Good Malls and Bad Cities

New quasi-urban shopping centers and the digital public sphere call into question traditional hatred of malls.

Many years ago, in the dark days before the Internet, a friend of mine conceived a political performance-art project that, unfortunately, he never pursued. And now it’s too late. His plan was to travel the nation—coast to coast, mall to mall—setting himself at the center of each shopping center with a soapbox and a bullhorn to protest the limits of free speech in the American commercial paradise. As he was ejected from each one—as he would have been since even inflammatory T-shirts were forbidden by management—he would add its name to a list and move on to the next, where he would sound off and distribute his list. He hoped to get kicked out of every major mall in the country, demonstrating that our freedoms of assembly and expression did not have a foothold in these proxy civic spaces.

At the time, the late 1980s, it seemed trenchant; a future where a muted citizenry could conspire only via ham radio and stapled zines was right around the corner. But it’s all so quaint now, this concern for reaching the people through physical contact, in physical spaces, when minds can be much better led with the right digitalia. There are fewer public places for protest today—granted—but protest has largely gone off the streets and has been empowered by the move. With that tech-enabled evolution, my main complaint about the replacement of the public square with the mall has withered. As malls get better, more like cities (even if toy cities), I’m beginning to appre­ciate them for what they are: rehearsal spaces for future urbanites.

There’s really nothing wrong with Santana Row. There should be, of course; we’ve all been bred to hate malls, and what could be more hateful than a mall masquerading as a chic, vaguely European town? Taking advantage of the sun in San Jose (the more or less real place it is situated in), the mall does away with interiority, offering shoppers an artfully paved and fountained plaza, arcaded sidewalks, live music, “street food,” and oversize chess in a shaded square—all to differentiate yet another collection of shops from the market. Crate and Bar­rel, Design Within Reach, and the Container Store anchor one end of the neighborhood, luring you with the promise of a design-rich life.

Santana Row has a hotel too—a very good one—right on the main drag, and walking out the huge stone portal of the front door at night, seeing the sidewalk cafés packed under the brick arches and the lovers all atangle at the glass-and-steel tables, shopping bags at their feet, you might be drawn in for a second, overlooking the uniform signage, the uniformed guards, the too feeble stream of traffic in the well-controlled quasi-public street, and the way everything conspires to keep the experience free of distracting surprise. You can even live there. Above the main street and ringing the plaza are flats and town houses, accessible through their own garages and concealing their own swimming pools but opening out to the little shopping city with cute Juliet balconies. “Call it energy, call it charisma, call it style & substance,” the marketing copy reads. “Santana Row has a certain something that is impervious to time.”

There’s really nothing wrong with Easton Town Center either. It’s actually sort of charming the way the planners of this mega-mall in Columbus, Ohio—again seeking that elusive saturated-market edge—have modeled the thing after an ideal American courthouse square. It’s a true Midwestern civic typology, missing only the civic, but there’s an Apple Store and a place for the kids to play outside; it’s not at all a bad place to kill a few hours between the airport and your next pilgrimage to the Wexner Center.

At Easton Town Center the mall-planning protocols are retained to a much greater degree than at Santana Row (there’s a proper interior, modeled incongruously after a Milanese arcade, and you’re glad for it when it sleets). But there is still that salutory urge to make a center, even to flatter the “consumer” by advertising it as such; and judging by the foot traffic around its signature square one winter weekday last year, it works. As at the more upscale Santana Row, the mall is surrounded by housing, though not in the complex. On the access roads all around, there are acres of low town-house blocks that reminded me of similar swaths near Harvard Square. You can live close to other people, and if you can’t quite abandon your car, it would be possible at least to leave your SUV in one of the shared garages when you scamper across the street to go to Johnny Rockets. You could even walk to a movie theater.

It was visiting those two sprawl-patching hot spots within a few months last year that began to erode my knee-jerk aversion to malls: fake places, captive minds, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. I still feel like it’s the end of the world when I see a shopping center replace the exterior life of a city—the beautiful, well-scaled, well-heeled streets of Providence, Rhode Island, may never recover from the vampire of Providence Place—but in San Jose and exurban Ohio, there is scarcely a center to mourn, and the malliers should be credited for responding to a human urge that looks like it will easily survive the decentralizing effects of multiuser gaming and Netflix.

People like to gather, and not just to shop. For many years I liked to think that it was in search of those extracommercial urban moments that Americans went to Europe in such numbers: a stroll on cobbles, a chance crepe stand or busker, the feel of being in a mass. But there’s a predictable feel to those places these days that rivals the formula of the American mall. Think of the center of any European city: the train station lets out at one end of the pedestrian-only zone, chain stores are everywhere, the unified street furniture and signage announce an advanced state of central control. Parking is underground, out of sight. Events are known, programmed, and disturbances of the peace are few. Though you’re still free to riot after a soccer match.

In terms of land use, it’s preferable to paving the orchards or cornfields to make more sprawl (even in the form of little downtowns), but experientially the zentrum and the shopping center are fast converging. You scan the shop windows as you wander toward the city’s central point—a clock, a fountain, a bridge—just as you would gravitate toward the food court or art object at the center of some old-school mall. Walking around the center of Munich for several days last winter, I found it increasingly untenable to prefer one form of regulated commercial experience to another, to damn the American solution and reflexively embrace the European. The city fathers had even installed an ice rink at the gate of the main walking street, just as shrewd mall-makers from Edmonton to Dallas have done since the 1980s.

With free speech (thriving elsewhere) taken out of the equation, with all arguments based on “authenticity” banished to the postmodern echo chamber, with the European models of urbanity themselves sinking into the for­mulaic banal, places like Santana Row and Easton Town Center look like unadulterated good news—little training grounds for the experience of being with lots of other people on a street at the same time. That alone can build civic health. And subversion is only a wireless connection away.

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