When Malls Saved the Suburbs From Despair
Like it or not, the middle class became global citizens through consumerism—and they did so at the mall.
The Garden Court at Southdale Shopping Center, Edina, Minnesota, circa 1965, Minnesota Historical Society
“Okay, we’ll see you in two-and-a-half hours,” the clerk tells me, taking the iPhone from my hand. I’m at the Apple Store, availing myself of a cheap smartphone battery replacement, an offer the company made after taking heat for deliberately slowing down devices. A test run by a young woman typing at a feverish, unnatural pace on an iPad confirms that mine desperately needed the swap. As she typed, I panicked. What will I do in the mall for so long, and without a phone? How far the mall has fallen that I rack my brain for something to do here.
The Apple Store captures everything I don’t like about today’s mall. A trip here is never easy—the place is packed and chaotic, even on weekdays. It runs by its own private logic, cashier and help desks replaced by roving youths in seasonally changing, colored T-shirts holding iPads, directing traffic.
Apple operates some stand-alone retail locations, including a glass cube entrance in midtown Manhattan and a laptop-shaped location on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. But a lot of the stores are located in shopping malls. The Apple Store is one of the only reasons I go to the mall anymore. Usually I get in and out as fast as I can. But today I’m stuck.
When all is said and done, it turns out to be a strange relief. Contrary to popular opinion, malls are great, and they always were.
The tragic story of the American shopping mall is well-known by now. Victor Gruen, an Austrian-born architect, emigrated to the United States after Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. In 1954 he designed the first outdoor suburban shopping plaza, near Detroit. Two years later, in 1956, the Gruen-designed Southdale Center opened in Edina, Minnesota. It was the first enclosed shopping mall in America. In the six decades since, up to 1,500 malls were erected across the country. Then people stopped building them.
Precious few have been erected in the last decade, but plenty have been shuttered, and as many as half of the remaining could close within the next 10 years.* The reasons are many, including economic downturn, the rise of internet commerce, the decline of the suburbs—even just the opening of newer malls, which cannibalize older ones.
Americans loved malls, then they loved to hate them. Good riddance to these cathedrals to capitalism, many think, as they pore over apocalyptic photos of abandoned malls in ruins. This trope runs so deep that it’s begun feeding on itself. The latest example: Bloomberg recently published a bizarre video game, styled like bad 1980s computer entertainment, about the glorious desperation of managing a dying American mall.
Gruen had meant well. He wanted to import the pedestrian experience of modernist, European cities like Vienna and Paris into America, where the automobile was king. By creating places for community in the deserts of suburbia, he hoped to lure people from their cars and into contact with one another. The malls would be for shopping, yes, but also offer food, relaxation, and green space. In his original conception, malls would also connect to residential and commercial space, medical care, libraries, and other public spaces. Even though unrealized, this idea was not that different from today’s New Urbanists, who advocate denser, more walkable mixed-use development in cities broken up by the dominance of the automobile.