The Mall is Dead (Long Live the Mall)
Willa Paskin: It’s reductive to say there are two kinds of people in the world, but I might go ahead and say it. There are two kinds of Americans in the world, the ones who’ve had them all in their life and the ones who haven’t. I’m in the second category, but hearing people talk about their mall almost makes me wish I weren’t.
Katie Shepherd: I once in a like fit of rage as a tween was like, I’m going to the mall and walked there. And that was like the wildest thing I’d ever done, right?
Ethan Blake: I remember buying my first and last, I think actually white leather belt because I felt like I had to have.
Speaker 4: That to go with like black jeans or something. I would not do that now.
Speaker 5: I remember going to mass is full of cookies. Actually, that’s where I learned that Tupac Shakur had died while I was, like, waiting in line for chocolate chip cookies.
Ethan Blake: There’s a store called Katy Toys. There was one time I was going out of business and they had all these cans and wooden swords, all these random fake weapons, and were like, Let’s buy a ton of them, get a group of 20 friends together and have a duel. And we did that.
Speaker 6: So my mall was Northgate Mall in Durham, North Carolina, which is no more. That is the mall where I shop for my chore coat at Ceres, which was kind of an important moment for me because I bought it in the boys department and there was a time in my life where I was definitely a tomboy, and it was important to me to kind of create my personal style by shopping in the boys department.
Willa Paskin: The woman you just heard is the writer Alexandra Lange. As an adult, Alexandra became an architecture critic, and her childhood experiences with the mall didn’t have much bearing on her career until 2018. That’s when she heard about a new outdoor shopping complex opening in the Greater Bay Area called City Center Bishop branch, designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano.
Speaker 6: He was interviewed in all these places, calling it a piazza and talking about how beautiful it was and his Italian accent.
Ethan Blake: I don’t want to be next to shopping mall. Nothing, I guess. I’m just saying that this is not the shopping mall.
Willa Paskin: Bishop branch is organized around a central piazza with fountains and trees, but it’s also a suburban shopping center anchored by a ten screen movie theater and an equinox. It boasts a Pottery Barn, a gap, a West Elm, a Sunglass Hut, and a place to buy Boba tea. Customers can wander through these stores and scores of others after parking in huge lots located right off a major highway. So with all due respect to Renzo Piano.
Speaker 6: That’s a mall. And everyone’s saying malls are dead. But one of the most famous architects in the world is designing a mall. So what’s up with that?
Willa Paskin: This is decoder ring. I’m Willa Paskin. You’ve probably heard the mall is dying, but for a supposedly dying place, the mall keeps hanging around. Just one of its many contradictions in this episode. Alexandra Lange, the author of the new book, Meet Me at the Fountain An Inside History of the Mall is going to walk us through the mall and the atriums escalators and food courts that have brought it to its present day predicament. We’ll also be hearing from mall goers whose personal experiences will help us make sense of this wasteful, yet useful, disdained, yet beloved, disappearing, yet surviving space.
Willa Paskin: So today on Decoder Ring, what do we lose if we lose the mall? There’s one man more responsible for the existence of the mall than any other. An architect named Victor grew in.
Ethan Blake: Architecture as a creative expression will die if you cannot create conditions within which it can be meaningful.
Willa Paskin: Born and raised in Vienna, grew and had a big life. When he wasn’t designing modernist boutiques, he was part of a satirical socialist cabaret troupe. After the Nazis annexed Austria, Gruen, who was Jewish, had a friend dressed as an SS officer to drive him and his wife safely to the airport. He arrived in New York in 1938 with, in his words, and architect’s degree, $8 and no English. But he had ambition and verve, and he quickly found work.
Speaker 6: His first work in the U.S. was a series of Manhattan boutiques, like very glamorous.
Willa Paskin: These chic shops, including a candy store and a jewelry boutique on Fifth Avenue. Soon, Ern grew in a very different kind of commission, designing stores for a nationwide womenswear chain based in Car Crazy California. Cars, federally subsidized highways and federally subsidized single family homes were all coming together to create the suburbs, which in turn were creating a whole new kind of shopper. The driver, not the pedestrian.
Ethan Blake: So nobody walks to work or to the corner for a loaf of bread anymore. The housewife does her walking in the parking lot. She’s out from in front of the stove and in behind the wheel.
Speaker 6: So grew and started to have to think about what would car centric architecture look like? How do we get people’s attention from the highway so that they’ll pull in and go to this store?
Willa Paskin: What did he decide?
Speaker 6: He decided that you needed a big sign that basically the architecture of the building didn’t matter so much, like it was basically a box. But you needed the name really big and you needed neon lights, color, you know, big script, handwriting.
Willa Paskin: These techniques worked, but they were a bold choice for a guy who hated the lights and signs and parking lots of suburban commercial corridors so much that he called them avenues of horror. Vienna, an impeccably planned, elegant city, was where Gruen had had his formative encounters with architecture. He valued design density, beauty, communal experience as an energy and to his eyes. The sprawling suburbs had none of that.
Speaker 6: He hated the idea of stores just strung along the highway with no relation to each other. And the idea that you would have to pull your car into one shopping plaza and park and then pull your car out and then immediately go into the next shopping plaza and park.
Willa Paskin: In the late 1940s group and would come up with what seemed like a solution to this problem and the larger failings of the suburbs. A planned central communal commercial space where you only had to park just the ones.
Speaker 4: I hate being on a court. Right. The worst thing is like the disconnected parking lot you have to go through like big box store or big box store. Okay, I’m getting back to my car. So I make a U-turn and I cross this line to go. Still 300 feet to the next parking lot. Ira, we go. And I love the Oakbrook Mall in Brook. I know. So it’s like I could just park my car once and just, like, walk around. I get more steps at the mall than anywhere else. There’s a different shops and slots people, and there’s fountains there too. And there’s just objectively, like we went there with a friend and we really wanted to go downtown, but now it’s much easier. It’s closer. Once I wanted like the burger restaurant and the food court went to the movie theater, like, did a little bit of shopping before. The movie theater is everything you want in one location. It’s like what a perfect neighborhood would be.
Willa Paskin: In 1948, Victor grew and found himself in Detroit after a flight he was on landed there unexpectedly due to bad weather.
Speaker 6: So he stuck in Detroit for a few days and he’s like, okay, let me check out the competition. So he goes downtown to look at J.L. Hudson’s jail.
Willa Paskin: Hudson’s was Detroit’s premier department store. Unlike department stores across America and Europe, it had been a downtown destination since the late 19th century.
Speaker 6: The old department stores, you know, would have fountains in the middle of their top court. They would have plants, they would have a ladies retiring room, and they sold everything. They were where people went to look at the latest fashions. They were huge buildings. They hired the best architects. They actually pioneered the use of escalators and elevators and air conditioning.
Willa Paskin: Hudson’s was this kind of department store. A full square block was some 49 acres of floor space. It had over 10,000 employees, five restaurants and cafeterias. And a circulating library. Grew in. Was impressed.
Speaker 6: But the neighborhood around it is dead. Like downtown is dead. The next day he gets a friend of a friend to drive him around and the friend of the friend is driving him around to all of the suburbs of Detroit. And the friend is saying, like, here’s where the money is. This is where all the car exacts live. Look at these beautiful neighborhoods. But grew and of course, is focused on the commercial corridors. And that’s where he’s seeing all of these chopped up shopping plazas, you know, stores in the middle of a parking lot. And it’s just ugly to him. So when he finally makes it out to California, he writes to the head of Hudson’s and he’s like, You can do better.
Willa Paskin: At the time, the city of Detroit was still growing. It would hit its population peak in 1953, but so were its surroundings. White flight, in which white families left diverse cities for segregated suburbs, was just beginning, and department store owners were already noticing that these newly minted suburbanites, specifically the white mothers who were their core customers, were not coming back into the city to shop. The department store owners were hesitant to follow these customers, though they were proud of their downtown flagships. They didn’t want to undermine those stores or the city centers they were so much a part of. And the ugly ticky tack suburban commercial strips seemed beneath them.
Speaker 6: Grew and wrote at a very opportune time. And he was basically selling the idea that you could have your beautiful store in the suburbs, that you weren’t giving up, that kind of control, that design presence, that civic presence.
Willa Paskin: Grew in proposed an outdoor shopping complex that could give Hudson’s grandeur and the central city in the burbs. It could take a step out of the city without taking a step down. In fact, grew and convinced Hudson’s it could take more than one step. It could take four.
Speaker 6: So he said, What if you create a new, smaller? Hudson’s at all four points of the compass. What if you create Northland, Southland, Eastland and Westland?
Willa Paskin: Northland would be the first of two outdoor shopping complexes that grew and would build for Hudson’s. It birthed, among other things, the common and confusing naming convention for malls in which they are titled based on their orientation to a city’s downtown. Northland opened in 1954.
Speaker 6: It has the nicest modern art in the world. It has very advanced modern design with these very simple, modernized, covered pathways and arcades. The most famous piece of art was this totem pole by a sculptor called Glen Lux, which was a wooden carved totem pole. And people actually would say, Meet me by the totem pole.
Willa Paskin: Northland was covered widely in the national press and praised to the skies because despite having 10,000 parking spaces, it seemed to free suburbanites from their cars.
Speaker 6: That was actually semi revolutionary parking.
Willa Paskin: Once in short order, it was attracting more than 40,000 people a day.
Speaker 6: The US government heavily subsidized the building of highways and they heavily subsidized the building of single family homes in planned suburbs. But it completely failed to think about what people would kind of do in between those two places. Their people need a third place. And so grew in. And the department store owners were essentially providing a place that the government forgot about.
Willa Paskin: Soon after, Northland’s opening grew and began working on a project for Dayton’s Minneapolis’s Premier Department store. Some four and a half decades later, Dayton’s would take on the name of its very successful discount operation and become target. But at the time. Time. Dayton’s wanted a grand suburban outpost to go and gave them more than that. He drew up a plan for a 463 acre mixed use development that included not only shopping but apartment building, schools, a park, a lake, basically a whole planned pocket city. But only the shopping center and its parking lot were ever built. They differ from Northland in one key way a change made in deference to Minnesota’s winters.
Speaker 6: So this was part of his sales pitch. Like, people don’t shop in X-Y-Z months because it’s too unpleasant to be outside. But that’s not a problem if you create an air conditioned indoor mall.
Willa Paskin: Southdale opened in 1956 in the suburb of Edina, Minnesota. It was the first ever indoor shopping mall, a temperature controlled paradise. Whereas the ads put it every day is a perfect shopping day. Was Southdale grew in and created the model mall. Southdale had an unassuming exterior two levels of shopping, joined by escalators and two department store anchors, all housed in an interior where light, sound, temperature and security were completely controlled. It was, to be fair, a little nicer than many of the malls that followed. Consider its posh atrium, which was grandly called.
Speaker 6: The Garden Court of Perpetual Spring. They were really selling the kind of year round, beautiful weather in Minnesota, which totally makes sense. It doesn’t have a glass roof, but it has like a big glass clear story. So you would have gotten natural light into the center. And it had an aviary. It had a carousel. It had a cafe with umbrellas. As if you were outside.
Willa Paskin: It’s kind of hard to imagine now, given how familiar the mall’s aesthetic has become. Berggruen was going for something in particular.
Speaker 6: He talks a lot about the cafe culture of Vienna that was the ultimate to him, and I think we can all agree that it is very nice. And that was actually what Victor Gruen was trying to provide. But in a diner, Minnesota.
Speaker 5: My name’s Heather and I was born in Minnesota. Like I knew South Del Mar was the first mall in America because my dad’s always very proud of like, any sort of Minnesota trivia. Southdale in particular had this wonderful atrium, and they, for a period had like birds flying around and like very large cages. Now, I kind of feel sorry for the birds. I’m sure they weren’t well cared for. It was just kind of thrilling as a kid and especially in the middle of winter in Minnesota. It was just a really needed respite of just seeing people. I would just go to the mall and like, Oh, there’s something different. There’s weird people. There’s totally normal people. I do love being alone in a public space with strangers, and I think maybe that seed was planted there and the mall was like the closest thing to something exciting.
Willa Paskin: We’ll be right back. In the years after Southdale, more and more malls were built slowly and then quickly.
Speaker 6: It’s like there are less than 50 indoor malls built before 1960, but between 1960 and 1970, there are like 200 built.
Willa Paskin: All those malls were missing something, though. This is the other thing happening in the seventies. This blew my mind. Food courts.
Speaker 6: Yes, I know. That also blew my mind. There were 15 years of malls without food courts.
Willa Paskin: The food court was first introduced in New Jersey in the early 1970s as a way to keep people at the mall for longer. And it spread from there.
Speaker 6: The early malls often had a Woolworths with a lunch counter. It’s not like they didn’t have food, but they didn’t have food in that grab and go casual way and they didn’t have a collective of small food businesses.
Willa Paskin: The introduction of this cheaper, more casual way of eating did get people to spend more time at the mall, including an unforeseen demographic. In the 1982 movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a group of Southern California teenagers work, play and grow up against the backdrop of the local mall because that’s where real teens were hanging out to smell you.
Ethan Blake: Look, the press. I hate working the theater. All the action is on the other side of the mall.
Willa Paskin: Fast Times was one of the earliest films and what would become a long tradition of Teen Mom movies, including Valley Girl, Clueless and Mallrats, which in particular is about a bunch of verbose college kids who spend pretty much every minute there.
Ethan Blake: Kyrgyzstan is not part of the food court, but of course it is. The food corner’s downstairs. The cookie stand is upstairs. It’s not like we’re talking quantum physics here. The cookie stand counts as an eatery. The eateries are part of the food court. Bullshit eateries that operate within the designated square downstairs qualify as food court. Anything outside of said designated square is considered an autonomous unit for minimal snacking.
Willa Paskin: The mall had been designed specifically to appeal to white suburban mothers, the kind of people who would eat lunch at Woolworth’s. But while these women and adults more generally remained, the mall’s core customers in terms of dollars spent, the food court gave teens an affordable hangout hub when both they and the mall could live with.
Speaker 6: There’s this very ambivalent relationship of mall management to teens because they didn’t spend that much money. They could be rowdy. They could turn off other customers. The food court and the arcade were a little bit of containment zones for the teens because the moms would have still been going to the department stores and, you know, the other boutiques. But the teens could kind of be in their own zone.
Willa Paskin: These zones provided more than just snacks. They were also nostalgia factories churning out the kind of early encounters with independents that adults look back on lovingly. Adolescence tends to be the time when people form a lasting attachment to a mall. It’s a time when all the malls floors don’t really register because you and your friends have the run of the place just for the price of an Orange Julius.
Katie Shepherd: I’m Katie Shepherd. Holly Hill Mall was my childhood mall. That was a four minute drive from my house as a kid.
Willa Paskin: Katie, who would hang out at the Holly Hill Mall in North Carolina, is also the new producer of Decoder Ring. And like, how well how big is Holly home?
Katie Shepherd: All of the tiny but huge to me at that time, maybe 50 stores, maybe it was the only thing that I was allowed to do other than go to church. You got dropped off at the mall for an hour. It was sort of that weird thing that you could do when you can’t drive, but your parents need you to be in a contained space. The big thing was sort of to walk around and pretend like we could buy things, you know, when obviously we can’t and we’re so, like, wasting the salesperson’s life. But Arcade was always the first thing. Always. And then get you get a pretzel. That was like the move.
Katie Shepherd: I loved mathematics. Even went on to work there because as a little girl, it was like, Oh, everything reeks and I love it, right? And then another big thing that I really loved was I loved trying on shoes. Like you would just go and try on whole issues that you’re like, Actually, this really fit me. I have my allowance will never allow me to get this. That was what I really loved to do.
Willa Paskin: So the malls everywhere, all over the country, all over pop culture, they’re making money. Teens love them. Families use them. The suburbs wouldn’t be themselves without them. And yet their reputation is not great. When does, like, the worms start to turn? Which is not to say that malls stop being built, but like people get snobby about them.
Speaker 6: The worm starts to turn in the early 1970s. You start to see critique of the mall where people will review architect’s works and say, Oh, but the central atrium has escalators. That’s kind of like a mall. And you can hear them sneering because a mall is commercial and embarrassing.
Willa Paskin: The mall is where women and their kids went shopping in increasingly bland buildings.
Speaker 6: I compare them to shopping bags. It’s like the shopping bag equivalent of architecture, like a big plain brown or tan box with like a giant department store logo on one end.
Willa Paskin: These ten boxes were also not functioning as architects like Victor grew and had hoped. He believed that the mall could counteract sprawl, make the suburbs more centralized and sophisticated. Instead, they were islands in a sea of parking that enabled sprawl, exacerbated white flight and further hollowed out cities downtown.
Speaker 6: Leaders anticipated this. They were very worried about this. This was one reason it took them so long to build satellite stores in the suburbs. They were like, But isn’t that going to ruin our downtown business? And it did. Like it all happened. It was all as foretold.
Willa Paskin: Just for example, Northland, would you remember it was started and anchored by Detroit’s Hudson’s department store would help drive the downtown Hudson’s out of business. By the mid 1970s, cities were desperate enough to start developing downtown malls and pedestrian malls to draw people back to the core. Victor grew in himself, designed some of these new city based pedestrian malls, even as he became increasingly disillusioned with the suburban shopping mall. But shoppers didn’t feel the same way. They kept pouring in. And one thing they liked about the mall in particular was named for Victor Bruin.
Speaker 6: The Gruen Transfer is the moment when you’re at your mall with the shopping list and suddenly you don’t care about the shopping list anymore and you’re just browsing and looking and experiencing the mall as a place rather than as a list of errands.
Willa Paskin: The Gruen Transfer puts customers into a kind of shopping fugue state, one that turns a chore into a pleasure. It’s the thing that makes a mall.
Katie Shepherd: Work.
Willa Paskin: Because it’s the thing that makes the mall fun. But this blissed out mode of shopping is also mindless. And in 1979, a movie shouted that out.
Ethan Blake: What the hell is it like when a shopping center where they’re taking your mask?
Willa Paskin: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is about a small band of humans who take shelter from the zombie apocalypse inside of a shopping mall. Even as the zombie horde is also trying to get inside.
Ethan Blake: Doing why they come with some kind of interesting memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.
Willa Paskin: Having found safety in the mall, most of the human characters, like the zombies before them, can’t bear to leave, even if it cost them their lives.
Speaker 7: It is a horrible, hauntingly accurate vision of the mindless excesses of a society gone mad.
Speaker 6: It’s a critique of the GRU and transfer that we don’t even know what we’re doing anymore, but we are kind of irresistibly drawn. Even at the end of the world to shop at the mall.
Willa Paskin: Dawn of the Dead didn’t slow malls down. But a few years after the film’s release, they did begin chomping on each other. Started in 1982.
Speaker 6: That’s when the US tops out at the number of malls like it should have to serve people. And so after that, if people are building malls, they are cannibalizing the business of the earlier malls.
Ethan Blake: Get carried away. This Wednesday, the Wausau Center Mall opens with a burst of excitement. It’s a new shopping center with colorful, sensational stores.
Willa Paskin: Malls were growing at twice the rate of the population. But at first, the country being over mall didn’t seem like a big deal. So what if a few of the weakest and oldest or being called the mall was a fact of life? And all the competition made room for different kinds of people to have a mall.
Ethan Blake: Every town got to malls, so they got the White Mall and the mall. White people used to go to.
Willa Paskin: That Chris Rock joke is from a set in which he laments the quality of so-called black malls. But the existence of these malls at all was a knock on effect of over marveling. New mall owners were still chasing white customers, but there just weren’t enough of them to keep all the malls in business. And so they started to inadvertently diversify. Meanwhile, other malls were trying to be the newest and splashiest, including the biggest mall of all.
Ethan Blake: There’s a place for fun.
Speaker 7: In your life. America.
Willa Paskin: America’s largest mall opened outside of the Twin Cities just down the road from Southdale in 1992. It was designed by an architect named John Gertie, who believed the mall should be a theatrical experience about entertainment, not just shopping. And so he put an amusement park right at the Mall of America’s center.
Speaker 6: There are some later critics who have kind of posited a Gertie transfer, which is the moment where you stop thinking about shopping and you start going on a roller coaster, basically.
Willa Paskin: The Mall of America enjoyed tremendous success and it continues to pre-pandemic. It’s four floors and 500 plus stores. Roller coaster and Paul Bunyan themed log ride drew about 40 million visitors a year. That includes international tourists and locals who can walk the mile plus loop inside and cold Minnesota mornings when the mall opens early to let them exercise. But the Mall of America is part of a cadre of elite malls. And as the 1990s wore on with some 140 malls going up a year. These malls were putting immense pressure on older malls, which by the 2000s were also dealing with the problems plaguing their department store anchors. Some of that had to do with online shopping, but not all of it.
Speaker 6: So if you look at the department stores that are still working and making money today, it tends to be the high end department stores like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. But the middle department stores like the Macy’s, the J.C. Penney’s, the Sears, have been hollowed out because the shoppers who used to shop at those are shopping instead at Walmart or Target.
Willa Paskin: Malls and department stores had been intertwined and co-dependent from the very start. But it was the department store with its inventory and size that had long been the mall’s major draw. When they fail, fewer customers visit, which leads to other store closures, which leads to fewer customers. And on and on. Until the mall is a ghost town, not even a zombie. Standing at the pretzel kiosk.
Speaker 5: My name is Sabrina dopest and Owings Mills mall. Means and holds a lot of memories for me. Small is located in Owings Mills, which is in Baltimore County. It’s about 25 miles west of Baltimore City. I would go to the mall with my cousin, my family, and we would just like walk around like it would be packed, the food court would be packed. The people down the escalators, there’s just like constant people around.
Speaker 5: So as an adult between the ages of 17 and 27, I didn’t frequent Owings Mills Mall, but when I did come back to visit family and my parents, it was kind of sad because I would go in and just thing like the columns and like that still being there, but the store actually itself not being there. So it was just like a it was different. Like I probably was the only person outside of the people that were working at the mall. There was one day where I was driving in the area and they knocked them all down just for a bunch of mounds of rock where the mall used to be.
Willa Paskin: We’re going to take another break.
Willa Paskin: 27. The year of the financial crisis was the first year since the invention of the indoor mall that there were no indoor malls built in the United States.
Speaker 6: Through the nineties and 2000. Like there are headwinds and there’s consolidation and there’s cannibalization and some malls are dying, but like the business is still churning. And then 2007, it’s like, oh, you know, like this is not a good business anymore.
Willa Paskin: This is one the dominant narrative about the mall becomes one of death.
Ethan Blake: These are the ruins of a dying culture. The American Shopping Mall.
Willa Paskin: Of the 1500 or so malls built before 2007, only a thousand or so are left, with a quarter more projected to close in the coming years. Malls seem like a victim of their own excess and of our own excesses. Was shopping and convenience and cars. And these dead and dying malls have been widely chronicled in eerie videos of abandoned interiors and an elegiac still photographs of vast empty corridors and defunct fountains. When you see videos and photographs like this, you’re seeing what’s there and what’s not there. At the same time, there are pictures of beach resources and infrastructure, concrete and glass and steel that has been reduced to a fire hazard, a blight, a waste. But they’re also pictures of an absence, the missing life and hubbub and people that used to gather there.
Willa Paskin: There’s something else about these images, though, in them. The mall gets to be something it’s otherwise not romantic, grand, bittersweet. You won’t find lots of people using the word elegiac about a mall unless it’s dying. It’s like only one is dying. Can the mall get any respect? And Alexandra Lange finds that pretty exasperating.
Speaker 6: Some malls died. I mean, people love to make these like grants, so the mall is dead. Even with the predicted number of malls dying over the next five years, there will still be seven or 800 malls in the U.S. That is still a lot of malls.
Willa Paskin: Don’t get her wrong. She knows malls have fallen on hard times, but that’s different than them being dead.
Speaker 6: People see those photos and they think that means all the malls are dead.
Willa Paskin: Malls are contracting. But you could look at what’s happening to them and emphasize something a little different than just their dramatic downfall. You could emphasize that the hundreds that are surviving, some even thriving, are the ones that are doing something the mall has always been trying to do. Maybe the one thing it’s hard to fault them for. They’re providing a space for people to be together. Some of the models doing that are really fancy, expensive high end malls in places like Miami, Orange County, Honolulu, Mainline, Philadelphia and Dallas, where marble interiors lead to Gucci and Chanel stores. But others are well-run malls, effectively serving their communities, communities that can be much more diverse than the ones the mall was originally designed for.
Speaker 6: Over, especially the past 30 years, the diversity of the suburbs has exploded, like who lives in the suburbs has completely changed from the 1950s and sixties version. And so some of the models that have remained successful reflect the changing demographics of their suburbs.
Willa Paskin: Korean suburbs, Vietnamese suburbs, Central American suburbs and ethnic suburbs, as they’re called, more largely often have thriving malls, community hubs that sell lots of goods and services and food. Eating as much as shopping has become one of the mall’s anchoring activities. What’s an upscale foodhall after all but a mall for eating? Malls, in other words, are adapting to their customer bases, to contemporary tastes, and also to our changing ideas about how to address sprawl. Northland Victor Griffin’s first outdoor mall is currently being redeveloped as a mixed use site. There’ll be an apartment building in the parking lot and a food hall in the former Hudson’s. The whole site. Taking another shot at bringing density to the suburbs. Malls successfully making a go of it may not be as dramatic as the ones rotting and being raised, but they’re the ones that are still giving us something that we need.
Speaker 6: I feel like I came around to a humanist position about the mall, where the the mall is serving something that’s very deep in human nature. And sure, it would be great if the public realm was providing this. And sure, it would be great if, like main streets in Midwestern towns were still like filled with shops that people wanted to go to. But that is not the reality. And in that breach, we have the mall, so let’s respect it.
Willa Paskin: Before we go, I want to play you a song. It came to us in an extremely serendipitous way. A couple of weeks ago, I brought a biography of Victor. Growing into a coffee shop, grew and, as I mentioned, came to regret creating them all. When he returned to Vienna late in life. He discovered, to his horror, that a mall was going up nearby, destroying the idealized cosmopolitan, urban fabric he’d once hoped the mall could emulate. Anyway, at the coffee shop, there was a young man with a mop of curly blond hair sitting at the bar.
Ethan Blake: My name is Ethan Blake.
Willa Paskin: While I was waiting in line, Ethan, though I didn’t know his name yet, pointed at my book and said, Hey, can I look at that? He poured over it for a couple of minutes, long enough for me to wonder if he’d be finished by the time I coffee was done. And then instead of handing the book back to me, he handed me a sheaf of papers from a pile right in front of him, about six pages, typed and stapled. I look down to read them, only to find they were about Victor Gruen. It turns out Ethan is writing a musical about him.
Ethan Blake: Total serendipity.
Willa Paskin: In the musical The Ghost of Victor Grew and is haunting the mall at Short Hills, an extremely high end mall in New Jersey, not too far from where Ethan grew up. Over the course of the musical, Gruen relays his life story, his early optimism, giving way to disillusionment and cynicism until the provisional ending which Ethan gave us permission to spoil.
Ethan Blake: But right now, the ending is that he sees these two pre-teens. He sees tweens who go to the mall, and he’s like, Oh, I’m drinking like Starbucks frappuccinos, and they’re in like Lululemon. And then he stops and he’s like, Oh, like they’re on a first date. Oh, they’re like, falling in puppy love. Oh, he just, like, spilled his drink on her, and she just laughs. And this is a moment for them. And when they’re older, they look back and they’ll say. This happened at the mall. Okay. Maybe there’s something here. Maybe I did create something that, you know, no matter what the ideal is, there is human life going on here. And that’s beautiful in itself.
Willa Paskin: That’s the thing about the mall. For all its flaws, sins, challenges and reported death. For now. Life goes on there.
Ethan Blake: Tryouts are.
Willa Paskin: Happening.
Willa Paskin: So we’re going to end on that idea and this in-progress version of one of Ethan’s songs tentatively titled The Professional.
Ethan Blake: Dreamer You Tread on my. James. Oh, I’m an actor on a failure. I’m a genius. I’m a traitor. I’m an exile. A lot of them are. I’m a sell out, rundown theater. I’m a cog goes the jukebox glitch and blip on MacBook screens. I’m an architect who’s out of stock and outside furnaces. But I do believe I can be free from this Toronto prison. Every great creation bears the blood of a million public servants line as fine as silk between false idols. Andrew Province and Arts. The Golden Dawn. Now this car.
Willa Paskin: This is decoder ring. I’m Willa Paskin. You can find me on Twitter at Willa Paskin. And if you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, you can email us at Decoder at Slate.com. I want to really encourage you to go out and buy Alexandra Lange book, meet me at the Fountain and Inside History of the Mall, which contains much more insight into and details about malls, their history and their future than we could cover here.
Willa Paskin: Another book that was instrumental to this piece and was the one I had in the coffee shop, is mall maker Victor Guru, an architect of an American Dream by Jeffrey Hardwick. You also heard a clip from the documentary The Great Love Affair about American car culture. Decoder Ring is written by Willa Paskin and produced by Willa Paskin and Katie Shepherd. Derek John is senior supervising producer of narrative podcasts. Merritt. Jacob is our technical director. I’d also like to thank two of the people you heard at the top of this episode, uncredited Lauren Barnes and Brian Louder. Thank you.
Willa Paskin: Also to Jennifer Zinman, Eric Craig, Katie Cromwell, Rosie Marder and everyone else who gave us help and feedback. If you haven’t yet, please subscribe and rate our feed on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. And even better, tell your friends. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.