners eventually sold the complex to Harridge Development Group, a luxury developer looking to add apartments, condos and a hotel to the site.
As Damien Goodman, who sits on the board of directors of Downtown Crenshaw Rising, wrote in a letter to The Times about the sale, “Too often modernization is code for displacement.”
The luxury arms race isn’t the only way to revitalize a mall. Lange dedicates the last chapter of her book to this topic – with a look beyond the USA to malls in Latin America and the Philippines, where they are booming. Rather than drowning in oceans of parking lots, malls in these regions are often connected to mass transit. Instead of department store chains, the focus is often on smaller, independent and more diverse retail stores.
“To survive,” she writes, “the American shopping mall must shed many of the characteristics that have defined it for decades: no department store anchor, less catering to an imaginary middle-aged white shopper, more public transportation, more density.”
Lange has no false longing for shopping centers. “Meet Me by the Fountain” is open about how they have usurped public space. But at a time when shopping malls still serve to bring us together, Lange’s book is a thoughtful guide to helping them do what the best already have—but better.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-06-13/alexandra-langes-new-book-chronicles-the-life-death-and-rebirth-of-the-shopping-mall Alexandra Lange’s ‘Meet Me By the Fountain,’ a mall history