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The Rise and Fall of the American Shopping Mall

Although it was invented by a socialist, the shopping mall has come to represent the perils of capitalism. Here's how that happened.

Elizabeth  King

Elizabeth King

Image via Mosuno/Stocksy

If capitalism is America's religion, the mall is its church. Malls serve the purpose of making it easy for individuals to consume (mostly non-essential) goods and also serve as places of socialization. The commercial aspect of shopping malls is of course the most obvious feature: Malls sell things. But on a subtler level, malls are microcosms of broader society; through the lens of unbridled capitalistic indulgence, we can pretty easily observe other social forces at play.

Whether we're talking strip malls, mega-malls, or sprawling outdoor outlet shopping centers, the hallowed hallways of consumerism and commerce have a dark story tell and a very unlikely origin story.

Socialism and sexism go to suburbia

Malls function as an orgy of consumerism—places where shopping is an experience, replete with opportunities for dining, resting, and generally drawing out the shopping process as much as possible. In a cruel twist of modern history, however, it was a socialist named Victor Gruen who first devised the original concept of the shopping mall.

In his 1960 book, Shopping Towns USA: The Planning of Shopping Centers, Vienna-born architect Gruen wrote about the way in which the Industrial Revolution made city life "intolerable," creating the desire for suburb-dwelling for those with the means to afford the escape. Noting the urban population's rapid expansion into suburbs—places he saw as devoid of any kind of established culture—and fearing that suburbia was an overly "feminized" space in which only women and their children could tolerate the boredom, the shopping mall was presented as a solution to these problems.

It was a socialist who first devised the original concept of the shopping mall.

Worried that not only would suburbia tear swallow up all that was (in their view) essential to modern life, Gruen and other architects, city planners, and economists wanted to build state-owned centers where suburban people could mingle and mix, as the ancient Greeks once did in the agora (the town square of antiquity). Hoping to simultaneously quell suburban sprawl and establish physical points of common connection, Gruen devised and starting building shopping malls in the 1950s.

Gruen would later despise the ultimate result of his creation—the unintended but perhaps totally foreseeable consequences of attempting to transplant culture via consumerism. Poor Gruen.

The parking lot outside of a shopping center in the 1950s. Image via Flickr.

"The new Main Street"

Once the concept of the mall really took off, the suburbs of the United States became virtually littered with shopping centers: by 1960, there were 4,500 shopping malls open in the United states. Consumer Reports named the shopping mall in the top 50 most revolutionary consumer innovations in 1986 (it made the list alongside other inventions like antibiotics, and personal computers). The impact that shopping malls have had on city planning, infrastructure, and local economies can't be overstated.

In 1985, an opinion letter published in the New York Times called shopping malls America's "new Main Street." The letter, written by Antonio Rossman, then a visiting Law Professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, bemoaned the decision of the New York Court of Appeals to ban pamphleteers from distributing materials in shopping malls. Rossman argued that this decision would make it difficult for grassroots political movements to get their message out. In the letter, he argued, "Occasional interruption and intellectual provocation are the necessary and desirable traits of a free and creative society."

Without referencing Gruen in his letter, Rossman was tapped into exactly what the mall's creator had hoped for when he first started building shopping centers about 20 years earlier: an old-fashioned, indoor town square.

Racism by another name

The original idea for malls arose in part from fears that society would crumble if men had nothing to do in the suburbs, so the roots of our contemporary malls were fairly sexist. Almost immediately, and also to Gruen's dismay, the creation of malls in the suburbs added to the incentive of "white flight" from urban cities. Malls increased the appeal of the suburbs, but the fact that a car was needed to access them was a significant barrier for poor people of color in the 1950s and 1960s.

Anyone living in an urban city who did not have access to a car or adequate public transportation was cut off not only from living in the suburbs (where there was no transportation during the days of early development), but also from commuting to jobs that were opening up in the suburbs.

65 percent of Black people and 56 percent of Hispanic American people believe that racial profiling is widespread in shopping malls.

The theme of racism in malls is still very active in the present. A Gallup poll from 2004 showed that 65 percent of Black people and 56 percent of Hispanic American people believe that racial profiling is widespread in shopping malls. In addition, two massive department store chains, Barney's of New York and Macy's, were called out in 2013 for racially profiling Black and Latino shoppers, leading to investigations which found both stores' downtown NYC locations were practicing racial profiling in their anti-theft practices.

This brings recent anti-racist protests into a different perspective for observers. It should come as no surprise that the largest mall in the U.S., the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, was the site of a large-scale protest by the Black Lives Matter movement during the 2015 winter holidays.

Image via Wikipedia.

Dead malls and suburban decay

Dead malls are perhaps one of the most poetic illustrations of the limits of capitalism and the U.S.'s insatiable consumerism. A dead mall is precisely what it sounds like: an edifice that was once a shopping mall, but is now empty and no longer in use.

With the rise of online shopping and the hit that retail stores took during the "great recession," brick and mortar shopping centers saw major declines in sales. Between March 2008 and April 2009, mall tenants in the United States posted an overall loss of 6.5 percent. That same year, Standard and Poor's lowered the credit rating of the department store sector.

Green Street Advisors, a real estate advisory group, predicted in 2014 that 15 percent of malls in the U.S. would be closed and/or converted into non-retail property over the course of the next 10 years. It's not predicted that malls will ever bounce-back to their pre-recession earnings. The dead mall is necessarily on the rise as active malls fade away.

A dead mall doesn't just feel like any old huge empty building: It feels like a warning.

There's something deeply unsettling about dead malls. Devoid of any people, stores, mood music, and the wafting scent of perfume samples lingering in the air, a dead mall doesn't just feel like any old huge empty building: It feels like a warning. However, activists in towns that are home to dead malls have been working to ensure that dead malls remain public, communal spaces—proof that there can be life after capitalism.

Image via Flickr.

Reproduction and redemption

Shortly before his death in 1980, Gruen expressed the depths of his dismay regarding his invention: "I am often called the father of the shopping mall. I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all. I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities."

There is no doubt that Gruen's idea didn't pan out as he'd planned and that malls played a pivotal role in the phenomena of white flight and suburban sprawl, forever altering the face of large cities and their suburbs. Though, were Gruen still alive today, he would likely be pleased with the response to dying malls. Fearing that malls will become privatized spaces no longer open to the public, activists in suburbs all over the U.S. are vying to repurpose dead malls to create community centers, community colleges, and other spaces that would enhance public life in the suburbs. In a 2010 study on dead malls, Vanessa Parlette and Deborah Cowen wrote a sentiment that may as well have been penned by Gruen himself some 60 years before:

Spatial practice often exceeds the conceptions of designers and managers, transforming malls into community space. This is particularly true in declining inner suburbs, where poor and racialized communities depend more heavily on malls for social reproduction as well as recreation and consumption.

Parlette and Cowen point out that the contemporary vision of a mall is perhaps only to sell consumer goods for a profit, but the way malls are utilized in practice has turned out to be closer original intent of a shopping mall: a space for gathering together in the suburbs. Now that malls are dying, leaving only the edifice, the hope for malls is that they remain a public and communal space. This time, however, commerce is not the means to the end of community. It turns out Gruen's creation had to grow into a monster then die before it could begin to achieve his desired purpose.