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As long as there are suburbs, the essential communal and civic needs that drove Austrian architect Victor Gruen to design shopping malls will remain.

I have a somewhat morbid fixation with shopping malls. Which is to say, I love to hate them.  I enjoy looking at eerie pictures of abandoned malls, poking fun at the mindless consumerism that takes place therein, and smugly reading articles that—correctly—point out that malls are ruthlessly ugly and mathematically inefficient uses of urban space.

The theme of the death of the mall, so associated in our minds now with a bygone era, can be in certain circles a sort of truism. That the malls will all be gone soon is not an assertion likely to ruffle feathers or elicit demands for evidence at a cocktail party or an academic conference, and yet there’s a problem: it’s not true.

The death of the shopping mall: a trend that isn't

This all struck me one winter weekend when, desperate for a place to take my toddler that was warm and indoors, I realized that the nearest free communal space for kids to play amidst a Chicago winter was in fact a nearby shopping mall.

Contrary to all expectations, it was absolutely packed. I didn’t see a single empty storefront. The food court—presided over by a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe courtesy of a popular tamale stand—was thriving. Despite being awkwardly located directly across from Victoria’s Secret, the kids play area was positively teeming with children scrambling over plastic animals and shouting “DAD, WATCH ME DO THIS!”

Now if you’re a seasoned veteran of mall studies, you’ll quickly say that the story of our time isn’t quite that all malls are dying out, it’s that most of them are dying.  The remaining ones, almost exclusively catering to an elite clientele in well-to-do suburbs, are becoming even more massive and more upscale. The King of Prussia Mall in the western suburbs of Philly, which I visited twice in four years living in the general vicinity, is the largest in the country by square footage and showing no signs of slowing down. Think places anchored by Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom’s, not Sears or JCPenney.

But my local mall isn’t that at all. Standing near the juncture of a very densely populated majority Hispanic suburb, a town that is one-third African American, and a number of smaller municipalities all of which are about equally working class, I saw enough real diversity in an hour to make an Oberlin admissions counselor salivate.

A number of factors explain this mall’s continued existence.

First, the nearby communities are the early suburbs of the 1920s, built with compact bungalow houses on small lots. This high density means that the available market within just a few miles of the mall is extraordinarily large. It helps, too, that the local population is majority minority and working class, which means that the area is mostly devoid of Amazon Prime-subscribing DINKS and hipsters too self-conscious about their own authenticity to be caught dead in a suburban mall.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no desire at all to return to this place any time soon. But it really hit me that merely by being present in this mall and observing the plain fact of its ongoing success, I had to moderate my assumptions about the fate of malls writ large.

Why is this mall succeeding? Heck, why are any malls still succeeding? Before answering that question we should ask what the appeal of the mall was in the first place.

The Mall as Medieval Manor

Before condemning the mall to the ash heap of history, we should ask what the appeal of the mall is in the first place.

In a short essay on “Shopping Mall Morality” written in the 1980s, the historian Allan Carlson came to their defense, pointing out that the architect who first dreamed of the shopping mall was no fan of suburbia at all, and in fact conceived of the mall as a way of combating its ills.

Victor Gruen escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria with, by his own account, nothing but an architecture degree and $8 in his pocket, yet would go on to build the first indoor and outdoor shopping malls in America in the mid-1950s. The central theorist of the shopping mall, Gruen began by observing the chaos of mid-century suburban expansion. No fan of these new neighborhoods, Gruen thought that rising automobile use obliterated community coherence and called the suburbs themselves “an arid land inhabited during the day almost entirely by women and children.”

To Gruen, the suburbs cried out for communal, civic-oriented spaces that gave meaning to an otherwise dull lifestyle.  As Carlson puts it, suburbia needed something along the lines of a Greek Agora or a medieval cathedral surrounded by market stalls and public activity.

Gruen’s original conception of the mall would fit just such needs. There would be the necessary parking, of course, but he thought the mall might be a way of prioritizing pedestrian activity over the movement of vehicles. Pleasant walkways and centers with seating, art and sculpture installations, public performances by musical groups, and trees and green space (both indoor and out) were designed to draw the community together not only to make business transactions but to enjoy life together, forming bonds of community the suburbs otherwise lacked.

For Carlson, shopping malls successfully filled such needs:

“Escaping the grasp of both social democratic planners and profit-minded entrepreneurs, they took a unique shape. Representing neither the triumph of socialism nor of capitalism, the malls actually evolved into a new political-economic form, one bearing in structure an uncanny resemblance to the medieval manor.”

Carlson goes on to explain how this structure created unique managerial and even legal forms. The tenants of a mall have to work together to settle disputes, and understand that the good of each business relies on the overall fate of the entire mall ecosystem. Each location had communal obligations to the other tenants, but also to the public spaces that they jointly maintained.

“Like guild systems that enforced quality and price levels to assure a basic income for all, malls operate on the theory that the whole venture depends on the little shops.”

So discount stores that set the wrong price point might be banned, or a potential new tenant denied a lease because it would directly compete with another longstanding retailer.

This balance of interests created an atmosphere that people seemed to like: by the late 1970s malls had exploded across the country, gobbling up nearly half of all retail revenue nationwide across 18,000 locations. They were thought of as relatively secure places to visit or allow adolescents to explore, they protected people from the elements and the dangers of car traffic, and they were clean and well-maintained compared to many of the cities of the day.

Carlson notes that one Harvard psychologist declared that visiting malls was now a communal ritual where otherwise isolated people could share common experiences, and a study by researchers at the University of Kansas “confirmed that shopping at malls had primarily a social, rather than commercial, purpose.”

But a little over 20 years since he launched the first mall, Victor Gruen had turned against his creation.

He memorably quipped, “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,” which he said represented environmental degradation, the death of the city center, and substituted “an artificial and therefore sterile order for naturally developed blends of urban forms.”

Perhaps the mall will continue on its current trajectory, closing up shop in many locations while becoming a labyrinthine showcase for luxury goods aimed at the upper echelons of our society in select locations.

And if in the coming decades shopping malls do go the way of Blockbuster and disappear, I’ll give it two cheers. Two, not three, because while I won’t personally miss them, I am inclined to agree with Victor Gruen that something like them was needed.

As long as there are human beings living in suburb environments, the fundamental needs that drove Victor Gruen to design malls will remain. And some form grasping at a more communal life—whether medieval cathedral squares, Greek marketplaces, or mid-century shopping malls—will be attempting to serve them.

This piece originally appeared in two parts at Philanthropy Daily, here and here.

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