A Random Walk Through the Mall
The adventure begins as you drive into the parking lot. In the many states where traffic laws do not extend to private property, the lot should have a large sign: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Malls are private property, and when some cowboy pulls out of a parking place and zooming up to forty runs into your car, he has probably broken no law. Even though his rampage may be caught on the mall’s video system, the management can choose not to share the tape. The thousands of dollars worth of damage he has inflicted on your car will have to be paid for by your own insurance, which may not, depending on the type of policy you have, cover your hospital bills. This is caveat emptor with a vengeance.
Some estimates put parking lot crashes at one fifth of all accidents, but since so many of these accidents go unreported—in some places the police will not even take down the information—the figures may be higher.[i] Supposing you are lucky enough to avoid an accident, you still have a gauntlet to run: the situation is created by an obese shopper who doesn’t not want risk losing an ounce of hard-earned fat by walking a few yards from a parking spot and has to be dropped off right in front of the entrance. This is a maneuver just slightly less time-consuming than docking the Queen Elizabeth. Meanwhile, another shopper afraid of exercise is searching for the nearest parking spot but gets stuck behind the car unloading its immense cargo. Angry at having to wait, the lazy shopper pulls out and shoots through the pedestrian lane, almost taking out a troop of Brownie Scouts. He or she then spots an old woman about to pull out and pulls up behind, breathing fire and brimstone. But the elderly driver is not going to be rushed. She has gloves—where did I leave them—to put on, keys to find, makeup to apply, and perhaps a soft drink to finish. The lazy shopper, so focused in his hate for the old lady, is oblivious to the traffic jam that is building up behind him.
You find a parking place but by the time you get to the door, the obese shopper has only just got into a rascal and managed to block the door. You hold it open and wait, and receive a glower instead of a thank-you. Now you are in at last, and what a spectacle of Hell. If you are fond of Dante—and anyone going to the mall should prepare by reading his Inferno—you think immediately of his lines—”So many. I had not thought that death had undone so many.” Most people at the mall are, in fact, civil and well-behaved, but these poor souls are sunk into the mass of the damned prowling the corridors in search of junk to fill the emptiness left by broken relationships. The ones who stand out are all doing something to attract attention. There is the Asian youth who insists on doing some kind of gymnastic dance to attract attention; a little ways on you see a man painting his face with women’s make-up. There is something very disturbing about his appearance, and you would not be comforted to learn he is fondling a very large knife in his pocket.[ii] A gang of teenagers runs by, laughing and screaming as they “accidentally” push one of the kids into a quiet family.
You make your way into the electronics store where you need to buy a software package and some batteries. You cannot get to the batteries, because a scientific shopper has parked his cart in front of them and is checking out the per unit price of each and comparing it, on his iPhone, with what he can get on Amazon. Knowing that a polite, “I wonder if I just might….,” will get you nowhere, you go looking for the software package. They don’t have what you are looking for, so you go to the counter, where the one free clerk is talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone. The conversation is complicated and heated and concerns who dumped whom last night.
“Excuse me….,” you begin shyly, and the clerk turns his back and whispers his secrets into the phone.
You clear your throat, and try a somewhat more forceful, “Excuse me, I need some help.”
“I’ve got to call you back,” he shouts, “Some impatient jerk is in a hurry.” You explain what you want, but he is not listening, and makes you repeat the whole thing.
“That’s not really what you want,” he explains. It’s outmoded. What you really need is the Crisco Systemics z62flash. You ask if it will work on your Mac with OSX, and he rolls his eyes as if to say, “Why me? Why do I get all the feebes?”
“Of course it works,” and before you can say “I’ll check it out online,” he has rung up the sale. Punching in the numbers, he peremptorily says, “Zip code.” When you acknowledge there is such a thing as a zip code, he rolls his eyes again and demands, “Tell me your zip code.” Thinking this has something to do with giving identity for a credit card or a check, you explain you’re paying cash. “It doesn’t matter. You have to give us your zip code, or I can’t ring it up.” Then you realize that it so that Radio Shack can do a marketing study that in point of fact you object to. “Look, Jack, I don’t give a shit what your zip code is. Just make something up.” But, when you give him your zip code, he wants your address. “You want to hear about our sales, don’t you?” Actually not and you manage to win this round.
When you get it home, you discover that it is, as you suspected from the beginning, Windows only. In your haste to exit the store and the mall, you forgot to get the batteries.
Something There is that Doesn’t Love a Mall
The shopping mall did not just happen: It was invented by one man. Yes, it is true, there have always been market areas and shopping districts, and it is also true that in the course of the 19th century architects, businessmen, and city planners designed new urban shopping spaces, most famously the lovely Galleria in Milan. And, while the development of new shopping centers was in part an evolutionary process that responded to social changes—urban decay, the invention of the automobile—the shopping mall was a conscious and intelligent attempt to create an alternative to a shopping world dominated by cars and bustle.
Victor Gruen is the one man most responsible for the modern mall. Viktor Grünberg, an Austrian Jewish architect, left Vienna after the Anschluss and, arriving in the United States, changed his name. Gruen was more than an architect. In Austria he had been a leading socialist, and he also ran a political cabaret that put on skits and plays. Like other leftist intellectuals, Gruen was dissatisfied with the results of the liberal capitalist revolution that had transformed Europe in the 19th century. Like Fourier and St. Simon, Gruen dreamed of simpler times when people did not rush out to buy necessities but strolled through the village, stopping to drink coffee and play chess with their friends and visiting a variety of shops. He saw the development of American suburbs as something more than the continued degradation of community; he saw the suburbs as an opportunity where the friendly atmosphere and leisurely way of life of village green and shops could be recreated.
In the early 1950’s Gruen designed the open—air Northland Mall in Detroit, before going on to win fame as the designer of Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, the first fully enclosed shopping mall. Gruen originally envisioned an entire community, not just shops and restaurants but apartments, medical and educational facilities, a park with a lake. In fact, Gruen’s dream was never to be realized, and the shopping mall became not a village community but a commercial facility to fulfill the consumer dreams of suburban drivers who wanted a place to park and an opportunity to buy all the things they saw advertised on television. Gruen, disappointed and disgusted, denounced the monsters he had created and returned to Vienna.
Gruen wrote many articles and books in which he sketched out his vision, but his last work was a dystopian novel, Ist Fortschritt ein Verbrechen. I am looking for a copy, but I did read, in an academic article, a brief sketch of the book in which he characterized America as “a clip-joint, where everybody is persuaded to buy what he doesn’t need with money he doesn’t own in order to impress people he actually can’t stand.” (I have also not read, though I have ordered it, Jeffrey Hardwick’s biography, Mall Maker.)
It is hard not to sympathize with Victor Gruen. Like other brilliant leftists, he grasped a real problem, the decline and collapse of community and with it the disappearance of all the old verities that made for human civility. As my late friend Robert Nisbet pointed out, both in the Quest for Community and in The Sociological Tradition, the utopian left was virtually obsessed with their vision of the ancien régime, a social order based on kinship, the Church, and the Crown, whose collapse (during the French Revolution and its aftershocks) had left social ruin and anomie for the poor people condemned to live in the rubble. In the course of the 19th century, some would seek salvation in art (Wagner, Mallarmée), individualistic or political heroism (Nietzsche, Carlyle), mysticism, or communes (Fourier, Owen) or some mixture of these elements. None of it worked. Indeed, utopian experiments were breeding grounds for new waves of social, cultural, and moral insanity. Their instincts were more or less sound, but the attempt to recreate the life of the Medieval peasant, whether at Brook Farm or in a Hippie commune, was not only doomed to failure: Worse, it exacerbated the alienation and anomie and encouraged the delusion that democracy, freedom, and the markets were, after all, the only route to a happy life. If you know any ex-hippies who supported Reagan, you will know what I am talking about.
So it happened, then, that Victor Gruen’s attempt to put Humpty together again, helped to further the disintegration of American society and to accelerate that process that some Marxists like to call commodification. The reality of American life today is quite simply this: If something has value, it can be bought and sold, and, while we may still sing “The best things in life are free,” what we really believe is that anything that cannot be bought and sold has no value.
[ii] I picked these two incidents from an episode of Mall Cops, a program dedicated to the heroic activities of the police at the Mall of America.